Considering this is a classic literature book from a well-known Japanese author, my intentions first and foremost are not to grade this book, but instead, I am writing with more emphasis on the unique aspects that makes this book worth exploring. Mainly two amazingly done chapters that are emotionally resonant in ways that cannot be found elsewhere, even in the same author’s library of literary heritage, and also shedding some light of appreciation on The Setting Sun translator introduction by Donald Keene, which can be considered its own analysis of the characters and the changing climate of the Japnese citizens in face of Modernization and Globalization.
Every word is a part of the great whole
If you have a slightly remote interest in Japanese Literature, certainly you must have heard of Shūji Tsushima, or his pen name: Osamu Dazai. The author died by committing double suicide with his second wife by drowning. It was not his first attempt, nor was it caused by some impulsive ideas. Interestingly enough, if you look through all his works and the writings he left, you can find many glimpses of his character and the years of depression and personal isolation that led him to finally forsake life altogether.
Many of the reasons that led to this, can be understood from the translator’s introduction in which Donald Keene described in concise yet poetic terms the plight of the modern Japanese citizen. The change of the Japanese landscape to a more foreign style, the higher costs of preserving old culture and dress ware, the economic necessities, the moral and spiritual life, and with them, the loss of the values associated with intimate concepts such as family and religion. So the novel can be considered as more than the sum of its parts, as it doesn’t only explore the fate of the fictional characters, but Japan’s identity itself as a nation.
A Genuine Aristocrat
The first two pages of the first chapter of the setting sun are something that I wish everyone would read at some point in their lives. Kazuko, the main narrator of the story, sits down to eat normally with her brother and mother, but in the words she uses to describe the simple act of “Eating dinner“, she uses some amazingly delicate words to describe the strangely divine act of eating, from the point of view of the author.
The way she twists her words reveals an amazingly abundant amount of love and admiration for her mother, and for the way she enables everything to look and sound genuine and classy. She even affirms that this way of eating might not be the one that etiquette dictates, but for her, it was the most appealing and real. Even when she tries eating as her mother does, the soup actually tastes much better. The novel also uses this act to differentiate between aristocrats by name, and real full-fledged ones, who appear classy in everything they do or say.
It’s hard to argue how love and appreciation should be written in literature, but for me, I think this small gesture of writing describes love just as how it should be. A feeling that is not gifted to you, but instead something inside you that you choose to discover and act upon. You can see small plain gestures with love, and everything around you can be painted with love, just if you choose to see things in this way, just like Kazuko does, admits all the sadness and loneliness she feels in her life.
The Setting Sun and The Letter of Hope
When friends and acquiescences ask me what sets this book apart from the rest of the author’s works, I simply say that this book feels like the only one where he had hope for a better tomorrow. I think this is also a problem I have with the portrayal of many tragedies in fictional works, that mainly end up with the character wallowing in despair and melodrama, without actively trying to see things through, or portray the struggle for moments of happiness, however small they are.
This sentiment is reflected in one of the most amazing chapters I have read: Chapter Four/Letters, in which Kazuko doesn’t do what she can do to get out of her complex situation and stop her sun from setting by deciding to gush out all her feelings in a very moving letter. She described her unendurable life in great detail, and ponders over why keeps her going in her life, and the acts she will have to do to feel even the slightest happiness, even if she is ridden of all her dignity and freedom as a result.
The degree of intimacy in this letter is indescribable, as the artist she writes about says, she is able to put into words what everyone else is thinking, and for the same reason, I felt a great deal of appreciation not just for her character, but for the subtle way I felt the author was using to extract emotions and thoughts from my insides, and leave me with nothing but an empty yet satisfied husk. I believe if everyone reads this chapter, they would also come to the same conclusion as me. I also think it’s really one of these books that’s intended for self-healing, even if it wasn’t the initial purpose of writing, I would like to believe so, considering the character and life of the author.
The Setting Sun translation by Donald Keene is available on Amazon in Kindle, Paperback, and Audio form. The Setting Sun.
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