A teenager goes about her day. Her activities—taking public transportation, going to school, cattily noticing what other women are wearing, doing chores—are ordinary ones. Equally normal are her feelings regarding the death of her father, the grief she and her mother share but can never comfort each other with, and longing for the close relationship she once shared with her married sister.
What isn’t normal about Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl is that she delivers her interior monologue during the mobilization of the Japanese war machine. The pleasure of Dazai’s 1938 “I” novella is the absence of national history in favor of a personal one.
Hard as she tries to ignore it, the impending conflict fills the unnamed young woman’s thoughts as she mentions young men she knows who are being drafted. Ms. Schoolgirl wants nothing more than for “everyone to think [she is] a good girl,” and she will go to extremes to prove it. Militarism has made her overly critical of herself:
I didn’t mean to be haughty, but I couldn’t see any reason why I should ever be forced to make conversation with or sit and smile with those kinds of people, ever again. Those types certainly did not deserve my courtesy, or rather, my currying favor with them. I hated it. I couldn’t take it anymore. I had tried as best as I could.
She reasons that if she “could live a military life, and be disciplined harshly, then [she] just might be capable of being a self-contained, beautiful daughter.”
Yet at the same time she expresses a healthy mistrust of authority:
I wonder why Miss Kosugi’s lectures were always so stiff. Is she a fool? She went on and on, explaining to us about patriotism, but wasn’t that pretty obvious? I mean, everyone loves the place they were born in. I felt bored.
Dazai, a cult figure in Japan, gave many of his characters his own self-destructive tendencies. (He committed suicide in 1948.) I don’t think he did so here. Had it been an anti-war story, Schoolgirl would have been a curiosity and most likely never published during the author’s lifetime. Instead, the reader, any reader who is now or was a teenager, will appreciate the narrator’s attempt to try to make sense of the world changing around her, particularly the internal one:
Calmly, I gave some thought to how I’d been lately. What was wrong with me these days? Why was I so anxious? I was always apprehensive about something. Just the other day, someone even mentioned to me, “Hey you’re getting to be so mundane.”
Schoolgirl is written and told as a long journal entry. There are no chapter or page breaks in Allison Markin Powell’s translation. Dazai’s attention to detail is striking; there is much to savor in fewer than 100 pages. One passage that begins as an adolescent rant becomes a sensitive commentary:
The reason I hate glasses so much is because I think the beauty of your eyes is the best thing about people. Even if they can’t see your nose or if your mouth is hidden, I think that all you need are eyes—the kind of eyes that will inspire others, when they are looking into them, to live more beautifully.
At the end of her day, it is undetermined what will happen to Ms. Schoolgirl. “You won’t see me again” implies sleep instead of bombs. But for one day we are fortunate enough to know her.