It's an old challenge, and a tough one. Take a story intimately familiar to its target audience, melt it down, and recast it in a form that will give it new life without destroying its meaning or subverting its intentions. Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, as familiar a story to modern Japan as The Great Gatsby is to the West, is one of the tougher test cases for such a reinvention, in big part because the novel's already received a superlative manga makeover courtesy of Usamaru Furuya. This version, created for the Aoi Bungaku series of anime adaptations of classic Japanese literature, doesn't try to one-up that project; it hews to and deviates from the original in its own satisfying ways. And while it doesn't carry the same total emotional wallop of the heartbreaking original, not much else in this world could.
To unbury the gems
No Longer Human is not so much tough to adapt as easy to render irrelevant. The story's sheer familiarity in Japan makes it something of a cliché there. Think of how works like Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird can become buried by their reputations and fail to connect with audience except as relics. Such easy, unemotional familiarity does the most damage when it's applied to a story meant to be a wellspring of emotion. Human is somewhere between Catcher in the Rye, Requiem for a Dream, and Notes from Underground, and such an amalgam deserves only to be honed, never blunted.
The third problem, and maybe toughest of all, is how to put one up on Furuya, or better yet how to recognize that one ought not to try. His manga version was brutally effective at conveying the original novel's sense of a free-fall into hell, but it also brought the story into the modern era to keep it from seeming bewhiskered or irrelevant. Not that this was all that hard to do; a big part of Human's value is how little of its insight depends on it being a product of its moment in time. But it still had to be done right, and Furuya's version avoided most of the ways it could have gone wrong. Another adaptation would benefit from not following it too closely.
As the first segment of Aoi Bungaku, No Longer Human doesn't try to earn comparisons with or take direct lessons from Furuya's version. For one, it leaves the story in its original setting of Japan's prewar 1930s, but doesn't allow the period trappings to run the show (as was the case with Genjiro Arato's lamentable 2010 live-action project). It also doesn't hesitate to compress timelines, reorganize events, and simplify relationships in the name of storytelling economy. Purism here would not have helped much; the most important things in a story like this aren't incarnate in being slavishly adherent to details anyway.
Dead man laughing
The original novel was a loosely autobiographical opening of the veins. In it, Dazai's narratorial alter ego Yozo Oba describes his "disqualification from humanity" (a more literal, less readable translation of the title) from childhood on out. The only defense he has against a world suffused with caprice and malice is to play the role of the fool, to take refuge in women who dote on him even if they smother him, to let himself be taken advantage of by friends rather than risk losing them. To stanch the pain, he turns first to alcohol, then morphine, and finally he takes refuge in a state that could be described as comfortable numbness. Dazai formatted this material in the form of a confessional diary, bookended with two segments written by someone who had discovered the notebooks and drawn his own conclusions about the author.
The anime ditches this literary framing device and plunges us straight into the action. It starts at around the thirty percent mark — or, to use screenwriting talk, the end of Act I, when the hero's crisis has been made clear. By that point, Yozo's been kicked out of his house, flunked out of school, fallen in with a circle of leftist agitators, and all but disowned by his wealthy and politically connected father. He finds comfort quite literally in the lap (and under the skirt) of a bar hostess with problems of her own, and the two of them attempt suicide together — but in Dazai's own words, "She died. I was saved."
Compressing and rearranging events are not the only ways this No Longer Human departs from its source. It also makes explicit many things only implied in the book that, and adds a few embellishments of its own to stack the deck further. In the novel, when Yozo attempts suicide by throwing himself into the sea with Tsuneko, the bar hostess, there's little ambiguity over what happens. In the anime, they take pills, the better to speed their drowning — but Tsuneko apparently incites Yozo to push her in first so she won't have second thoughts. He's horrified, and ends up vomiting up the drugs he's swallowed before falling into the ocean. For this he earns the badge "lady-killer" in the papers — something also in the original story, but underscored here all the more cruelly.
I normally wince at these kinds of tinkerings, because they often mean the story ends up having its greater meaning inadvertently altered, but this and the other changes like it in the anime are guided by the right sensibility. We are supposed to feel as ambivalent about Yozo as he does about himself, without completely losing our covenant with him. We know why he is this way, even if others do not.
Through the past darkly
Another major change woven throughout the anime is something that period productions often attempt to do, but rarely get right: use retrospective understanding of the period to comment on it, in this case the rising war mentality during the 1930s. Japan has always had difficulty facing up to the actions of its WWII regime, and much of the artistic response to such things came only decades later — e.g., Kinji (Battle Royale) Fukasaku's Under the Flag of the Rising Sun. Dazai lived through the war, but he dealt with it in his work mostly as a backdrop to his own tormented inner life, or, as James A. O'Brien noted in his monograph on Dazai, he "observed the contradiction ... [where] people who a few years back had worshiped the emperor now came forward as dyed-in-the-wool democrats." The actual political alignments in question meant less to him than the hypocrisy, or as O'Brien put it, the "selfishness of the people and the superficiality of their convictions."
The closest Dazai comes to saying anything about the whole matter in No Longer Human is by way of the narration in the epilogue, when the discoverer of Yozo's notebooks speaks of "the Japanese military clique ... first beginning to rampage in the open". In this No Longer Human, though, the creeping militarism of Japanese society through the 1930s is never far away. Radio reports and other background details create a sense that the society Yozo lives in has built itself on shifting sands. We are not arm-twisted into feeling that Yozo's sense of society from the novel, the way he finds it an incomprehensible mystery, now has a political dimension; we're permitted to connect those dots on our own or not, we choose.
The most visible way these rumblings of war manifest in the story is through Horiki, Yozo's artist friend and partner in dissipation. They show up mainly in a scene towards the end, a reworking of a pivotal moment in the novel when Yozo's wife — the one truly good person in his life, the one person who doesn't try to wring something from him — is sexually assaulted. Here, Horiki shows up after a long absence, head shaved in preparation for being sent off to war (presumably Manchuria). "The age of beasts is coming," he tells Yozo portentiously before leaving. "Soon everyone will no longer be human."
What hasn't changed, and what is delinated well, here, is what Horiki and Yozo are to each other. Yozo clings to Horiki, despite the way the other man treats him; he sponges off Yozo, even when the latter has to pawn his wife's robes to make ends meet. Why? Because better the devil you know than the devil you don't, the very definition of an abusive relationship. We aren't provided in this version with as many details about how the relationship started, but it turns out not to be that major an omission. It's the nature of their relationship that matters more, the subtly — sometimes not-so-subtly — abusive dynamic between them becomes clear in one moment after another. Look at the way Yozo shows up at Horiki's doorstep after escaping from what amounts to imprisonment by a friend of the family (for Yozo's own good, you see), and the way Horiki belittles him in front of a female guest — someone who knows slightly more about Yozo than most people would, and who becomes the next in the endless succession of women he dallies with.
The right hands on the tiller
I mentioned before that No Longer Human keeps the period setting of the novel, but doesn't make it into a "period piece". That is, the production values are on the high end of the spectrum for TV, but its 1930s Tokyo ambiance is not used as a way to duck out on the story's wormy truths about its character. It looks lovely — the use of smoky, diffused color is wonderful — but it doesn't feel like it's doing that to take the edge off. It works best when signature moments from the book — e.g., when it gives us the torn kite stuck in the telegraph wires outside Yozo's window (something literally every adaptation of this story has nodded at in one form or another) and turns it into a badge of doom. Less effective are moments that seem borrowed from the lazy iconography of middlebrow popular culture, as when Yozo imagines blood on his hands after having pushed Tsuneko to her death.
The one image that is most striking is an original creation for the film that stems from the book's ideas. It is an ugly, homunculus-like monster, the personification of Yozo's self-hatred. At first this gremlin doesn't seem to have any connection to the original material, and I was fine with that; let the filmmakers invent as they will, I thought. Then they do make a connection, by linking this image to Yozo's ambitions to be a painter, and the self-portraits he created and then hid from the world because they revealed too much. Furuya's manga version used Yozo's self-portrait as part of its visual design, but this version uses it as part of the actual narrative.
Top-shelf talent worked on the Aoi Bungaku productions. For the animation, there was MADHOUSE (REDLINE, Ninja Scroll, Paranoia Agent, Vampire Hunter D), and the director for No Longer Human was MADHOUSE's own Morio Asaka (Cardcaptor Sakura, Monster, Nana, Chihayafuru, My Love STORY!!). It also brought in Takeshi Obata (Death Note, et al.) for the character designs, also featured on the slipcovers for a reissue of the novel — something of the same tactic Penguin has used to draw people to its reissues of classics by cladding them with hip illustrations.
The one credit I think is most responsible for the success of this No Longer Human is screenwriter Satoshi Suzuki. His stints on the Ultraman and Saint Seiya franchises actually seem less relevant here than his mainstream live-action film credits: he wrote the blockbuster finance/crime thriller Jubaku: Spellbound, and several other projects of that caliber. The fact that the book doesn't lend itself easily to being filmed might actually have worked in his favor. He couldn't succumb to the easy temptation to do a steno job of the book's events, because that would have produced a story with no context, where nothing was enriched with the inner context provided by Yozo's point of view. That was the other big failing of Arato's movie version: it was all about the outside, not the inside, and that made no sense for a story about the weather of a man's soul.
When Dazai's book first appeared, it was read by a human race rather different from the one now, and especially by a Japan different from the one now. But the human race — the same human race Yozo lived in fear of — remains constant in ways that surprise us when we let our guard down to experience it. We still savor hearing of Gilgamesh and Ulysses, Lady Murasaki and the Wife of Bath, Hamlet and Tom Jones, the Underground Man and Mrs. Dalloway. The fire inside No Longer Human burns in a way I don't think is attributable alone to just centenniary reissue programs alone, and the way it has inspired not one but two independently admirable adaptations into different media seems to support that.