No Longer Human, Vol. 1

First published in 1948, Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human became one of the most widely read books in post-war Japan. The story, modeled on Dazai’s own life, chronicles a dissolute young man’s profound estrangement from his family and peers. The protagonist’s life follows a trajectory similar to Dazai’s: convinced that his life is an empty charade, Yozo drops out of school; joins the Communist Party; enters into a suicide pact with a virtual stranger; and woos lonely women, using them for shelter, emotional comfort, and financial support after his father, a prominent politician, disowns him.

The novel is divided into three sections, or “notebooks,” each corresponding to a period in the protagonist’s life. In the first, Yozo describes his childhood: his uneasy relationship with his father, his clownish behavior at school, and his abuse at the hands of a female servant. In the second and third sections, Yozo documents his troubled adulthood, as he abandons school for a life of drinking and illicit relationships, bouncing from one woman to the next with little regard for the harm he causes them — or himself. Framing Yozo’s story is a second narrative delivered by an unnamed author who has found three photographs of Yozo: as a child of ten, “a small boy surrounded by a great many women”; as a college student, handsome but “strangely unpleasant”; and as man in his later twenties, his hair “streaked with gray,” and his face “devoid of expression.”*

Given the novel’s enduring popularity, it’s no surprise that several manga artists have adapted Dazai’s text as a graphic novel. Their approaches have ranged from reverential — the East Press edition (2007) hews closely to the original novel — to provocative — Yasunori Ninose’s version (2010) uses tentacle-porn imagery to represent the character’s extreme emotional distress. Usamaru Furuya’s 2009 adaptation falls somewhere in between, taking liberties with the setting and structure of Dazai’s work, while preserving the original tone and events of the novel.

As these myriad approaches suggest, one of the biggest challenges of translating No Longer Human into a pictorial form is its interiority: though eventful, Yozo’s story is as much about his state of mind as his behavior. Early in the novel, for example, Yozo describes his inability to understand how other people feel and think. “I have not the remotest clue what the nature or extent of my neighbor’s woes can be,” he tells the reader. “It is almost impossible for me to converse with other people.” In a desperate attempt to camouflage his bewilderment, Yozo constructs a jovial mask, winning approval from his family members and classmates with impish behavior and remarks. “I kept my melancholy and my agitation hidden, careful lest any trace should be left exposed,” he explains. “I feigned an innocent optimism; I gradually perfected myself in the role of the farcical eccentric.”

Furuya makes a game effort to find visual analogues for Yozo’s interior states. Whenever Yozo feels emotionally disoriented, for example, Furuya obscures the other characters’ expressions, rendering their faces as blurs. Furuya extends this symbolic approach to Yozo’s social paralysis as well. “I was congenitally unable to refuse anything offered to me by another person, no matter how little it might suit my tastes,” Yozo confesses. “In other words, I hadn’t the strength even to choose between two alternatives.” In these passages, Furuya draws Yozo as a marionette, violently manipulated by an unseen puppeteer; as a drowning victim, disappearing under the water’s surface; and as a man engulfed in flames, so consumed by his fear of disappointing others that he surrenders his own agency.

Though Furuya follows the basic outline of Dazai’s novel, he makes two significant changes to the text. First, he moves the story from pre-war Japan to the present day, replacing the unnamed narrator with a character named Usamaru Furuya, a manga artist who discovers Yozo’s pictures on the internet. Second, Furuya streamlines the script, all but eliminating the first notebook; instead, he depicts Yozo’s childhood through a few brief, suggestive flashbacks.

The first decision makes good sense. By moving the setting from Taisho-era Japan to the present, Furuya sheds the novel’s period trappings in favor of a milieu that readers can intuitively appreciate — a world of blogs, cell-phones, high-rise apartment buildings, and other technologies that promote social isolation.

Less successful is Furuya’s decision to focus on Yozo’s adult life to the exclusion of his childhood. In the original novel, ten-year-old Yozo crosses paths with another outsider, a young boy who immediately detects the effort and strain behind Yozo’s clowning.  Fearful that Takeichi will expose his deceit to the other students, Yozo dons “the gentle beguiling smile of the false Christian,” befriending the odd, unlikeable Takeichi in an effort to buy his silence. The episode is among the most potent and revealing in the book, an early example of Yozo’s ability to manipulate others, and a rare example of him acknowledging his own agency — something he never does in the manga.

Furuya also trims another brief but important scene from the early pages of No Longer Human, in which Yozo implies that he was molested by his wealthy family’s servants. “Already by that time I had been taught a lamentable thing by the maids and menservants; I was being corrupted,” Yozo declares. “I now think that that to perpetrate such a thing on a small child is the ugliest, vilest, cruelest crime a human being can commit.” Yozo’s indifference to others’ suffering, inability to experience romantic love, and passive-aggressive behavior, suggest a pathology rooted in this formative experience. Perhaps Furuya found this passage too neatly Freudian for his purposes, but in choosing to omit it, he makes Yozo seem like just another cad who beds and discards women, rather than a wounded soul incapable of sexual intimacy.

Yet for all its shortcomings — the omissions, the obvious symbolism — Furuya’s adaptation still captures the raw power of Dazai’s original novel. In its best passages, Furuya makes us feel as dazed and lonely as Yozo himself; we appreciate how helpless he feels, though we can see how seductive — and dangerous — he can be. Furuya also manages to document the full extent of Yozo’s debauchery without eroticizing it; we are keenly aware of the emotional distance between Yozo and his sexual conquests, making these scenes feel joyless and awkward, rather than titillating in their explicitness.

In short, Furuya has found a way to transform Dazai’s sharp critique of pre-war Japanese society into a more universal text, one that raises the question, What does it mean to be human right now?

* All quotations taken from Donald Keene’s translation (New York: Penguin Books, 1958).

Review copy provided by Vertical, Inc.


4 thoughts on “No Longer Human, Vol. 1”

  1. Aaron says:

    Reading this review I kept thinking when are they going to do the same thing for Yukio Mishima (if they have’nt already) I mean Confessions of A Mask has fantises about canbalism, The Passion of St. Sabastin, and Coca Cola used as symbol of the decadance of post war Japan. Temple of The Golden Dawn has a deformed monk burning down an historic temple. I mean that alone even Patriotiism could be made into and intresting one shot all could be made into intresting adiptations. Here’s hopeing the Manga version of No Longer Human does well so maybe we can get some Manga based on Mishima ( a boy can dream can’t he)

  2. Serdar says:

    Thumbs up, and I did my own take on the comic (along with parallel examination of the source novel) here:

    I also noticed the exclusion of Yozo’s childhood experiences, which was — interestingly enough — kept fully intact in the other manga adaptation of the story. Maybe, like you mentioned, Furuya wanted to substitute the original (and more frankly Freudian insights) with something that centered more explicitly around the loveless, authoritarian relationship with his father. I’m also not thrilled by the omission of how he came to meet Takeichi (“You did it on purpose”).

    That said, from what I can tell, Furuya’s more interested in how Yozo is “now”, so to speak, than how he was shaped per se. It’s more in the vein of, say, one of Georges Simenon’s existentially-flavored thrillers: we are given a person who has these traits, and the story is about where those traits take him, not about how he got here. And again, I suspect the reason Furuya did all this was to move Yozo that much further away from being a suitable case for treatment and more towards him being someone whose behavior exists in the present moment.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Thanks for the link to your review — it’s by far the most insightful commentary I’ve seen on Furuya’s adaptation, and an excellent introduction to Dazai’s novel. I will be retweeting the link far and wide!

      As for my own review, I definitely struggled with No Longer Human; the narrator’s ennui and unintentional cruelty made him a repellent figure (to me, at least), and I often found myself focusing more on the brilliance of Dazai’s narrative techniques than on the characters he created. I don’t know to what extent my experience reflects the translation (I read Keene’s), but your essay has certainly made me wish I had the language skills to read it in Japanese.

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