In The Setting Sun, Osamu Dazai portrays the post-World War II decline of the Japanese aristocracy, intertwining the profound social changes with the psychological turmoil of individuals caught in this transition, using rich symbolism and poetic prose to explore themes of identity, desperation, and moral decay.

Summary


“The Setting Sun” is narrated by Kazuko, a 29-year-old woman from a formerly wealthy family. Following their financial downfall, she and her mother relocated from their luxurious Tokyo home to a modest villa on the Izu Peninsula. Their fragile peace is shattered with the return of Kazuko’s brother, Naoji, a former opium addict presumed dead during the war. As their mother’s health worsens, Naoji dissipates the remaining family funds on alcohol-fueled escapades, while Kazuko attempts to secure her future by pursuing one of Naoji’s friends, an alcoholic novelist.

Analysis


The Setting Sun captures the profound social changes in Japan following World War II, portraying the decline of the aristocracy and the psychological turmoil experienced by individuals caught in the transition.

As the story unfolds, Kazuko and her mother move to a smaller house due to a lack of funds and can no longer afford their previous lifestyle. We slowly see the characters become impoverished and deprived, making it hard for them to find meaning and purpose in their lives.

As Naoji said:

I ran riot and threw myself into wild diversions out of the simple desire to escape from my own shadow — being an aristocrat.

This quote highlights Naoji’s struggle with identity and societal expectations. His acknowledgment of “throwing himself into wild diversions” suggests a desire to escape from the pressures and responsibilities of his aristocratic background.

Dazai expertly captures the impending doom of the family in poetic prose. For instance, the symbolism in the following passage evokes a sense of foreboding:

Mother is by no means superstitious, but she has had a mortal dread of snakes ever since ten years ago, when Father died in our house on Nishikata Street. Just before Father passed away, Mother, seeing what she thought was a thin black cord lying near Father’s bed, casually went to pick it up, only to discover that it was a snake.

The use of the snake symbolism has multiple meanings embedded in the narrative that Dazai expertly played with and deeply explored. The characters are deprived of the privileges they once considered standard. Having nothing to do, they now have to become workers to survive. This transition to deprivation, along with their mother’s worsening health, makes everyone hopeless. We can slowly see how desperate the characters are to stay grounded. For Kazuko, keeping hope alive means having a child, even with someone who is married and has a child of his own. In her desperation, she says:

“To M.C. (These are not the initials of My Chekhov. I am not in love with an author. My Child.)”

This desperation, in turn, can lead to moral decay. This is best captured in Kazuko’s realization:

“Mother would soon die, my romanticism and sentimentality were gradually vanishing, and I felt as though I were turning into a calculating, unprincipled creature.”

Kazuko begins to transform, shedding her old ideals like a snake shedding its skin, as she comes to terms with her mother’s impending death.

Conclusion & Recommendation


This book is an exploration of personal and social disintegration in post-war Japan, resonating with contemporary audiences by questioning morality in times of upheaval. It’s perfect for readers who enjoy introspective, character-driven narratives with nuanced explorations of societal shifts, moral ambiguity, and human relationships.

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