Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun: An Analysis

Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun takes the milieu of the post-war period in Japan when its society adjusted to the distress of defeat and to the occupation of the American forces and their allies’ which caused a massive social change as it tells the story of the decline of an aristocratic family. In this paper, utilizing the Textual Analysis Theory, the elements of this novel – characters and plot – are discussed as portrayed against the backdrop of social and moral crisis which loomed on the Japanese society that time, including the literary style used and the literary devices employed in the story.

Character and Plot Analysis

The Setting Sun, as maintained earlier, portrays how the new ideas of the contemporary society have destroyed the Japanese aristocracy and how the characters, once being aristocrats, struggle to go on living or to resist living itself. In the person of Kazuko, the divorced daughter of a widowed aristocrat, the story is told. A close inspection of her character allows one to see not just her being an extremely loving and caring daughter to her mother but also her dissipated way of facing the deteriorating society and her deteriorating self, and her audacity to continue living, hoping for a fresh start. This dissipation is evident when she opts to defy rules just to have a reason to keep on existing, that is, having a baby with a man she is not married to. She is someone who does whatever she wants to and fights whatever she wants to fight for. She says, “There is something which I absolutely have to fight…Love. That and nothing else.” One sees as well that this dissipation of Kazuko roots from her belief that she and her lover are “victims of a transitional period of morality”. She is a revolted character in the story.

Naoji, Kazuko’s brother, is very much unlike her as far as continuing to live is concerned. Taking a close look at how he reacts to humiliating circumstances because of what the aristocrats have turned into – resorting to drug addiction, to drinking alcohol and eventually to suicide – shows one the weakness in his character, his being defeated. He always desires to escape humiliations, problems, and shame. He says “I would far prefer to be told simply to go and die.” He lets the very fact of being born into a family of aristocrats eat him, his aspirations, and his spirit to live.

Kazuko and Naoji’s mother is portrayed as a good aristocrat. Though she has class, she does not fear to act in her own ways. One proof of this is the opening scene of the novel when she eats her soup “so unlike the manner prescribed in women’s magazines” yet so lovely and refined. She is morally strong. She never shows despair in their condition being impoverished and never complains about it.  She is a truly devoted and affectionate mother. She worries more to her children’s condition than to hers which is more severe. Until her death, her character does not change to the negative.

 The plot has the first person viewpoint. It is autobiographical in some manner, analyzing the novel’s relation to its author, Dazai. It is characterized by a profound pessimism reflecting as well Dazai’s experiences which the translator offers the reader in his introduction.

Brief Summary. After leaving her husband and getting a divorce, Kazuko, a part of the aristocracy of Japan, returns to Tokyo to live with her mother. However, because the war which has just ended, left them impoverished, they are compelled to sell their home in Tokyo and move to a small house in a remote village. Kazuko now has to take care of her ill mother without the help of servants. Naoji returns from the war an opium addict. He leaves every now and then, taking the little money they have to feed his opium habit and then to drink. Later, in autumn, their mother dies. Believing that she has lost everything, Kazuko returns to Tokyo in search of Mr. Uehara, a married novelist, whom she had a brief affair with years before. She decides to be his mistress and wants to have a baby with him. Kazuko finds this love to be the only thing to fight and continue living for, abandoning her up-bringing. They meet there and do make love. While Kazuko is in Tokyo, Naoji commits suicide. He leaves behind a note which reveals his love affair with a married woman named Suga. His disdain for himself, the aristocracy, and the life he has been living are also written in the note. The novel ends with Kazuko’s last letter to Mr. Uehara. It is revealed in that letter that she is pregnant. She declares that she and her child, whom she calls bastard, will live in perpetual struggle with the old morality.

The novel presents its plot structurally in En Medias Res, thus, one sees a load of flashbacks in the story. In the very first chapter, Snake, in the middle of Kazuko and her mother’s conversation, Kazuko thinks back of the time Naoji is sent off to some island in the South Pacific and from then on has been missing; the afternoon when she burns the eggs of a snake near their bamboo thicket; the moment when her father dies; and the time they transfer residence from Nishikita Street in Tokyo to a Chinese-style house in Izu. In chapter two, Fire, Kazuko’s life in war as part of the military is flashed back. Moreover, chapter five, The Lady, tells a moment between Kazuko and a friend a winter 12 years ago.  In chapters three, Moonflowers, four, Letters, and seven, The Testament, the reader observes that other flashback techniques are utilized than mere reminiscence of a character, these are, a journal, letters, and a testament. Naoji’s journal in chapter three reveals the crux of his drug addiction and his hate of being an aristocrat. The letters of Kazuko to Mr. Uehara in chapter four tells her past experiences about men, among other things. The testament in chapter six reveals Naoji’s love affair to Suga. These flashback techniques are also a way of communication among the characters since there is no much overt one as maintained in the translator’s introduction of the novel.

The literary device foreshadowing is also evident in the novel’s plot. The burning of snake eggs by Kazuko in chapter one foreshadows the fire that could have burned the whole village in chapter two which is caused by her as well. The swollen hands of her mother, meanwhile in chapter five gives one the clue that sooner or later, her mother cannot hold on any longer and eventually will die.

The plot, as to how it is presented, is loaded with figures of speech. Not exhausting every single figure of speech in the text, following are examples: In chapter one, (a) Naoji uses the oxymoron “High-Class Beggars” to describe themselves; (b) there is irony when Kazuko says, “Scoundrels like Naoji simply don’t die. The ones who die are always the gentle, sweet and beautiful people.”; (c) describing her mother, Kazuko’s statement is paradoxical, “Her face, which seemed to wear about it a faint suggestion of anger, was so lovely…”; (d) describing the village by saying “In February the whole village was buried in plum blossoms” is a hyperbole; (e) alliteration is also used in the line, “…the blossoms were breath-takingly beautiful, and their fragrance flooded into the room…”

In chapter two, (a) the use of understatement is noticeable. After the fire which could have eaten up the whole village is extinguished, Kazuko’s mother said, “It wasn’t anything, was it? Only firewood that was meant to be burned.” Another is when Kazuko says that “Poverty is nothing” when in fact, for the first time in her life she realized what a horrible, miserable, salvationless hell it is to be without money. (b) The use of hyperbole is also perceptible. Describing the burden of her mother, Kazuko says, “…but the shock she received was certainly ten times as great as mine.” Describing her saddle, on the other hand, she says, “I wanted to weep more, more, until I had drained every tear from my body.”

“When I pretended to be precocious, people started the rumor that I was precocious. When I acted like an idler, rumor had it I was an idler. When I pretended I couldn’t write a novel, people said I couldn’t write…but when I inadvertently groaned because I was really in pain, they started the rumor that I was faking suffering.” This is written in Naoji’s journal in chapter three which shows the irony of pretending and honesty.

In chapter five, there is the use of (a) synecdoche – “The older and wiser heads of the world have always described revolution and love to us as the two most foolish and loathsome of human activities.”; (b) antithesis – “We who truly suffer…the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak…”; and (c) paradox – “Destruction is tragic and piteous and beautiful”, “…in the passion of love, I must destroy.” All these are Kazuko’s thoughts.

The imagery of “leaf that rots without falling” is used to describe Kazuko’s own life rotting away of itself in chapter four. The imagery of “pulling on the feet of a man hanging by the neck” is used to describe the act of people nowadays to insist on such virtues as respect or sincerity in chapter six, Outbreak of Hostilities. In the same chapter, there is the use of a rhetorical question, “Why is physical love bad and spiritual love good?” Kazuko asks this when she decides to be Mr. Uehara’s mistress.

Lastly, chapter seven makes use of (a) hyperbole when Naoji, in his note, says “All men are alike…an expression fated to overturn the whole world…”; (b) simile when he describes Suga’s eyes by saying “Her eyes are the true Japanese shape like an almond…”; and (c) personification when Kazuko, after reading his note, says “Tears forced their way through my eyelids…”


Analyzing just the title of the novel The Setting Sun, one immediately senses within the story darkness, desolation, despair, and defeat – things that are often associated to the setting of the sun. Examining the story itself makes one recognize that the setting sun is a symbol of the deterioration of the Japanese society, including its time-honored values and morality. It can also be a symbol of the decline itself of the aristocratic family. At another angle of analysis, it can as well symbolize a new hope through dissipation – when the sun sets, it signals another sunrise but it gets dark first.

A number of symbols are found in the story such as the snake, her mother’s illness and death, the leaf that rots, and Kazuko’s baby. The snake, often associated with negative characteristics, denotes the corrupt sides of the characters, major or minor, in the novel, their dissipations, and their betrayals committed. An instance of a character’s betrayal is Kazuko’s affair to Mr. Uehara who is already married. Another is Naoji’s affair to Suga who is also a married woman.

Her mother, portrayed as a good aristocrat with high morality, symbolizes Japan itself. Her illness represents the worsening of society and the decline of its morality. Her death implies the passing of a good, not decadent generation. This is why in the novel she is symbolically called “The Last Lady in Japan.”

The leaf that rots without falling from its branch signifies Kazuko’s own life. She believes that her own verve has already been deteriorated, that she has lost everything, and that she has also become a depraved woman herself but then does not want to quit living. She holds on to her love, being the only thing she fights for, until the end. Her baby at the end stands for a fresh start and new hope for Kazuko as she revolts in the future with the old morality. It can also stand for as immense as a rebirth of a nation, the Japanese nation. Nevertheless, again from another view of analysis, the baby can be a representation of the admittance that only a new generation could begin a true reconstruction or renewal of the deteriorated society and that the generation of Kazuko and her family could no longer restore the old morality by themselves alone.

Set against the backdrop of a defeated and humiliated Japan after the world war, this novel presents one vivid characterizations of the people that time and of circumstances they helplessly face, profound symbolism within each character and object, various figures of speech that adds color to the story itself. Textually analyzing the novel reveals all these and how they present the inherent meaning within the text.

5 thoughts on “Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun: An Analysis

  1. Jack Curtis says:

    Japanese society was reshaped in the adversity of losing a war; the Japanese have emerged stronger. American society is reshaped in the voluntary abandonment of its founding principles; it is proceeding not just weakened, but split in two…

  2. I absolutely should agree with you. Thanks!

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