Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) was a 20th century Japanese novelist.
The majority of these translations were first published by Kodansha International in 1993, as Blue Bamboo: Tales of Fantasy and Romance, which has been out of print for decades now. The prior translations have been massively revised by the translator, and new material added to make this a book that reveals an intelligent and humorous Dazai seldom encountered in existing English translations.
Once upon a time, long, long ago . . .
Even as he reads the picture book aloud in a strangely imbecilic voice, another, somewhat more elaborate tale is brewing inside him.
Dazai Osamu wrote The Fairy Tale Book (Otogizoshi) in the last months of the Pacific War. The traditional tales upon which Dazai's retellings are based are well known to every Japanese schoolchild, but this is no children's book. In Dazai's hands such stock characters as the kindhearted Oji-san to Oba-san ("Grandmother and Grandfather"), the mischievous tanuki badger, the fearsome Oni ogres, the greedy old man, the "tongue-cut" sparrow, and of course Urashima Taro (the Japanese Rip van Winkle) become complex individuals facing difficult and nuanced moral dilemmas. The resulting stories are thought-provoking, slyly subversive, and often hilarious.
Dazai’s Hamlet is a passive character in a whirlwind of schemers. It is clear that, in typical autobiographical fashion, Dazai is writing about himself in this book. There are allusions to his troubled university days (when he failed to graduate) his difficult relations with women (Gertrude and Ophelia are both strong, manipulative characters in this work, while the men are weak and indecisive) and his own distressed psyche (he committed suicide in 1948). The strong theme of adult hypocrisy brings to mind a bildungsroman more than a tragedy. It is also significant to note that this book was completed in 1941, right around the time the Pacific War began. The conflict between Denmark and Norway in A New Hamlet is reminiscent of the outbreak of war between Japan and America. Dazai was never outwardly critical of militaristic Japan, but this work could be interpreted as a commentary on the government’s corruption. In addition, the character of Polonius, who ambivalently is both the supporter of young idealists and the right-hand man of an oppressive leader, reminds one of the publishers that had to comply with stringent censorship laws at the time. One wonders if Dazai is writing about the editors or critics he would have dealt with. All in all, there are many facets to this work that give it a particular enjoyment that is distinct from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Dazai’s work is incredibly humorous despite the darkness of his themes, and keeps the reader reading all the way to the end.