Back before No Longer Human had even its first volume released in English, I went and copped all three volumes of the original untranslated Japanese edition. I read the first two of them back-to-back on one train ride back home, and I read the third a month or two later, while sitting in Bryant Park on a cool autumn afternoon (an incongruous setting for enjoying such a punishing piece of work). In short, I knew what I was getting myself into when Vertical, Inc.’s English translation arrived, but that didn’t make the experience any less emotionally shattering.
It says something that I can finish the story, find flaws with it that bothered me on a conceptual or dramatic level, and yet still see the whole as being unassailable. I’ve since found that’s the only sort of perfect you’re likely to get in this world: one where you can see something’s flaws all the more clearly because you love the whole, and in the end you forgive the whole those flaws because the entire package is worth the effort.
It took some work on my part to reach that conclusion. I know all too well how attached I am to Osamu Dazai’s original novel, and how any adaptation is likely to gall me because they did this and not that, etc. There is at least as much of Furuya in this story as there is Dazai, and once I accepted that his choices made more sense. The original story is only as sacred as we want it to be, and it’s best to see it as a starting line for a journey rather than a box for something to be packed into and shipped somewhere. Furuya saw it in that light, and that was why I found his version far more rewarding in the long run than the slavishly faithful film version (or the alternate manga edition by East Press). There was more room for him to work — and also that much more room for us to reflect on what he’d created.
The end of the last volume showed inveterate self-destroyer Yozo reaching something like a high point in his life. He has sworn off alcohol and tobacco, married a naïve young girl (who worked at the smoke shop he patronized, no less), and cleaned up his life as a way of doing right by her. He has, up to this point in his life, never had someone of that grade of genuine innocence be close to him. Her presence has given him something to work for.
This woman, Yoshino, is “a genius at trusting”, as Yozo puts it. When Yozo confesses about his attempted suicide to her, she responds not with shock or ostracism but love and forgiveness. Even when Yozo disappears for an overnight spell of drinking and clowning around with his former keeper Shizuko (in the company of his old buddy Horiki), it does nothing to damage her trust in him.
What Yozo fails to notice — or, rather, does his best to ignore — is the jealousy that others begin to feel for him. His friend Horiki’s struggling as an illustrator, while Yozo’s got a thriving career as a manga artist and is happily married to a gorgeous woman. It never occurs to Yozo that the whole reason Horiki takes him back to Shizuko for the above-mentioned night out (even though it’s at Shizuko’s behest) might be to drag Yozo that much more further downwards. But Horiki is shameless enough to confess his own jealousy: he does so one night at Yozo’s house, while a fireworks display is bursting over the city. “You killed a woman; you use your looks to sponge off women; your manga bamboozles kids … A guy like you is a criminal.” Those shots strike home. Even after all this time, on some level, Yozo considers himself evil — someone who only deserves the jealousy leveled against him, someone ripe for overdue punishment.
He gets that punishment — or, rather, it’s aimed at him in the form of an attack on his wife. In a horrific scene taken from the novel almost verbatim, Horiki alerts Yozo to Yoshino being raped in their own kitchen. The rapist is another victim of jealousy, Yozo’s own editor at the manga company, venting his jealousy at Yozo and his frustration over having been abruptly let go. More subtle, and even more disturbing, is the way Horiki uses the whole thing as a form of revenge: he is the first one to discover it, but instead of intervening runs upstairs and drags Yozo down to witness it. Yozo, needless to say, does nothing: he collapses and weeps. It’s bad enough that his trust in humanity has been devastated once again; it’s even worse that it has happened through someone like Yoshino, who has done nothing to deserve such a blow.
From here on out Yozo’s life heads into steady decline. The peculiar genius of the story — something due at least as much to Furuya as Dazai — is how at each step down we are given just enough false hope to believe things will indeed be all right. Consider the scene that takes place after the assault: Yoshino has cut her hair to avoid attracting attention (further evidence in Yozo’s eyes of her spiritual defilement); Yozo himself cannot work, and he’s even gone gray overnight from the shock. He runs from the house and tries to drink himself into a stupor, but instead finds himself talking to a friendly immigrant, Nasir (an Iranian, most likely). Furuya then gives us Yozo rushing back to the house — all liveliness and forgiveness, throwing himself into his work with enough gusto to meet his deadline with a single day’s work. Everyone is happy. Then he sequesters himself in the bathroom, takes out a lighter, and begins cooking up. Nasir is a drug dealer, and Yozo’s newfound energy is courtesy of a burgeoning crank addiction — all of which we learn in a subsequent, interleaved set of flashbacks.
The rest of the ride down has the same rhythm: a ghastly plunge into the abyss interrupted only by the occasional moment to stop, breathe, and believe that Yozo might in fact save himself. His drug use ruins his comic career: he submits an incoherent story about alternate dimensions that has his editor boggling (this sequence is funny and sad at the same time). His wife discovers she is pregnant, but refuses to abort the baby for fear of being cut off by her already-intemperate father. His drug habit worsens. His paranoia spirals. The two fuse and bloom into a full-on hallucinatory assault. And yet somehow out of all this Furuya still manages to provide us with a plateau, a sense that maybe, just maybe, the good we’ve seen here and there in Yozo (even if he staunchly refuses to believe in it) will save him.
When I read the first volume of the manga, I noted that very few of the story’s details needed to be changed to make it fit in the present day. This says at least as much about the timelessness of the original novel as it does about Japan’s relative social inertia (or maybe social inertia, period). Again, it’s not as if the original novel should have been treated as a sacred text; that would have been boring, and the limited results exhibited by the other adaptations of the book that tried to do just that are proof of such.
The major changes mostly involve plot details that needed modernizing or compressing to work a little more fluidly, but a few of the really major bits of plot surgery actually work better than the original. Example: in the original novel, Yoshino’s rapist was a cipher; here, his role has been filled by one of Furuya’s own invented characters. It works, since it has the effect of throwing Yozo’s helplessness in the face of human duplicity into that much sharper relief. As in the book, when confronted with the sight of Yoshino being attacked, all he can do is stand there and think: This is what human beings are like. Also, the whole “game of comic and tragic nouns” that Yozo and Horiki invent while drinking (right before Yoshino’s assault) has been ditched, and the story is no worse for it.
Some of the other cleanups are mostly for the sake of plausibility, but have other, unintended effects. The (female) pharmacy owner in the original, whom Yozo seduces for the sake of easy access to morphine while in the depths of his drug habit, has been replaced with a (male) drug dealer. What was once about his exploitive relationships with women, a constant theme in the story, has been switched out and not directly replaced with anything. But some of his exploitive attitudes towards women in this part of the story have been reworked into something even viler: a hair-raising scene (not in the original) where he attempts to prostitute Yoshino to a total stranger, only to think better of it.
Some things have, inexplicably, gone all but missing. In the original novel, Yozo reveals early on that he was continually molested by a female servant in his father’s household as a child, and was unable to do anything about it. In this version, that entire theme has been reduced to a single throwaway line uttered by Yozo, and delivered in such a way that we don’t know if it’s just another aspect of his drug-induced delirium or a cry of truth from the blood. There’s some follow-up later on during his final hallucination sequence — a bravura bit that again brings to mind the first-person psychosis in Requiem for a Dream — but it’s done in such an oblique way that you might miss it. If you know nothing about the original story, it’s puzzling; if you do, it’s downright frustrating.
I suspect this is a consequence of Furuya more or less jettisoning the entire first third or so of the story, which deals with Yozo’s childhood — all we see here is the occasional flashback. Perhaps Furuya backed away from addressing the whole thing out of fear of seeming exploitive, but — oh, irony — the generally inferior East Press manga adaptation didn’t flinch from this part of the story, and managed not to seem exploitive either. It’s not a throwaway element, either: a close reading of the original indicates that Yozo’s behavior makes a great deal more sense in the light of such an early violation of trust. To simply throw it overboard wholesale — or, worse, replace it with what amounts to a footnote — is a mistake.
But then there’s the whole rest of the story. I can’t ignore the fact that so much of what is here does work, and works so well that it almost makes such issues irrelevant. I spent the first two volumes operating under the assumption that the material about Yozo’s childhood abuse had been jettisoned, and read it in that light. Here is this man, with these attitudes towards his fellow men (and women); see what will become of him. Plus, the original story used Yozo’s mistreatment at the hands of the servants as part of his general falling-out of trust with humanity, and the consequences of that form the real heart of this story in the first place.
One of the biggest signs that Furuya has been able to do justice to the majority of this story’s spirit is in the wraparound story — a device in the original story that’s been replicated here, and in such an audacious way that at first I did not think it would work. In the novel, an unnamed narrator supplies us with a foreword and afterword that bookend the main story (told from Yozo’s point of view in a series of notebooks). Here, the bookending narrator is Furuya. I resisted this at first, but it’s kept unobtrusive until the conclusion, where he follows in the steps of the original story and speaks to those who knew Yozo. All of them speak only of the Yozo that they were allowed to see — in the words of the barmaid, “a good boy, an angel”, and like the unnamed narrator in the original he is moved by a sense of there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I to put Yozo’s story onto paper.
In an afterward, Furuya explains his own connections to the original work — how as a younger man, like millions of other Japanese, he found an emotional connection to the story. (The book has something of the same status there as Catcher in the Rye does here, and for some of the same reasons.) He laments of there being a despair in the original story that he felt he was unable to convey here — a statement I took to be a fairly typical bit of creator’s self-deprecation.
Then again, Furuya has done something other than reproduce the original. He has recreated it on his own, very worthwhile terms, something every generation does with a great work when they approach it. And right at the end Furuya drops on our heads a coda of his own invention — one where we see how Yozo has, quite literally, trashed himself. Even from here, he still has room to fall. For some people there is no bottom. There is only down.