4 out of 5
Osamu Dazai’s novel ‘No Longer Human’ is a huge-selling, very well regarded novel in Japan, and it’s clear why horror manga artist Junji Ito would be interested in adapting it. While many of Ito’s tales spring from the most frightfully surreal imagery or concepts, they are often rooted in or tied to very human concerns: of how we’re perceived; of our legacies. There’s also, I’d say, a rather strong focus on women as sources of the evils in Ito’s tales, directly or indirectly – to a bothersome point, I’d say – as well as exacerbating a common discomfort into something extreme. And all of these concepts are well applied to the life of Ōba Yōzō in No Longer Human, who struggles through his existence trying to maintain a facade of pleasantness in order to avoid the burden of any responsibility (small or large), while also literally ruining others’ lives in his harried avoidance of saying ‘no’ to anyone.
Yōzō imagines his being as weighed down by ten miseries; over the course of these 600 pages, tracking the man from his youth through his schooling, to his college years, to working as a nearly successful manga artist, and then eventually a lout – a cheater; an alcoholic; a drug addict – we eventually have these miseries defined: his mother; his father; being born… all the greatest hits. ‘No Longer Human’ is not quite a pleasant journey in that regard. But we seem to like these stories, watching someone crash and burn, and can find their parallel in biopics of those who fall prey to one addiction or another – which, as mentioned, Yōzō does eventually as well – but Ito (and presumably Dazai, if we assume this adaptation is true to the source material) differentiates it from that path by normalizing the trigger events that push Yōzō to his decisions, making the eventual tragedies he inflicts that much more harrowing. That does make the introduction of the book a little rocky, as it jumps right in to Ōba talking about his miseries, and about pretending to be a ‘clown’ in order to duck out of the expectations of being ‘respected,’ and doesn’t quite strike the right tone to convince us that this act doesn’t make him a fool but rather incredibly desired. A common occurrence in the book is that women just fall for Ōba, and it’s hard to piece this together with the silly, butt-of-the-joke kid we’re shown. But soon enough it becomes clearer that Yōzō’s biggest “flaw” is wanting to be liked by everyone, and it becomes so ingrained that even at his absolute worst, he cannot avoid ingratiating himself to others.
Ito depicts Ōba’s nightmares and the bloody events that tatter his life with his usual detail and moodiness; when Ōba produces some select paintings which capture his true fears and feelings, Ito is able to put his all into them so they have true impact in the story.
While the character’s father can be said to be one of the main and initial sources of all his paranoia, women throughout the book are very much blamed for “putting” Ōba into uncomfortable positions, or for “cheating” on him – the quotes of which are understandable when those scenes are read in context – and become crazed with possessiveness and jealousy that twinges the character’s kneejerk need to escape, thus causing some new mess as a result. Some of this – the relationship of husband and wife; the women’s “place” in a Japanese home – is cultural, perhaps, and some of it can likely be attributed to the book, but Ito also has a habit of this point of view in his own stories, so it’s hard not to assume some of these feelings may belong to him as well.
…Which is one of the more interesting, or possibly divisive, things about ‘No Longer Human:’ it doesn’t seem to be telling us this tale as a story with a moral, or even as a condemnation of the damning requirements of family and society that set Ōba on his path. It doesn’t seem apologetic for its sins, or its possible judgements. Ito’s twist on the original, which brings author Osamu Dezai himself into the narrative, seems especially geared more toward perpetuating a sense of never-ending horror, which is absolutely a common theme in Ito’s work, bringing this adaptation fully in line with that.
In short: ‘No Longer Human’ is depressing as hell, and scary as hell in how easily Ōba descends into depravities following some emotions to which I think most of us can relate… It’s masterfully illustrated by Junji Ito, the world and characters and Yōzō’s internal frights brought fully to life, and packaged in a sturdy, readable hardcover by VIZ. If you like Ito, this is a new – but still familiar – breed of his horror; if you like the book, I’d say the visualization of it, as well as Ito’s additions to the story, would seem to make it into a wholly new beast without enough thematic ties to the source material to remain true to it. The ‘meaning’ is questionable, but that can be part of the fun of such depressing missives.