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Blue Bamboo
Osamu Dazai
Kodansha International, 188 pages

Blue Bamboo
Osamu Dazai
Osamu Dazai was born Tsushima Shuji on June 19, 1909, Kanagi, Aomori Prefecture, in northern Japan, the sixth son, and tenth of eleven children of a wealthy landowner and politician. Dazai studied French literature at the University of Tokyo. Dazai was the literary voice of postwar Japan, when traditional values were discredited and the younger generation nihilistically rejected all of the past. Although the dominant mood of much of his writing was gloom, he was also famed for his humour. His opposition to the prevailing social and literary trends was shared by fellow members of Burai-ha (Decadents). His first collection of short stories, Bannen (1936), showed him to be a versatile writer, but he tended toward the shishosetsu or personal fiction format, so that his persona was reflected in many of his fictional characters. His artistry was often obscured by the wide publicity given to his dissipation (morphine addiction and heavy drinking), a source of continued attraction, especially to youthful readers. Almost alone among Japanese writers, Dazai continued to produce works of real literary merit during the war years (1941-45). Otogi zoshi (1945), new versions of traditional folk tales, represented a triumph of his style and wit. Tsugaru (1944), perhaps his best work, was a deeply sympathetic memorial to his place of birth. The tone of his postwar works, Shayo (1947); Biyon no Tsuma (1947), and Ningen Shikkaku (1948) became increasingly despairing, reflecting the emotional crisis of the author. After several (some sources say two some say four) unsuccessful attempts earlier in his life, Dazai committed a double suicide with his lover Tomie Yamazaki, by drowning June 13, 1948, in Tokyo, leaving uncompleted a novel titled Goodbye. His body was only recovered the day of his birthday, June 19.

Publisher's page for Blue Bamboo
Kodansha International, publications: English, Japanese
Author tribute Page (in Japanese)
Biography: 1, 2, 3, 4 , 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 (1-9 in English), 10 (in Japanese)
Bibliography (in Japanese): Part 1, 2
E-text: "A Tale of Honourable Poverty"
E-text: "Shayo" (1948, in Japanese)
Commentary: Dazai is Back: Modern Writer a Hit with Postmodern Young
Commentary: On No Longer Human and Osamu Dazai, Part 1, 2
Book Review: Blue Bamboo
Adaptation to the Stage: "Run, Melos, Run"

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Blue Bamboo collects delightful short fantasies by a major Japanese author of the post-war era. They are certainly not what one would expect of modern Western post-Tolkienian fantasy, but neither are they the traditional Japanese tales of ghosts and spirits one finds retold in Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan. While several are inspired by older Japanese, Chinese and even European folktales, Dazai retouches these tales, adding and subtracting his own elements, to present his own commentaries on life and human interaction. Much of this occurs under ordinary, if very Japanese, real-life situations and conventions.

Dazai derives fantasy from the oddest beginnings. Two tales, perhaps the least truly fantastic in the collection, but both beautifully crafted and original are told in a round-robin fashion by different members of the Shinnosuke family. In the first such tale, "On Love and Beauty," the youngest son begins the tale with, of all things, a rehash of his high school mathematics lecture. Then each member of the family adds a bit to the story, subtly reflecting their particular personality and idiosyncrasies. However, it takes their mother to round it out appropriately and, with one sentence, to shift "On Love and Beauty" from a simple character study to a supernatural tale. Similarly, in the unrelated tale, "Cherry Leaves and the Whistler," Dazai takes the story from maudlin romance and tragedy to the supernatural with a lovely economy of words. In the second tale from the Shinnosuke family, "Lanterns of Romance," the same son, attempting to improve on his previous performance, closely paraphrases the tale of Rapunzel. But here, Dazai uses his family of storytellers to tell the real story of Rapunzel after her marriage to the prince, a device now commonly used in fantasy fiction. Dazai expands on his source, adding colourful touches such as the dishes served to the prince by the witch: "the skin of a pit viper stuffed with the fingers of little children; a salad of death cups, wet mouse noses, and the innards of green caterpillars; swamp-scum liqueur; and a nitric acid wine, fresh from the grave it had been brewed in."

As with Rapunzel, Dazai retells many old standard folktales of his culture. "The Chrysanthemum Spirit" (a.k.a. "A Tale of Honest Poverty") and "Blue Bamboo" are tales that expand upon short Chinese folk tales from the Liao Chai Chih I by P'u Sung-Ling (1640-1715), and "The Mermaid and the Samurai" derives from Ihara Saikaku's (1642-1693) tale "The Sea of Life-taking Mermaids." While the cultures are entirely different, I might compare these tales to a cross between the best of George MacDonald's short fantasy stories and fairy tales, and Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung tales.

In "Blue Bamboo," for example, the main character Yü Jung has a delightfully funny (and very Kai Lung-esque) conversation with Blue Bamboo, the womanly form of a sacred crow of the Han River:

"Confucius says: While his parents are alive, a good son does not wander far afield." Ever willing to display some fragment of his virtuous learning, Yü Jung delivered these words with a grave and scholarly look on his face.

"What are you talking about, silly? You're an orphan."

"Oh -- heh, heh -- you knew that, did you? I do have a lot of relatives back home who are the same as parents to me. What I wouldn't give to show them a Yü Jung who's made a great success of himself! They've always treated me as if I were an absolute fool. I know! Rather than going to Han-yang, I'll take you back home with me. Imagine their surprise when they see that beautiful face of yours! That's it, that's what we should do. Please come with me. Just once in my life I'd like to stand tall in front of those relatives of mine. To be respected by those back home is the greatest happiness and the ultimate victory for any man."

"Why are you so concerned about what the people back home think? 'Honest villagers' -- isn't that what they call those who strive to be respected in their native districts? 'Your honest villagers are the thieves of virtue' -- that's in the Analects, too, you know."

So crushed was Yü Jung by this stunning rebuttal that he could only bow his head and surrender. "Very well, so be it. Take me to Han-yang," he said, then tried to hide his embarrassment by reciting a poem. "Those who have passed beyond," he entoned, "take refuge in neither day nor night," but the quote was so irrelevant that he couldn't help laughing at himself.

The remaining story, "Romanesque," is one of Dazai's earliest, and tells the tale of a wizard, a fighter and a congenital liar, before having them meet in a bar and conclude they are all artists in their own way. While the conclusion is a bit hokey, the tales that make it up are very humorous, again very much in the genre of Bramah's Kai Lung tales.

In this day when there are so sorrowfully few good short fantasy tales written, Osamu Dazai's Blue Bamboo is a source of some beautifully crafted tales, tales that are whimsical, tales that are romantic, tales that are tragic, tales that are humorous, but all tales which, though they come from an entirely different culture than ours, are clearly all little fantasy gems.

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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