In 1948, when Yuko Tsushima was just over a year old, her father, the novelist and lifelong enfant terrible Osamu Dazai, and his mistress, Tomie Yamazaki, committed suicide by throwing themselves into a Tokyo canal. It was Dazai’s fifth documented attempt; a previous suicide pact resulted in the death of a young waitress he’d just met and Dazai’s rescue by a fishing boat. His work and life were steeped in the despair of the times—his best-known novel, The Setting Sun, is a harrowing portrait of a family in desperately reduced circumstances at the end of World War II. But he was also taking part in the long-running literary tradition—Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, and D.H. Lawrence were clear influences—that emphasized the (usually male) individual’s rebellion against society’s oppressive strictures. His final published novel, No Longer Human, is a fictionalized chronicle of his self-destructive exploits. Published in English by New Directions in 1958, it now seems to fit broodingly on that literary era’s shelf of heroic selfishness, alongside Jack Kerouac and Cesare Pavese.
Dazai is still a major figure of modern Japanese literature, and The Setting Sun and No Longer Human have remained in print in English, if not as widely read as his national successor in violent angst, Yukio Mishima. But it seems somehow fitting that his daughter Tsushima’s work now feels more vital than his celebrated novels; it is, among many other things, intensely concerned with inheritance and survival, often in the face of male carelessness. Rather than providing a direct counterargument or corrective to Dazai’s legacy, Tsushima, who died in 2016 at the age of sixty-eight, draws on the fierce, sometimes monstrous tradition of individualism in which her father participated, and makes of it something strange and new.
Tsushima published over thirty-five novels and many more short stories in Japanese, and the books that have made it irregularly and nonchronologically into English since the 1980s—four novels, most recently a new translation of Territory of Light, and two collections of stories—almost all depict the trials of single motherhood, from the myriad logistics of childcare to the frustration of dealing with uncomprehending and recalcitrant family members, lovers, and ex-husbands. Across her first three novels, originally published in Japan from 1978 to 1980, Tsushima created a gallery of female protagonists, each of them caring for a child at a different stage of its life. By shifting the ages of her characters in each book, Tsushima emphasizes the way that relationships between the same people—mother and daughter, or the members of a couple, together and apart—are subject to a remarkable range of variation over time.
In her essayistic story “The Watery Realm,” recently published in the UK in a small volume with her late story “Of Dogs and Walls,” the narrator reflects on her experience (echoing Tsushima’s) of being raised,…
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