Not long ago I wrote an essay on why some bad-to-mediocre books make good movies, and also why some good-to-excellent books get made into terrible movies. It is, I fear, far easier to do the latter than the former, because what makes a book great on the page almost never translates directly into action on the screen. This goes double for any novel where the majority of the action is in the narrator’s head (The Killer Inside Me), or where perspective and point of view matter to the telling (The Handmaid’s Tale). There are some things you simply can’t show, and any good movie (along with any good book) will know what’s worth telling and what’s worth showing.
No Longer Human is not so much unfaithful to its source material (the Osamu Dazai novel) as it is unjust to it. No adaptation should be this poor at communicating what it was about the original story that compelled several consecutive generations of Japanese to take it to heart. It does not make sense to take a work this inwardly-directed and turn it into a glossy period piece — all glittering Ginza back alleys and chintzy nightclubs — when the original could have cared less about such set dressing. It does not make sense to omit completely the narrator’s voice and inner monologue, which is what allows us to understand him, and where most of the story lie in the first place. It does not make sense to take one of Japan’s most significant postwar literary works, about a man’s alienation and psychological disintegration, and turn it into a story about a confused, aimless rich kid slumming it.
The basic story beats of the original novel aren’t hard to convert into a film, and most of them are in fact captured here. Young Yozo, the son of a wealthy Diet member in 1920s Japan, leaves home and finds himself sliding into decadence and self-destruction in the big city. He nearly dies in a double suicide, recovers to sponge off a succession of women, eventually settles down with a young naïf and more or less straightens his life out, but tragedy envelopes him once again.
What’s not made clear is why Yozo is so inept with his life. Al of the clues we have to Yozo’s behavior — everything he told us in the book in his own words — are missing from the story. When Yozo hooks up with a bar girl and they pledge to commit suicide together, the psychological context is all but gone: we’ve not been told, or shown, how Yozo’s behavior is almost entirely driven by his anxieties and apprehensions about other people. Instead we get the kind of moment-by-moment meticulousness that passes for “fidelity” in most misguided literary adaptations.
Scene after scene, the same problem returns. We see Yozo behaving a certain way, but all the context we need to understand him has been dumped wholesale from the story. And what about all the other material that just seems to have been shoehorned in for no good reason — like a bit with some geishas and a malfunctioning radio that just goes on and on, or various “lyrical” interludes that bring the story to a crawl at best and stand as a complete betrayal of the original story’s tone at worst? Usamaru Furuya modified the original novel for his excellent manga adapatation, but he had the good sense to preserve Yozo’s bitter internal monologue; without that, you don’t have the same story, or indeed any story at all.
The pedigree on this film should have been unimpeachable. The director was Genjiro Arato, who produced Seijun Suzuki’s astonishing “Taisho Trilogy” films (Zigeunerweisen, etc., about which I must write one of these years). He’s brought a convincing period gloss to the production: everything from the cigarette packs to the cuts of the actors’ clothing are all spot-on. But, again, this story never worked as a period piece — it’s more Requiem for a Dream than The Great Gatsby, so all that sexy set design is wasted here.
Perhaps their mistake was in assuming the main audience for this film (i.e., modern Japanese viewers) would know the book’s internal rhythms by heart, and would be able to hum that music on their own instead of having the movie slavishly supply it for them. But what they ended up with not only had almost nothing to do with its source material, but has little reason to exist on its own either. Can you imagine what Nagisa Oshima or even Takashi Miike would have done with this material? One thing’s for sure: they wouldn’t have given us anything nearly this boring.