Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Mandarins: Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

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Original Title: 蜜柑 (Mikan)

Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Translator: Charles De Wolf

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮

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He could not help despising himself, even as he was equally compelled to think that when we peel back the skin we are indeed all the same.


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • Mandarins
  • At the Seashore
  • An Evening Conversation
  • The Handkerchief
  • An Enlightened Husband
  • Autumn
  • Winter
  • Fortune
  • Kesa and Moritō
  • The Death of a Disciple
  • O’er a Withered Moor
  • The Garden
  • The Life of a Fool
  • The Villa of the Black Crane
  • Cogwheels

I’ve read enough of Akutagawa’s work that I feel like there’s very little left for me to say. A writer’s work speaks for the writer, and Akutagawa’s voice is loud and clear.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa despised humanity – but above all, he despised himself.

Why have you too come into this world so full of vain desire and suffering? And why is this your burden of fate: to have the likes of me as a father?

Mandarins contains stories that I’ve read before under a different translator, such as The Life of a Fool (also known as The Life of a Stupid Man), Mandarins, and Cogwheels (also known as Spinning Gears). Though Akutagawa is well known for the bizarre and the grotesque, as seen in stories such as Hell Screen, Rashōmon, and Kappa, he is also known for his psychological undertones that expose the ugliness of humanity. The stories inside of Mandarins are about the changing times of twentieth-century Japan and the misfits that cannot adapt – such as Akutagawa himself.

The translation is beautiful. The Life of a Fool is one of my all-time favorite short stories, and Charles De Wolf matched, if not exceeded the translation done by Jay Rubin in Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories. I also enjoyed Kesa and Moritō and The Death of a Disciple, though Cogwheels did not improve, unfortunately. It has autobiographical elements such as The Life of a Fool, but the latter is better written and told than the former.

The other stories were good, but I don’t think they stand out as strongly as the others. I think Akutagawa’s strength was irony, or perhaps tragedy – the brutality of human beings that he was so fond of portraying. Many of these shorts felt light in comparison, and perhaps a bit dull. That is why I could not bring myself to give the collection four stars, despite how much I love Akutagawa.

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Review: The Devil’s Whisper, by Miyuki Miyabe

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The Devil’s Whisper, by Miyuki Miyabe

Genres: Japanese Literature, Mystery-Thriller

Rating: ✮✮

“Living beings have a natural instinct to protect themselves.”

Warning: I get a bit weeb-ish. Gifs are used.

This wasn’t a bad book, but for a mystery, it was terrible.

I’ve had an interest in Japanese mystery and detective novels lately, and The Devil’s Whisper was one of the first that I came across. It has an intriguing synopsis that draws you in: three women die in quick succession, and all of their deaths appear to be accidents or suicide, but they share a link that raises questions on whether or not they were murdered. That link is uncovered by Mamoru, the nephew of the taxi driver who is arrested after hitting and killing the third victim, Yoko Sugano.

It walks a fine line – mysteries solved by teenage detectives are always a bad idea unless they’re children’s books – but Mamoru isn’t that presumptuous. He begins the investigation to try and prove his uncle’s innocence, comes across some dirty laundry by happenstance and wound up getting involved. He is completely likable – however, he is also very dull. All of the characters are. Miyabe doesn’t take the time to explore their personalities or interests, and so they feel like stick figures. I had to be imaginative and come up with some ideas in my head, just to get an idea of what they looked like. Quite a few of them had familiar names, and so they often appeared as different celebrities. Mamoru, for instance, looked like Mamoru Miyano.

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Not that I mind, of course.

It also has the blandest mystery I’ve ever read. There are very few clues for Mamoru to follow; everything falls into his lap. When he tracks down a writer that has a connection to the girls, the guy literally tells him everything that he needs to know. The killer continuously makes contact with him and supplements the rest. The only twists this book has aren’t related to the mystery at all, and they’re minor. People getting attacked, collapsing, trying to commit suicide – those kinds of things. On top of that, there’s Mamoru’s relationship with his father, who abandoned the family when Mamoru was four years old after getting busted for a money-laundering scheme. That is held more important than the murders, and I don’t understand why. It doesn’t have any relevance to the crimes, nor any connections, yet it’s still what Miyabe uses to tie up her story, leaving a very unsatisfactory ending.

On top of being boring, it’s predictable. How is this person killing these women? Spoiler: I literally said about halfway through, “Please don’t let it be hypnotism.” It’s cheap and lazy, and it makes the title sound like a joke. There could’ve been a devious mastermind who manipulated those girls into killing themselves, but instead, they took the easy way out. I know it can be done. I’ve seen Durarara!!, you know.

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^Exhibit A.

The bottom line is, this is a poor excuse for a mystery. It’s lifeless, with watered-down characters and a very mediocre storyline.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Poems of Days Past, by Chūya Nakahara

439359Original Title: 在りし日の歌 (Arishi Hi no Uta)

Author: Chūya Nakahara (中原 中也, Nakahara Chūya)

Translator: Ry Beville

Genres: Literature, Poetry

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✮

 


Today, hopes that resonated in me long ago

Are turning a sharp indigo and falling to me from the sky.


Project BSD

Note: Due to length, the quotes used in this review are excerpts, not the entire poem.

It’s official: Chūya Nakahara is my favorite poet of all time.

I can’t get enough of his poems. His rhythms, his framework, his imagery, his terminology…it’s all so captivating. These poems are the most beautifully written things I’ve ever seen. I have to give immense commendation to Ry Beville, because he translated them with so much care.

The tips of the leaves clinging to the lower branches

Held the glistening drops of water, and my gaze

Poems of Days Past is a bit different from Poems of the Goat. The poems are a bit more abstract and repetitive, and that lets Chūya’s lyrical style shine. Even so, they contain the same haunting melancholy, the same quiet, harrowing agony – the sense that the poet is one push away from falling apart.

It’s evening outside, and leaves are rustling.

It’s a Spring evening of subtle reminders.

And I – I’m quietly dying,

Sitting just as I am, fading away

Not all of them are like that, of course – but the ones that are remain the strongest.

Chūya’s poems are like an aesthetic – at least, that’s what they look like to me. Soft, elegant, and interwoven with a kind of sadness that transcends the natural world.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Blue Bamboo: Tales of Fantasy and Romance, by Osamu Dazai

306559Original Title: 竹青 (Chikusei)

Author: Osamu Dazai (太宰 治, Dazai Osamu)

Translator: Ralph F. McCarthy

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature, Fantasy

Rating: ✮✮✮

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“People born to misery are destined to remain forever in misery.”


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • On Love and Beauty
  • Cherry Leaves and the Whistler
  • The Chrysanthemum Spirit
  • The Mermaid and the Samurai
  • Blue Bamboo
  • Romanesque
  • Lanterns of Romance

I didn’t enjoy these stories as much as I did the ones in Crackling Mountain. A lot of the ones in Blue Bamboo are kind of meh.

They’re more whimsical than his other work, definitely. I don’t think there’s anything about them that isn’t appealing; it’s just that they have a hard time sitting well. The two that I loved the most were Cherry Leaves and the Whistler – a sad story about a woman whose sister is dying from an illness – and The Mermaid and the Samurai, which is about a former samurai who kills a mermaid at sea, then struggles to prove his honesty when the world is turned against him at the hands of a rival. The other stories were all pretty gray.

I think the problem is certain elements that were included that outright piss me off. Blue Bamboo, for instance, and the relationship between the protagonist and his wife. That, along with a really sloppy ending that put an even worse taste in my mouth. Then there’s Lanterns of Romance, a sequel to the first story, On Love and Romance. I didn’t have any particular qualms with the first story – besides the fact that it seems kind of pointless – but in Lanterns of Romance, which is actually a story within a story, one of the characters includes a certain Biblical passage that made me spit fire and want to throw the book out the window. (I’m sure most of you know it. Something about Adam and Eve and who came first? Ring a bell?) I don’t doubt that Dazai was speaking for the character and not for himself, but why he should choose to insert that passage instead of letting them speak for themselves, I have no idea.

So, it’s not that any of these stories are bad, it’s just that not many of them are that good. In comparison to some of Dazai’s other work, few of them stand out. Blue Bamboo showcases Dazai as an idealist, but this is far from the work that he’s come to be reveled for.

An update on where I am now.

I have been a horrible blogger this past couple of weeks, and I decided that before I blast into outer space on my own personal rocket ship and leave anyone who might be worried wondering where I am (again), I would give an update on what’s going on in my life, and why I might not be as active in the future.

To begin – and I don’t want to say this, but it feels important that I be honest – last Saturday, I had an anxiety attack. I’ve had Generalized Anxiety Disorder since I was sixteen, maybe before, but I’ve never had an attack as bad as that one. I scared the shit out of my parents. The truth is that having graduated this year, I’ve been stressing myself sick while I try to figure out what I plan to do with my life. I’d decided to take a gap year, but then I began to wonder if that was a mistake, and I didn’t have a job or anything to fall back on, and I wasn’t doing anything to better the situation – on and on and on.

Eventually, I calmed down. I started to think of short-term instead of long-term goals – things that I wanted to accomplish in the next year instead of the next ten years. Narrowing my scope actually made me feel a lot better, because then it was easy: First of all, I wanted a job. It didn’t have to be glamorous, but I wanted a source of income so I could become financially independent. Second of all, I wanted to earn my driver’s license. My disorder has inhibited me from driving in the past, and so I’ve had to rely on alternate transportation – and I’ve grown sick of it. I live in a very rural area, and the nearest store is about seven miles from my house. The bus system is sketchy at best and the taxi service is shit. Thus, the rational course of action is to learn how to drive.

Now, things have begun to look up. I actually do have a job, though I haven’t started yet. It’s definitely not glamorous at all – it’s a starter job, at the general store in my crack of a town – but I’m pissed enough at myself that even if the work is grueling, I plan to keep it until a better opportunity crosses my path. I have also begun to drive, and even though I am still scared to death that I’m going to hit something/someone, I’ve found that I actually do like driving. It helped when I realized that no one, and I mean no one, is a perfect driver.

It is because of said job that I might not be around to post much; it will probably take me a lot longer to finish a book. Additionally, because I’m focusing on real life, I’ll be putting less attention to reviews and updating my blog. This is troublesome because I decided that I want to be an editor – there is actually a really funny story behind that, by the way – and because, even if no one else cares about it, I’m still passionate about Project Bungou Stray Dogs. I’ve decided that I will post when I have the time and review when I want to, instead of forcing myself to juggle too many things at once.

So, that is all. I am not going away completely, but in case I’m not around as often, I wanted to let everyone know. The last thing that I want is to abandon this blog and this community that I’ve grown so fond of. You are all so caring and supportive, and I don’t want to leave any of you behind.

Until we meet again. ❤

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(^I just started watching Uta no Prince-Sama. I don’t know if it’s the worst or the best thing that’s ever happened to me.)

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Stories of Osaka Life, by Sakunosuke Oda

1703287Original Title: N/A

Author: Sakunosuke Oda (織田 作之助, Oda Sakunosuke)

Translator: Burton Watson

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮ +½

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“We bumbled through the period of our youth in an attitude of ambiguity, understanding things and yet not understanding them, not knowing whether we were young or old.”


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • Hurray for Marriage, or Sweet Beans for Two!
  • Six White Venus
  • City of Trees
  • The State of the Times

Note: all mentions of ‘Odasaku’ refer to Sakunosuke Oda.

In Bungou Stray Dogs, Odasaku only appears for four episodes, but the effect he has is buried deep. His influence is evident in many different moments throughout the show, particularly in Dazai’s behavior. This relates so well to the authors behind the characters in Bungou Stray Dogs: many of them died tragically while they were very young, whether through disease (particularly tuberculosis) or suicide, but they still left a lasting impression on Japanese society.

Stories of Osaka Life is true to its name and is made up of four stories all taking place in Osaka, Odasaku’s place of birth. Contradicting the ideals made by higher-class citizens – bureaucrats, intellectuals, and social leaders – who were conscious of Japan’s moral state, Odasaku chose to write stories about the merchant class and the sordid aspects of Osaka life, simply because he wanted to. This resulted in a lot of his work being censored, both due to regulations at the time and because of World War II. After those regulations were lifted and Odasaku started to gain in popularity, he was put in the burai-ha, or “hooligan” school of writers, along with Osamu Dazai and Ango Sakaguchi. (Coincidence? I think not. Definitely not.)

I wouldn’t consider these stories obscene, though I am speaking for myself. I can understand why a lot of officials would wrinkle their noses.

What followed was all a dream: the distinctive odor of bodies, the moist sensations, breathless warmth, squirmings, the arms and legs going every which way, the rhythm that drove me senseless…how could I have been so stupid as to think that a woman merely lies there grudgingly and lets herself be manipulated!

^And the thing is, this story (The State of the Times) is supposed to be autobiographical, as one of the characters refers to the narrator as “Oda Saku”. Poverty, infidelity, and crime are also things that are threaded through these stories (though not necessarily all of them). Considering that Japan is a country that holds honor and pride in the highest respect, it makes sense why they would be reluctant to publish subject of this matter.

There are no particular points to any of them; they are, as the title says, stories of people in Osaka. I think this could be a breaking point for a lot of people, and the translation snags on a couple of points. Additionally, the right reader may interpret them in different ways. For instance, in Hurray for Marriage, or Sweet Beans for Two!, a man named Ryūkichi elopes with a geisha named Chōko. Ryūkichi is lazy and doesn’t work, while Chōko is supporting him with her earnings and trying to encourage him into different businesses. There are instances where Chōko is scorned for being unfeminine by other characters (meaning that she is doing work that women at the time weren’t considered capable of doing), and to one person, this may seem sexist – but as the translator mentions in the introduction, Odasaku intended to make fun of the Japanese concept of marriage and the roles of husband and wife. The reader obviously sees how hard Chōko works to keep the two of them on their feet, how she keeps a budget and saves every penny she makes, and that Ryūkichi is the one who should be ridiculed for spending so much of their money. Additionally, in Six White Venus, the main character, Narao, tries to assault a young girl before he realizes what he’s doing and then later attempts suicide because of it.

When he had threaded his way through the pine grove and come out on the sandy shore, it suddenly occurred to him that when a woman became someone’s mistress, that was the kind of vile treatment she would have to endure.

Like I mentioned, how the reader chooses to view the situation determines the outlook, like deciding whether a shade is one color or another.

I like Stories of Osaka Life overall, and I want to read more of Odasaku’s work in the future. Hopefully more translations will appear in the future.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Kappa, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

111256Original Title: 河童 (Kappa)

Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Translator: Geoffrey Bownas

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature, Satire

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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“I do not wish to be born. In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things that I shall inherit from my father – the insanity alone is bad enough. And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa’s existence is evil.”


Project BSD

I really enjoyed Kappa, but I don’t know how to describe it in an appealing way, because it’s weird – and I mean it’s really, really weird.

It’s a satire a lot like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but instead of politics, Akutagawa uses the fictional world of Kappaland to express his disgust of human beings, in particular himself. Akutagawa wrote Kappa during the last year of his life, while his already fragile mental health was deteriorating, not half of a year before he committed suicide in July 1927. In the story, an unnamed man falls down a hole into Kappaland, a world made up of Kappas, which are aquatic beings from Japanese folklore that have a tiger’s face, a sharp beak, scales, and an indentation on top of their head that, so long as it holds water, allows the creatures to live on land. He discovers that the Kappas have their own civilization, and from that point on he begins to live among them.

The Kappas have different ethics and practices than humans do, and though they’re not right by human standards, Akutagawa manages to twist it around and shove it back in the reader’s face a certain way that gives a sense of understanding. For instance, in a particularly disturbing birth scene, the Kappa has the choice of whether it wants to be born. This, along with the breeding practices mentioned in order to eradicate “evil heredity”, are subconscious indications of Akutagawa’s fear that he had inherited his mother’s schizophrenia. (The introduction claims that it’s a possibility, and that it is what eventually led to his death, but it’s impossible to say for certain.)

My favorite part is the end. There is a twist that Akutagawa kept until the very last few pages, and it wraps the story up nicely. When looked at from a distance, and after considering Akutagawa’s condition when he wrote the story, it also makes a lot more sense.

I am fascinated by Akutagawa’s work, because his stories are always filled with the weird, the grotesque, and the horrifying. I am more convinced than ever that although his stories aren’t for everyone, to the right person, they are magnificent.

Manga Review: Haikyuu!!, by Haruichi Furudate

Haikyuu!!, by Haruichi Furudate27406716

Genres: Shonen, Sports

Volumes: 27

Status: Ongoing

Favorite Characters: Tobio Kageyama, Shōyō Hinata, Hitoka Yachi

Rating: ✮✮✮✮✮

As long as I’m here, you’re invincible.

For all of the times that I’ve mentioned Haikyuu!!, I’ve never reviewed it or gone into depth on why I love it so much, even though I’ve been reading the manga. The reason behind that is because I usually like to review manga when I’ve either finished the series or am close. A manga usually shows its merit around the halfway point, but there are times when it can completely spin out of control and plummet toward the very end. Some examples include Bleach, which everyone is pissed about, and Attack on Titan. (I know everyone loves the anime, but the more I read the manga, the messier it gets.) Because I hate reading anything electronically, I have been patiently waiting while the manga for Haikyuu!! is translated into English and published in volumes.

I am almost at the halfway point, and I cannot wait any longer.

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You have to understand that getting into the Haikyuu!! fandom is a trap. It will absolutely devour you. I got into it last autumn, and the way it affected me changed my life. I have never been athletic, and I’m not good with working in teams. There is absolutely nothing about sports that interests me whatsoever – and yet, October of my senior year of high school, I remember working in the elementary library and being so consumed with the need to play volleyball that I wanted to scream.

Haikyuu!! is intoxicating and all-encompassing. Its energy is insanely intense, its humor is sharp and on point, and it’s more motivational than any self-help book you can buy. The crazy thing is, though, is that the story is not that complicated at all. It follows Shōyō Hinata, who, after seeing a player known as the Little Giant play at Nationals for Karasuno High School, becomes obsessed with volleyball. He has a meager middle school career and only plays one game in one tournament against Kitagawa Daiichi, who crushes them. It is there that he meets Tobio Kageyama, Kitagawa Daiichi’s star setter and the King of the Court, and vows one day that he will beat him and stay on the court the longest. However, the following school year Hinata attends Karasuno High School and discovers that Kageyama is now his teammate.

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The two of them are always fighting, but on the court they are compatible, with Hinata’s athletic reflexes matching up with Kageyama’s skills into a freak quick-set that’s extremely hard to receive. Along with the rest of the members of the team, they set out to return to the national volleyball finals and stand at the top of Japan.

Haikyuu!! has a lot of gameplay, and a lot of commentary that could easily go over a person’s head. For someone that’s unathletic, it’s hard to understand the appeal. What is it that makes Haikyuu!! so popular? What is the secret to its insurmountable success?

It’s the characters.

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Besides the obvious sports aspect, Haikyuu!! is primarily character-driven. There are so many that it’s impossible to keep track of all of their names, but Haruichi Furudate never lets a single one become a backdrop. He creates backstories, aspirations, and vibrant personalities not only for Karasuno, but for every team that they face. He makes it so that the reader can feel every ounce of emotion, every shred of victory or defeat. Though Karasuno is the focus of the story, centering on them only would be a big mistake. A tournament is not just about one team, after all. By expanding the story outward and bringing in so many names and faces, Furudate broadens the reader’s perspective as well as their sympathy.

The reason why Haikyuu!! impacted me so much is not because it made me want to play volleyball. It’s because sometimes, it is the only shard of light in my day. It’s because there are times when it is the only thing that can make me laugh – and it’s because it reminds me every day not to give up. This is a story about overcoming obstacles and reaching for the top; about not accepting defeat, but remembering how it feels and how much you hate it, and pushing harder next time so as to never feel it again. Even if there is only a fraction of a chance, there still is a chance, and so long as you have it, you have to push yourself to your utmost limit.

Exceeding limitations, overcoming doubt – that is what Haikyuu!! is all about.

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I love Haikyuu!!. I love it with every ounce of my soul. If it weren’t for Haikyuu!!, I don’t think I would be able to believe in myself as strongly as I do now.

Because people don’t have wings, we look for ways to fly.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Crackling Mountain and Other Stories, by Osamu Dazai

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Original Title: かちかち山 (Kachi-kachi yama)

Author: Osamu Dazai (太宰 治, Dazai Osamu)

Translator: James O’Brien

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮ +½

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I was a petal quivering in the slightest breeze, about to fall any moment. Even the slightest insult made me think of dying.


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • Memories
  • Undine
  • Monkey Island
  • Heed My Plea
  • Melos, Run!
  • On the Question of Apparel
  • A Poor Man’s Got His Pride
  • The Monkey’s Mound
  • The Sound of Hammering
  • Taking the Wen Away
  • Crackling Mountain

This is my third round with Dazai, and I’m extremely happy to say that Dazai won this time.

Crackling Mountain and Other Stories is a very eclectic collection. Dazai is more well-known for his novels, including No Longer Human and The Setting Sun, but these stories are nothing like those works at all. Half of them are are retellings, and they show something of Dazai that was absent in his novels: a sense of humor.

The stories have very little in common with each other, which means that it’s going to be harder to sell to people as a whole. However, I think they are universally enjoyable and easy to read. The longest one, Memories, was actually my favorite, though it is a piece of autobiographical fiction like No Longer Human, so that could be the reason. Then again, Melos, Run! is a retelling of a German legend, entitled The Hostage, and it’s considered to be the most widespread work of Dazai’s in Japan. It’s a very simple tale with high morals, which contrasts considerably with the pessimistic style that I had come to know.

Reading Crackling Mountain taught me that I still haven’t seen every side of Dazai’s intellectual spectrum. There is still so much that I have yet to learn about him through his work. For instance, Heed My Plea is Biblical, which is something I know absolutely nothing about, as I am an atheist raised in a non-conforming household. It’s mentioned in the note preceeding the story that Dazai studied the Bible through the mid-1930s, especially in 1936 when he was admitted to a hospital for psychiatric observation. This, along with the themes in the stories, is what surprised me the most.

The more I read of Dazai’s work, the more peculiar he becomes to me – although for a man that committed as many suicide attempts as he did, I guess it’s only natural for him to be strange. I’ve read thirteen of his works, but I still feel like I’ve barely cracked the surface of the man that was Osamu Dazai.