Sakunosuke Oda: The Unconventional Writer

Japan’s art scene has been a robust mixing pot of ideas coming from centuries after centuries of poets, writers, painters, potters, wood carvers, and other artists of different mediums. This is why it comes to no surprise that Japan has produced many prominent artists who were renowned for their talent.

The literary world is no exception. Take Haruki Murakami for example - he is undoubtedly Japan’s most famous contemporary writer at present. His novels were well-received not just in Japan, but on all sides of the globe.

A good indicator of Haruki Murakami’s success is the film adaptation of his novel Norwegian Wood; which is believed to be Murakami’s most successful novel. It was not just released in Japan, but in the United Kingdom, Russia, and United States as well. The film also competed for awards at the 2010 Venice International Film Festival where it debuted.

Before Muraki, however, there were already a lot of blossoming contemporary writers in Japan’s literary scene. One of the most popular writers of twentieth-century Japan, Osamu Dazai is well-known for his writing but more so on his tragic life. The article will tackle on of Osamu Dazai’s closest friends - Sakunosuke Oda. He is another visionary Japanese writer from the early twentieth century.

The Beginning of Sakunosuke Oda’s Life: Birth, Family and Early Life as a Writer

Sakunosuke Oda was born on the 26th of October in 1913. There isn’t much-known information about Sakunosuke Oda’s (also referred to as Odasaku) youth. For one, there are no sources available on his parentage, nor his educational background. This leaves questions on what his socio-economic standing in life was prior to becoming an author. For example, was his writing style affected by an impoverished childhood? Was the darkness that was present in his literary works affected by family problems he experienced in the past? These are questions that unfortunately simply can not be answered.

By UnknownUnknown author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The first accounts related to Oda Sakunosuke’s life were already from his early years of writing. These accounts describe Odasaku as one of Japan’s “hooligan writers”. The term “hooligan writers” describe collectively several Japanese literary writers who actively participated in an underground society of some sort. This group was formed by different literary maestro’s who wrote stories and novels that were not particularly favorable to the government’s eyes - hence the term “hooligan”.
Before the end of the 2nd World War, Japan was heavily focused on the war efforts and improving its country’s defense mechanisms. Then lead by a militaristic government, those in power controlled heavily what kind of information reached the public - this included literary works.

Sakunosuke Oda and the Band of Hooligans: A Different Kind of Writing Style

The military government back then in Japan heavily relied on art to appease the people from going against the government’s ideals. Hence, literary works were preferred to depict an idealistic lifestyle. This idea was heavily rejected by Sakunosuke Oda and his fellow writers at the time. Instead of writing stories and novels that portray Japan as nothing less than ideal, they chose to go against what the government wanted and wrote about the hardships of reality during that time.
A similar theme among Odasaku, Dazai, and many other writers in their group were the certain darkness brought about by their writing. These writers wrote novels, short stories, and poems that depicted the unflattering realities of Japan at that time rather opting to write exemplary ideas.

Often times, literary works are done by the “hooligan writers” focus on stories that revolve around misfits. At that time, misfits meant the hustlers and bunglers of Japanese society at the time. For example, one of Sakunosuke Oda’s most popular works entitled "Stories of Osaka Life" captures the essence of Osaka in all actuality. His writing incorporates different forms of temperament such as hedonism, wry humor, and joie de vivre.

While the stories that depicted the real struggles in Japanese society at the time were frowned upon by the militaristic government, these themes were eminent in a lot of works done within the same period of Odasaku’s works. In fact, Sakunosuke Oda’s writing style has made him one of modern Japan's most admired writers. Fans of Odasaku’s writings enjoyed how his stories offer emotional depth through depictions of extraordinary characters, compassion, honesty, and humor.

As mentioned in an earlier portion of the article, Odasaku’s contemporaries who were branded as “hooligans” wrote literary pieces in a very similar way. The group branded as hooligan writers involved other writers such as Osamu Dazai and Ango Sakaguchi. In Japanese, the hooligan writers were also referred to as the Buraiha, which is a direct translation for ruffian or hoodlum faction.
The name comes from an interesting origin. It was not branded by the writers themselves, rather the label was bestowed upon them by conservative critics who were not appreciative of the authors' attitudes and literary works.

Sakunosuke Oda’s Most Notable Works

Sakunosuke Oda’s most prominent works were published through the years leading to and after the World War. Since he was a native of Osaka, his literary works revolved around life in Osaka city, which includes customs, behavior and daily life in the city. In a way, his works seemed to be a tribute to his native city, which he loved so much. One of his first stories was published in 1939. The story was entitled Zokushu, which meant Vulgarity in English. was a candidate for several accolades.
In the following year, Odasaku then published his second story entitled Meoto Zenzai. The name was derived from a sweet’s shop in Osaka. This story, is another tribute to his local city and is one of his most popular works ever. The story tackles several themes like wastefulness, debauchery, and heartbreak. Meanwhile, the protagonist of the novel presents a character who is, in every way, flawed.

Like the main protagonist in Meoto Zenzai, a lot of Odasaku's characters usually do not fit into the usual stereotypes. Rather, his characters presented a distinct humanness or depicted stubborn individuality. For example, his novel published in 1946 entitled Roppakukinsei (which roughly translates to Six White Venus) tackles dark tones on human survival.

Another work he published in 1946 was Seso, which followed dark tones of harsh reality. The title Seso aptly translates to “The State of the Times”, which was an accurate title considering that the story describes the first months following Japan's surrender at the end of World War II. He depicted a story which accurately captured the impoverished period in Japan’s history. After surrendering in the war, Japan’s economy was in shambles and the country has suffered massive infrastructure damage.

Life in Japan was difficult after the war. It was a period when the Japanese experienced what it felt to be hungry, as food ration had severe shortages and there was not enough supply to sustain life. The difficulty in procuring food led people to turn to less than legal means such as the black market to procure food that they need to survive. Those challenges at the time served as inspiration for Odasaku’s work, which meant his work tackled themes on impoverished Japanese life.
This type of writing was not sanctioned well by the government, which is why it comes to no surprise that in Oda's lifetime, several of his works were banned or considered to be prohibited paraphernalia. Aside from literary works, he also dabbled in radio drama by coming up with scenarios and then submitting scripts to a magazine. His work for the radio drama was so well-received that in 1944, it was formally adopted into a movie.

Originally, Kaette Kita Otoku (which meant The Returnee in English) was never meant to reach the screen. Instead, it was supposed to be a simple portion of a radio drama. However, it surpassed Odasaku’s expectations when it was adapted by Kawashima Yuzo into a film.

It was a fact that Oda Sakunosuke enjoyed writing fictional short stories. In fact, he wrote plenty of stories in his lifetime. One of his most acclaimed work in this field is entitled "Kanosei no bungaku", which translates directly to the title “The Literature of Possibility. It was one of the last works that Odasaku had published before his untimely demise.

The Death of Sakunosuke Oda: A Life Cut Short

While having published acclaimed works in 1945 and 1946, directly after the war, Odasaku’s life was tragically cut short. In an unexpected turn of events, Odasaku suffered from a lung hemorrhage in 1947. Prior to the incident, his health was in good condition which is why Odasaku’s friends surprised by what had happened to him.

Oda Sakunosuke died in the Hospital of Tokyo where it was found afterward that his death has been caused by tuberculosis which had occurred several times undetected. This has caused his body (especially his lungs) to deteriorate.
Despite the medical nature of Odasaku’s death, it did not stop his friends from making statements to criticize his own critics. In fact, one of his closest friends (Osamu Dazai) even published an emotional piece which served as a eulogy wherein he voiced his anger towards the critics for Oda’s sudden death.

After Death: Tributes and Accolades to Sakunosuke Oda

Of course, Oda would only be buried at one place and one place alone. There is no question that he is to be buried in his beloved native town - Osaka. Almost two decades after his death, Oda's friends and colleagues continued to cherish his memory by erecting a monument near Hozenji Temple in Osaka.

The temple, which was erected 1963 stood proudly in what is called the Hozenji Yokocho. There is a certain significance as to why Odasaku’s monument was placed in that exact location - the Hozenji Yokocho and its surrounding area are one of the main settings in Odasaku’s famous novel Meoto Zenzai.

In 1983, the Osaka Bungaku Shinkokai awarded established a literary award under Oda Sakunosuke’s name. The award was made in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Odasaku’s birth. The goal of the literary award is to award a writer in the field of Kansai literature. This aimed to identify outstanding new fiction writers in order to keep the genre of literature well and alive.

Having used several real-life Osaka shops as a setting for his stories, it was inevitable that some of them would pay a tribute to the writer. One of the most popular tributes to Oda Sakunosuke hangs in Jiyuken - a coffee shop in Osaka.
Within the walls of the restaurant, an autographed picture of Oda hangs. The snack and coffee shop which has been around since 1910 was popular for their unique dessert called "curry rice". This exact dessert was mentioned in not just one, but several of Oda's writings.

After Odasaku’s death, the caption in the photograph was added to say that Oda has died, but has left us some of the good flavors of curry rice, which was present in his literary works. The photograph validated how much Odasaku loved Jiyuken as it shows Oda writing while seated at a table in Jiyuken.

Oda Sakunosuke’s Literary Works: Adaptations and Translations in Present Time

Even after decades following his death, several of Oda's stories have been turned into movies. In 2008, a movie adapted from his work was made after his novel Deep Autumn. Of course, his well-loved Meoto Zenzai was turned into a film no just once. Its popularity can be attested to by the fact that it had been adapted four times.
One of the movie adaptations of Meoto Zenzai even won several accolades. Released in 1955, Meoto Zenzai which was directed by Toyoda Shiro was regarded to be the most successful film adaptation of the novel. It even starred big names in the Japanese movie industry such as Morishige Hisaya and Awashima Chikage. Several of Odasaku’s works have been translated into English and published in the American market. In 1994, Columbia University Press translated Odasaku’s most popular works (Meoto Zenzai, Roppakukinsei, Seso, and Ki No Miyako) were translated by Burton Watson. Aside from those, his collective work entitled Stories of Osaka Life was also translated and published for the American market.