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Naoya Shiga: 暗夜行路 (A Dark Night’s Passing)

This is the only full-length novel written by Shiga and written in the I-novel style, i.e. (semi-)autobiographical, confessional and psychological. The hero/narrator, Kensaku Tokito, presumably based on Shiga himself, is not an admirable character, though, presumably, one many of Shiga’s readers could identify with. When he was six, his mother died and he went to live with his grandfather and Oei, his grandfather’s mistress. His father remained somewhat distant but he supposed that was normal.

By the time he is grown-up, his grandfather has died but he is still living with Oei. He has inherited some money so does not have to worry too much about work. Indeed, he wants to be a writer but, though he has a friend who edits a story magazine, during the early part of the book, he cannot seem to settle down to do some writing and publish it. Early on, there is a key event that has a profound effect on him. He had grown up with Aiko but she was just a girl. However, when she was fifteen or sixteen, her father died. He sees her crying at her father’s funeral and then falls in love with her. When he is an adult, he proposes, not directly to her, but through her mother to her elder brother. He is shocked to find that his suit is rejected. She later marries someone else.

The book is divided into four parts and, during the first part, Kensaku drifts. He goes out with friends, particularly to geisha houses. There they get drunk and enjoy themselves with the geishas. Eventually, and somewhat shamefacedly, he goes to a brothel. He is tempted by both the geishas and prostitutes but not enough to pursue the matter seriously. Indeed, the only women he really wants are his late mother, whom he still misses and, indeed, has mild Oedipal fantasies about, and Oei who is, of course, a lot older than him. The other key person in his life at this time is his elder brother, Nobuyuki, who is also unhappy with his life working for a traditional company but who acts as a good elder brother to Kensaku.

In the second part of the novel, he heads off to Onomichi, a seaside resort, where he hopes to get away and finally settle down and write his (autobiographical) novel. He finds a place to rent with lovely views but he is not happy. He finds it hard to concentrate. Though the neighbours are friendly and he visits the local prostitutes, he feels alone and cut off. He starts to fantasise about Oei again and finally proposes to her. Again, he is rejected. It is at this point that Nobuyuki revels a family secret that has been kept from him and that has a profound effect on him.

Back in Tokyo, despite his father’s objection, he and Oei continue to live together. But he is still unsettled. He moves to Kyoto where finally he meets a suitable young woman and his suit is accepted. However, even then things go wrong, both with his marriage and with Oei. While he flirts with Buddhism, his search for inner peace remains unsatisfied.

Shiga gives us lots of details of Kensaku’s inner torment and his struggles to find peace with the world, with his family, with women and with his art. He cannot settle down. He finds it difficult to concentrate. He feels a certain distance between the world and himself. In short, he is the typical twentieth century literary hero. People certainly do try to help him, particularly but not only Nobuyuki and Oei. However, they have their own problems, and cannot always spend the time needed to reach out to him. He still finds it difficult to settle down to a conventional Japanese life, as advised by various people.

Though this is an I-novel and what we would call an autobiographical novel, it is also something of a Bildungsroman, in that Kensaku is learning, or trying to learn, to become a better person, to become a man who knows what his place is, where he is going and with whom. The fact that he does not really succeed is, of course, the basis of the novel and the reason why the novel has been considered as a classic of twentieth century Japanese literature.

Publishing history

First published in 1938 by Iwanami Shoten (previously serialised in magazine form)
First English translation by Kodansha International in 1976
Translated by Edward McClellan