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small image Thoughts on No Longer Human

June 15, 2012 11:55 pm by small image

Since I found the story of No Longer Human so interesting in its Aoi Bungaku anime adaptation, I decided to rent the original book and give it a read. The story was written by Osamu Dazai in 1948, and the English translation I read was done by Donald Keene in 1958. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on this work of literature, and note a few things regarding the anime version (which we watched during our first month of Anime Watchers Club).

No Longer Human begins with an unnamed author/narrator commenting on three photographs he has acquired of the story’s protagonist, Oba Yozo. (One of the photos is the one the anime showed of Yozo as a child with a forced grin, while everyone else in the photo wore plain faces.) The story is then divided into three “notebooks” that the narrator acquired along with the photos, which are Yozo’s recount of his life.

No Longer Human starts from Yozo’s childhood and goes through his life from beginning to end, unlike Aoi Bungaku’s version which starts near the end of notebook one (and then includes flashbacks to fill us in on his childhood a bit). Yozo strongly emphasizes fearing human beings and playing the role of a clown throughout his life. The incident with the lion mask (which was vague in the anime) was an instance to show how he was unable to make decisions for himself. His father had asked what Yozo would like from the city, and Yozo was unable to choose anything. The father decides on getting Yozo a book (which he notes down), and though Yozo does not care about what he gets, he feels distraught for not having the will to make a decision. He tries to rectify the situation in the night by writing down “lion mask” in his father’s notebook, which his father finds amusing the next day. The scene further emphasizes how many of Yozo’s actions were seen as silly, which always helped to keep his true self hidden from everyone.

“Though I have always made it my practice to be pleasant to everybody, I have not once actually experienced friendship… I have frantically played the clown in order to disentangle myself from these painful relationships, only to wear myself out as a result… I know that I am liked by other people, but I seem to be deficient in the faculty to love others. (I should add that I have very strong doubts as to whether even human beings really possess this faculty.)”

The desire to keep his true self a secret is a major point made throughout the book, as his greatest fear in life is for people to realize he’s not a legitimate human being. The boy Takeichi who notices Yozo’s act (ie playing the fool on purpose) only plays a role in Yozo’s childhood. Like in the anime, the boy is the only one to know of Yozo’s paintings which reflect Yozo’s “true” self. These are drawn in a “ghost-style” he describes as reminiscent of van Gogh, though it is only in the anime that we get to see the monster-like self-portrait. This haunting painting creature does not play any apparent role in the book, but it worked well as a metaphor in the anime, as befitting a visual medium.

Takeichi’s character remains present throughout Yozo’s life in the anime adaptation; in the original novel, Yozo’s “friend” is a fellow art student in college named Masao Horiki. This man introduces Yozo to alcohol, cigarettes, prostitutes, pawnshops, and the Communist “Reading Society.” In the book, Yozo is painted less as a theatrical trickster, and more of a begrudging gopher for the political “revolutionaries.” In time he has so many meaningless tasks he has to do, that he gets so sick of it all and decides to kill himself. It’s then that he runs into the waitress Tsuneko, who Yozo learns is also extremely unhappy. As they are both at the end of their rope, they decide to throw themselves into the sea. The anime was quite a bit more dramatic with all of this, which is understandable for the television/film medium. The book does emphasize, however, that this was the one woman Yozo felt he ever truly loved, and it seems it was primarily just from the fact that she was the only one he felt was truly as unhappy as he was.

The events that follow are quite similar to the anime. The man who watches over Yozo is always called “Flatfish” by Yozo (presumably having a fishlike face), and is described as someone crafty, sinister, and filled with contempt. Via Horiki Yozo comes across Shizuko, the woman who works for a magazine publisher (she had come for some of Horiki’s illustrations). Her husband had died three years ago, and is taking care of a five-year-old girl named Shigeko–and decides to take in Yozo as well. In the book, Shigeko calls Yozo “Daddy,” but still wishes to have her real Daddy back. As Yozo puts it, “I knew that from then on I would have to be timid even before that little girl.”

The theme of society is analyzed a bit differently in the original novel, I felt. Yozo remains in contact with Horiki, who over time becomes increasingly less pleasant with Yozo. Horiki states, “You must stop your fooling around with women. You’ve gone far enough. Society won’t stand for it.” Yozo’s analysis of this statement leads to his conclusion that society = Horiki, or whoever happens to be saying what society will or won’t stand for. In other words, society is just an individual, and it is at this point that Yozo becomes more self-willed. He becomes a ruffian and a drunkard (even more so than ever before). Once a year passes, he secretly watches Shizuko and Shigeko playing with a rabbit. Having sold more of Shizuko’s possessions at a pawn shop (to get more alcohol), Yozo realizes he will end up destroying Shizuko and Shigeko’s lives if he doesn’t leave. The end result is the same as the anime, but it was interesting to note the plainness to Yozo’s depressing descent in the novel.

While living a debased life at a bar for a year, Yozo turns to pornographic drawings to earn his booze money. As you may know from the anime, Yoshiko tries to persuade Yozo to stop drinking, since it’s obviously destroying his life. (Yozo’s meetings with Yoshiko occur before he leaves Shizuko in the anime, to make for a quicker transition into the next part of the story.) Yozo describes Yoshiko as a naive girl who is unable to recognize how terrible of a monster he is, and on a complete whim decides to marry her, envisioning a blissful life with a girl who possesses uncorrupted virginity (on multiple levels). “The joy I obtained as a result was not necessarily great or savage, but the suffering which ensued was staggering–so far surpassing what I had imagined that even describing it as ‘horrendous’ would not quite cover it.”

In the novel, we get some more scenes with Horiki, including a discussion involving a game where nouns are given, and it must be guessed whether or not each word is a “tragic noun” or a “comic noun.” There is also a game where they take a word and decide what its antonym would be, and it is through this game that Yozo realizes how even his “best friend” actually holds Yozo in contempt deep down.

The climactic scene in the final episode of the anime adaptation is similar to how it is in the book. Yozo is petrified by the sight of Yoshiko with another man (a shopkeeper who Yozo drew cartoons for), but we don’t get answers for why this situation came about. Instead, Yozo is entirely depressed by what he has lost, rather than actually being upset with the circumstances. It is not Yoshiko’s defilement that pains Yozo, but the defilement of her trust in others–and it is this facet of Yoshiko’s personality that Yozo was thoroughly engrossed by. Yozo is also pained by how Yoshiko is no longer the same, now constantly in a state of anxiety (likely worried that Yozo is displeased with her, as Yozo is unable to forgive nor not forgive her).

One night Yozo decides to down a bottle of sleeping pills and ends up in the hospital. He follows this by becoming even more of a drunkard, no longer able to fight the world or his own vices. A pharmacist woman is adamant to get him to stop drinking, and gives him morphine to help him combat his alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, Yozo ends up abusing his morphine intake and gets addicted to that instead, sending him even deeper into this self-perpetuating suicidal cycle. “Living itself is the source of sin,” as he puts it.

“I had become a madman. Even if released, I would be forever branded on the forehead with the word ‘madman,’ or perhaps, ‘reject.’ Disqualified as a human being. I had now ceased utterly to be a human being.”

Rather than dying as he did in the anime, the book continues on with Yozo’s downfall. Flatfish and Hiroki take Yozo to a sanatorium just before Yozo executes his plan to kill himself. He is in misery as a reject, and the news of his father’s death only makes him suffer even more. The pressure of his unloving father–that looming, familiar, frightening, and constant presence in Yozo’s heart–is suddenly lifted without warning and without fanfare, and he states “I had lost even the ability to suffer.” Three years pass and Yozo is placed in a house. Yozo’s narrative ends thusly: “This year I am twenty-seven. My hair has become much greyer. Most people would take me for over forty.”

The book then goes back to an epilogue with the author, as he speaks to the woman at the bar (who gave him Yozo’s notebooks and photographs). She got the materials in the mail ten years ago, and is unsure if Yozo is still alive or not. So rather than end with Yozo’s suicide, the book (cruelly?) has him live on in suffering at an insane asylum, and then on to some uncertain conclusion we’re left unaware of. The book ends with the bar woman giving some surprisingly positive words about Yozo:

“‘It’s his father’s fault,’ she said unemotionally. ‘The Yozo we knew was so easy-going and amusing, and if only he hadn’t drunk–no, even though he did drink–he was a good boy, an angel.'”

All in all I found No Longer Human to be a fascinating read. It is a short novel, so if you happen upon a copy of it, it won’t take you very long to read through it. Keep in mind that it is quite depressing, so I suggest not reading it if you’re already really depressed. That said, I think there are good things to glean from it. There is an introduction to the novel by the English translator, who gives his take on the story:

“It is the story of a man who is orphaned from his fellows by their refusal to take him seriously. He is denied the love of his father, taken advantage of by his friends, and finally in turn is cruel to the women who love him. He does not insist because of his experiences that the others are all wrong and he alone right. On the contrary, he records with devastating honesty his every transgression of a code of human conduct which he cannot fathom. Yet, as Dazai realized (if the “I” of the novel did not), the cowardly acts and moments of abject collapse do not tell the whole story. In a superb epilogue the only objective witness testifies, ‘He was an angel,’ and we are suddenly made to realize the incompleteness of Yozo’s portrait of himself. In the way that most men fail to see their own cruelty, Yozo had not noticed his gentleness and his capacity for love.” – Donald Keene

It is easy to see Yozo as an unreliable narrator, and thus it is impossible for us to truly know Yozo’s character. We like to believe that an individual would know himself or herself better than anyone else, but we only see ourselves through our own eyes (ie from one perspective). We can quite often be our own harshest critics, so it is difficult to say if Yozo was ever as bad as he claimed himself to be. How much of his “mask” was in fact his true personality? How much of what he perceived to be his true personality was simply his exaggerated perception of every one of his little flaws? If others are happy around him, doesn’t that make him a decent person to be around? So why is it that Yozo was always so certain that his true nature was so vile and inhuman? What made him believe he was devoid of genuine emotion?

Obviously these are questions that can be analyzed at great length, and it is likely that many different factors would have to be considered to answer any one of them. The events of Yozo’s childhood certainly had to play a role, but it’s clear that Yozo was certainly choosing the way he would react to each situation he dealt with, and his decisions led him down a road that regularly brought misery upon himself. Could he have overcome his series of tragedies and lived a happy life? I imagine it was always possible for him to change–but I don’t think it’s right to be quick to judge, considering just how difficult it can be for people to change aspects of their personalities, let alone their very natures.

Overall I feel No Longer Human was an excellent adaptation of the original novel. There are certainly differences in focus, plot, and perhaps even atmosphere, but I feel that the changes made are fitting for a visual medium such as an anime. The animation, music, voice acting, pacing, and imagery employed by Aoi Bungaku made for a very engrossing experience. I still feel it is worth reading the book though, as it goes much more into Yozo’s thoughts and feelings, and I found all the things he noted about people and society at large to be quite fascinating. There are also a lot of interactions with minor characters that are in the book but aren’t in the anime, and reading how he dealt with all these different people is fascinating in and of itself. I imagine everyone who reads the book will come to understand something different from it, and will perhaps find some connections with their own observations on life. At the very least, readers should be able to compare and contrast their own thoughts and feelings with Yozo’s, and I feel this is a major reason for the lasting impact of Dazai’s most famous work. From what I understand, his other novels are generally less disheartening and troubling than this one, so I hope to give some of his other texts a try one day to see what other perspectives he may have held throughout his life.