Severely autobiographical in nature, the literature of Tsushima can be described as a precise reflex of his short, yet deeply turbulent life. An undisciplined bohemian with restless impulses – severely inclined to alcohol and narcotics abuse –, Tsushima’s behavior frequently put him in friction with his family. Often running away with geishas and mistresses, his rebellious nature made him clash with authorities in several occasions, something that became ostensibly dangerous when he joined the communist party.
After befriending writer Masuji Ibuse, Tsushima became more interested in a serious literary career, working out his talent and creative propensities with a more proficient and ambitious passion. With relevant connections established, at the early 1930’s, he started having his works published. Almost from the very beginning, he used the pseudonym Osamu Dazai.
Despite the immensurable reputation that Tsushima would acquire in just a few years – managing to become a respectable published author – he never became well known outside his native country. In the west, he is mainly recognized for his largely autobiographical novel No Longer Human, originally published in 1948, shortly before the author committed suicide.
The novel’s protagonist is Ōba Yōzō, the author’s alter ego, a man severely depressed, that feels largely displaced and inadequate, unable to fulfill society’s standards. Always permanently melancholic and despondent, he doesn’t know properly what to do with his life, and makes constant use of narcotics to anesthetize his pain. With his life running in circles – doesn’t going anywhere –, his permanent sense of restless uneasiness distresses him to the point of becoming an irreversible pathological disturbance, and life itself is resented as an oppressive burden, a cage where he is doomed to the restraints of severe imprisonment, never being able to achieve a relevant level of happiness, consistence or coherence to his existence.
Probably suffering from a severe case of depression – or, as a professional analyst more convincingly suggested, from a complex case of post-traumatic stress disorder, and his fragile mental state could have been exacerbated by his constant substance abuse –, Tsushima rises as probably one of the saddest and most desperate icons of Japanese literature; someone who saw writing as a means to relief and exteriorize his pain – and we certainly can find a lot of other examples in world literature as well – although evidently his creative abilities weren’t merely cathartic in nature. His style was sober and clean, and carried along the vulnerability of its taciturn qualities all the sensibilities of the writer’s profoundly immensurable and inherently hostile perceptions of life.
With a tempestuous, though somewhat incisive density captured by a pristine component of clear expression, Tsushima’s literary style can be considered sober for its simplicity, despite the profoundness of his graceful virtuosity – that submits the reader to the idiosyncrasies of the main character –, with an invisible strength that sidelines with the inherent fatalism of a doomed existence. Moreover, the prose of Tsushima is full of implacable sincerity and dramatic tenderness, being able to awaken the most dormant sensibilities of the reader to the fragility of the human condition.
Shūji Tsushima was never happy in his life, despite the fact that he managed to be a successful author, and in a relatively rapid period of time. He also managed to be productive, publishing several works in sequence. During the Second World War, he was discharged from duty, because he had a very precarious health, having developed tuberculosis. This period, however, was personally difficult for the writer, as his residence was completely destroyed two times, as a consequence of the bomb attacks carried out by the American warplanes in Tokyo. Luckily, in neither occasion he or his family suffered any injuries.
His last days were no different from the rest of his life, except maybe that they could have been even more distressful. On June 13, 1948 – six days before his 39th birthday – Tsushima and Yamazaki drowned themselves in the Tama river, in the Tamagawa Aqueduct. The tormented existence of a profoundly disturbed writer, that never had any interior peace while alive, had finally reached its afflictive conclusion.
In his short life, Tsushima has published more than twenty-five literary works – mostly novels and short stories –, although he could write essays and plays as well. A very productive writer, he could publish four works in a single year, maintaining an ardent discipline, that would seem somewhat incompatible with his dissolute lifestyle and erratic behavior. Nevertheless, he managed to be not only one of the greatest Japanese writers of his generation, but one of the most relevant in his country’s literature, displaying pure creative standards, that could be seen as imperiously passionate, as well as frivolously distant, maintaining a dignifying sobriety, that elegantly pursued the veracity of sensibility, without ever renouncing to a prominent degree of poetic sophistication.
Unfortunately – despite his stature as one of the greatest Japanese writers – Tsushima remains little known outside his native country. Giving the difficulty that poses translating Japanese to other languages, especially an author with such a respectable degree of complexity like Osamu Dazai, the translations would be better provided by professionals native to Japan, already familiar with the language.
In 1965, the Dazai Osamu prize – in Japanese, the surname comes first – was established, to reward the best original short story inscribed in the competition. Exclusive for amateurs, unknown writers and beginners in the literary scene, the winner recollects a gift and a cash ward of one million yen. The prize was interrupted for more than two decades, having ceased in 1978, but returned in 1999. In Goshogawara – the city that incorporated the town where Tsushima was born –, there is a museum dedicated to him, which is located in a house built by the writer’s father. Tsushima lived there for fourteen years, from his birth, in 1909, until 1923.
Shūji Tsushima was a tragedy, but also an excelling beauty in the literary world. With a vivacity and a deep sensibility that was capable of filtering the most dense and tragic aspects of existence, he was engrossed in a struggle against himself, in an effort to determine the validity of life. A warrior whose soul felt with regret the misery and the uneasiness of a world full of emptiness, Tsushima resented living a life without the proper answers to the most relevant and sincere elements of what it means to be human. Never being able to find true happiness anywhere, he managed to be content with the ephemeral pleasure of prostitutes, brief liaisons, alcohol and narcotics, resining himself to pretend that this is all that life has to offer.
Not being able to restrict his impulsive restlessness, the ardent savagery of his disturbed heart couldn’t bear the sordid anguish of a miserable existence. Although it is somewhat easy to perceive that he was not a nihilist, he apparently at some point gave up looking life as a more profound and meaningful source of redemption, the effort apparently no longer being considered worthwhile.
A formidable literary talent that deserves to be vastly appreciated, Shūji Tsushima will always be a dramatic, though inspiringly graceful landmark in Japanese literature. As someone who saw life as a battle fought between the visceral agony of the perceptions of the soul and the inherent fatalities of a darkness that never fades away, this colossal literary icon will remain a splendid strength of glorious sensibility in the literary arts – unparalleled with anyone before or after him –, never to be matched in the lancinating brutality of his diffuse sincerity.