I am surrounded by psychotics. Often I suspect I am one. Then certain records come out and I know I am not alone. — Lester Bangs
I’ll start with the soundbite. No Longer Human may be the single finest manga adaptation yet produced of any Japanese literary work. It stays faithful to the original in the ways that matter, it breaks free and finds its own idiom in ways that pay off, and it remains one of the most devastating stories committed to paper in any language. It is nothing short of Japan’s Requiem for a Dream, manga-style, with all the emotional ferocity implied by such a comparison. I remember a record review (for the Firesign Theatre, I think) that read, simply, “Horrifying, death-dealing, life-enhancing.” Those words fit here as well.
If art is about anything, it is about shouting across a void. I do not believe in life after death in the conventional sense of the term, but I do believe in the possibility of transcending death, of immortality through one’s works. It shakes me to the core to open a book written by someone long dead and feel as if they were seated next to me, speaking into my ear.
The books I find myself revisiting the most draw me back in again and again precisely because they imbue me with this feeling. When I first read Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human, I could scarcely believe the man had been dead for decades. He was speaking to me in a voice that was completely contemporary, and speaking about things which seemed too private to ever have been anyone else’s domain. I came back to the book time and again, at different phases in my life — some good, some bad — and at each turn I saw something new in the story and something new of myself reflected in it. Like Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, one of the few other works to do the same thing to me, I suspect I will be reading No Longer Human up until the day I die.
Something about the book resonated with the rest of Japan as well, for ever since its original publication in 1948 it has gone on to sell twelve million copies in its native land, and many more elsewhere in translation. A generation numbed by the devastation of war took it to heart, and now another generation of disaffected youth feeling shut out from partaking in Japan’s prosperity is starting to do the same. Here was a book which presented the reader with the unsparing story of a man’s self-destruction, which offered no sociological bromides, no coy rationalizations, no easy answers of any kind. The book was not meant to be analyzed, but empathized with. If you came away from No Longer Human musing that the poor narrator might have turned out okay if only he’d gotten the right sort of therapy for his problem, you’d have missed the point. Dazai was a romantic through and through, and part of the romantic worldview is that for some problems there simply are no solutions.
Such a view stands in stark contrast to today’s impossibly upbeat society — whether American or Japanese — where almost all problems have a solution (typically a technical one), where the experience of despair is treated like a bad smell to be routed by cloying spiritual perfumes, and where we pave over the mess and bother of life a little too neatly for our own good. To that end, No Longer Human spoke of a great many things I had somehow sensed were true but which had never been put into so many words. What’s more, the book mattered, where so many other books simply seemed designed to fill a space on a shelf or a few hours of one’s time.
Small wonder when I heard a manga version of the story was being produced by Lychee Light Club creator Usamaru Furuya, I was guardedly optimistic. Furuya seemed like the right man for the job, but there were still many ways it could go wrong. It wasn’t until I ran out and bought the original untranslated volumes of the manga that my doubts were put to rest. Now the series is being published by Vertical Inc. in English, who once again demonstrate they have more taste in a single season of their backlist than most publishers have in their whole catalog.
No Longer Human, the manga, feels not so much like a living creator interpreting a dead man’s work as it does a collaboration between two men, one living and one long dead. Furuya started with Dazai’s original and moved it into the present day (the original was set in the 1920s and 1930s), but what’s startling is how little he needed to change. Most of the plot points, beats, emotional revelations and sheer heartbreak of the original have been not only preserved intact but expanded on in ways that wholly complement the story.
Furuya even keeps the same framing device that opened and closed the novel. In the original, an unnamed narrator describes three photos of the same man as a young boy, a teenager, and a grown man, each one radiating their own peculiar kind of strangeness and horror. The bulk of the story is then told in the form of several confessional notebooks kept by the man in the photos.
In the manga, Furuya himself is the unnamed narrator, clicking around idly on the Internet for inspiration while trying to come up with a storyline for his new comic. He blunders across a website with the same three photos and the same confessional writing. (The notebooks are now a blog, one of the very few topical changes to the story.) The confessor is one Yozo Oba: son of affluence, class clown, successful student and everyone’s source of good times. But the smiles and jokes are a façade, a way to keep everyone around him at arm’s length. There is no part of his outward personality that is not a product of relentless calculation and second-guessing. Human beings are frightening to him — capricious and unpredictable, mysterious and ultimately alien. (At times Furuya turns the faces of everyone around Yozo into smeared eyeless masks, like the anonymized students in Pink Floyd The Wall who go into the meatgrinder.) The effort required to maintain the front is exhausting.
He enrolls in art school. Before long he’s made a friend of sorts there: Masao Horiki — the loudmouth, the horn-dog, the drinker and, yes, clown. Except that Horiki doesn’t seem to be hiding anything with his jokes, and for the first time Yozo feels halfway comfortable around another person. They get drunk together, visit prostitutes together, but their togetherness is hollow: they’re getting very different things out of the same experiences. During one visit to a soapland club, Yozo underscores all the lubricious goings-on with commentary that makes it seem about as erotic as changing a tire: “I hand over my money and satisfy my desires. There is no troublesome process here.” The less he has to deal with other people as people — especially women — the better. It saves him the trouble of actually having to figure out what they want, even if he’s got precisely the kind of shy, handsome, genial qualities that turn him into a chick magnet. When one of the soapland girls tries to hook up with him outside of work, he throws her number away. The last thing he wants is anything that “ordinary” and therefore “beyond [his] comprehension.”
The problem is Yozo doesn’t know what he wants. It may not be possible for him to know, adrift as he is, clinging to Horiki like a drowning man hugging a piece of debris. When Horiki introduces him to a radical political group by way of a girl he dated, Yozo finds he likes the frisson of criminal activity. He tells himself he’s comfortable there, that he’s even happy, but it’s clear these are just rationalizations as well: he isn’t interested in politics as such (although he talks a good game to get in with the group, much as his clowning was used to buy acceptance with his fellow students), and he has mostly contempt for the other members of his cell. Except maybe for Misaki, the girl Horiki was eyeing, and over time it becomes clear Yozo thinks of her entirely in opportunistic terms. She dotes on him, and Yozo quickly realizes he can exploit her kindness. He has never had a single relationship that was not either parasitic or sadistic, and we see how his father’s domineering behavior primed him for such things. In one of the book’s many ingenious visualizations, Yozo sees himself as nothing more than his father’s marionette — quite literally so, with nothing but one of his wires (a single grainy line of white against equally grainy darkness) taking up an entire two-page spread.
Yozo winds up exploiting Misaki’s kindness a good deal more thoroughly when he’s booted out of his apartment and forced to fend for himself on a pittance of an allowance. He uses Misaki to survive, to have something like companionship, to wring from her money and a laptop computer and eventually sex as well. That last turns out to be his undoing: Misaki is the girlfriend of Sasaki, the cell leader, and one night Yozo finds himself climbing out the window of his own apartment when Sasaki bangs on the door. He ends up in a hostess club, where he gives the girl he meets his last thousand-yen bill and soon finds himself taken in by her — “taken in”, like a stray dog, like something not quite sentient. And yet he feels genuine affection for her, maybe because they are both rejects of their own kind.
The girl, Ageha, also dotes on him. She gives him money, which only depresses him further when he discovers he’s been completely disowned by his father: all he’s managed to do is trade up one kind of dependency for another. He crosses paths with Horiki again, who’s stunned to discover how far his friend has fallen — but who also seems incapable of relating to him as anything but a source of compulsive good times. They end up back in Ageha’s club, drunk, where Horiki paws her and slobbers over her but then pushes her away: she’s too much of a “sad-sack” for him. So that’s the kind of woman I’ve ended up loving, Yozo thinks, and drinks himself blind. The one woman he cares about has a grip on life that’s even more tenuous than his own, and soon there is a moment when the two of them are on the beach, staring at the water, and then wading in together hand-in-hand and pushing each other under. (This incident, like many in the story, mirrored Dazai’s own life closely enough that people considered the book to be an autobiography — or even a suicide note, given the timing of his death.)
Furuya sensed (correctly) that a story like this needed to contrast the objective world with Yozo’s own subjective impressions. He switches adeptly between both modes: when Yozo yuks it up for the class, his fellow students (all “ordinary”) appear as yearbook photos that distort and become eyeless phantasms. When Yozo becomes consumed with thoughts of his father in the middle of a discussion, he transforms into a marionette as mentioned above — the image of which returns time and again as the embodiment of Yozo’s sense of alienation. The artwork switches between straightforward, strong-lined, relatively conventional manga stylization and heavy, black-backgrounded, chiaroscuro-style shading that feels like darkness is closing over all the characters (or at the very least staining them permanently). It echoes Yozo’s own sense of being divided against himself and split off from the rest of the world. There’s the reality everyone else sees, and then the reality only he sees, and there’s only room enough for one of them in the end.
I know just enough Japanese to get into trouble, but not always out of it again. For that reason I’m going to admit that I’m sticking my neck out a bit when I say that I’ve read the original novel in both Japanese and English, and wondered if a new translation of the book might be in order. This isn’t to say that Donald Keene did a poor job when he translated the book into English — only that (as I noted previously) in the fifty years since the original translation was created our sense of what’s acceptable in a translation has also moved on. So when Dazai writes of a flock of birds in a formation that suggest the character for woman (女) and Keene translates that as “flying by in a line which somehow suggested the curve of a woman’s body”, it’s hard not to feel like too many liberties are being taken.
But an adaptation isn’t a translation, and so there’s more latitude to change things without breaking them entirely. Most of how Furuya brought the story into the modern age required very little tinkering, and the changes all make sense. I mentioned how the notebooks became a blog: they could have worked as handwritten notebooks as well, but as a blog it’s not only that much more modern but that much more icy, remote, and anonymous. Likewise, Yozo’s encounters with prostitutes are almost entirely unchanged, or his experiences in school or with the waitress he becomes involved with. The radical Marxist cell in the original is … a radical Marxist cell once again, albeit with some additional plot complications that weren’t present before.
What’s striking so far is how some things have been strategically dropped from the story, with little lost along the way. Almost all of the first notebook — Yozo’s early childhood; his mistreatment at the hands of a female servant; his being “exposed” in his clowning by a classmate, Takeichi — has been eliminated or only referenced in passing. It makes the story that much more compact, and it also saves Furuya the trouble of figuring out how to dramatize many passages that are as discursive and one-sided as the monolithic first portion of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I’m worried that dropping some of those elements may harm the story in the long run: the scene with Takeichi, for instance, is crucial because it shows how paranoid Yozo is about his sense of self, even at a very young age. But for every one of those, there are three things that have been kept marvelously intact, like Horiki’s drunken manhandling of Ageha and his follow-up line about he “can’t kiss a girl who stinks of poverty.”
That brings me back to translation yet again. Even though there are many sections that follow the book almost word-for-word — Horiki’s groping, or Yozo’s speech about how man a loses confidence as a lover when he’s broke — I didn’t expect them to be rendered the same way as in Keene’s English translation of the novel. The translator, Allison Markin Powell, doesn’t seem to have used the Keene translation as a guide and instead worked directly from the text on the page. Her work is precise and spot-on, and doesn’t live in the shadow of Keene’s work at all. When Yozo hallucinates while drowning, he thinks “Dad — your plaything just broke…” The word in the original is omocha (“toy”), but “plaything” conveys exactly the right degree of patronization, condescension and contempt that he imagines his father feels for him. It’s a fine example of how one word can convey such a useful shade of meaning. On the other hand, Horiki’s post-grope line is now “I can’t kiss with a sad-sack girl like her anyway.” It doesn’t have the same haughty smarm as “a girl who stinks of poverty”, but it’s a lot easier to see “sad-sack girl” coming out of Horiki’s mouth than anything that sounds so self-consciously literary in English. (In Japanese, and especially in 1920-something, it probably sounds far more plausible.) But these are all my own nitpicks; the translation as a whole is effortlessly readable.
Something else that did make me prickle a bit is the way No Longer Human was localized as a left-to-right publication. Rather than flop the artwork themselves or print the book right-to-left, Vertical chose to let Furuya supply them with pre-flopped, pre-corrected images. It works most of the time, but there are a few minor places where Furuya goofed — and many places where the fact that people are suddenly left-handed, that keys are on the wrong sides of keyboards, etc. stand out rather starkly. I understand left-to-right printings have far better chances of selling well, that Furuya himself most likely wanted it this way, and that there have been many other comics printed left-to-right without major damage being done to their presentation. (The apex of such work is most likely Blade of the Immortal.) But there’s some part of me that still feels it would have been easier to leave things as-is, if only because this may be the first, last and only version of this comic to appear in English, and it behooves us to get it as right as possible the first time.
2009 was Osamu Dazai’s 100th birthday, and a flood of media events were coordinated to coincide with that date. Among them was a live-action version of No Longer Human, an animated adaptation, and another manga version which was created as part of a manga series (by East Press / Variety Art Works) designed to bring classic literature to a broader audience. (Among the other titles in that series: Ulysses and Mein Kampf. Yes.) I stumbled across a copy of the East Press manga in a Japanese bookstore the same day I’d received my review copy of the Furuya version, and the two couldn’t be more unalike. The East Press edition settles for a simple, lockstep retelling of the story in its original period. It makes a valiant attempt to preserve some of the original story’s heart of darkness, but it’s hidebound by fairly pedestrian artwork, and in the end it doesn’t have a tenth of the impact of Furuya’s telling.
Addendum 2012/03/03: I've found yet another manga adaptation also exists, which I haven't yet had the chance to examine in detail.
I wrote a while back that I no longer subscribe to the idea that the more “impact” something has, the more valuable it is as art. A story can have great impact on first reading, only to diminish as the novelty wears out. What made the original No Longer Human so great — and what has been carried forward into this version — is not just the fact that it has such an impact, but that it uses its impact to connect to things that haven’t diminished with the passage of time. Yozo does terrible, cowardly things: he runs out on Misaki; he exploits the other women in his life; he lets himself be exploited by those around him. But because we see the gears turning from the inside, we understand even if we don’t approve — and, on top of that, we want to know more. We dare ourselves to wonder if somehow he will climb out of his abyss and move that much closer to humanity.
We are moved most profoundly by tragedy not because pain is more worthy of art than joy, but because it’s loss (and, perhaps, the salvation and redemption that can come afterwards) that inspires us to reflect and understand far more deeply than simply winning. That and pain is no less legitimate a subject than joy — and, like joy, it is all too easily expressed in art through any number of unworthy devices. It’s easy enough to simply make the reader feel happy or miserable, and less easy to tie what they’re feeling into the meaning of the work itself.
But I go by Roger Ebert’s comment that no truly good film (or work) is depressing; only the bad ones are depressing. Great art, no matter how much sadness it encompasses, is exhilarating because it showcases people working at the top of their game. That by itself is redemptive.