At this point I think it is safe to say Osamu Dazai's writing, especially his masterwork No Longer Human, are seen as "texts" or "sources" in their native Japan as they are works in themselves. Every staging of Shakespeare is as much about the staging as anything else, because we know the underlying material so well. Likewise, Dazai's been so widely read and adapted — as manga (multiple times), as anime, as live-action film, as live-action TV, as a cultural influence generally — that by now a "straight" reading of his work probably holds little appeal. What can be done with it, what can be developed from it, comes to the fore. Not always for the better, though.
HUMAN LOST — the title, in Romanji, comes from one of Dazai's own shorts — takes elements from No Longer Human and wires them into a cyberpunk setting akin to Project Itoh's Harmony. It posits an alternate present where sickness and aging have been technologized out of existence, but where the second-order effects of such things — like what to do about the fact that some people just plain have a death wish — haven't been handled as gracefully. Life without death is meaningless, but does that mean the only alternatives are stasis or suicide? The results are spectacular to look at and ambitious in concept, but what Dazai's name is doing on this material is another question entirely.
The curse of a long life
Anyone familiar with No Longer Human is best served by forgetting about the original as much as possible, at least while watching HUMAN LOST the first time. The film posits a near future where medical technology has allowed something akin to near-immortality: those who die from trauma can be brought back to life, and human lifespan sans trauma has reached 120 or so. The downside is all this is compulsory. Those who try to go off-grid turn into the "Lost", destructive monsters that have to be brought down by heavily armed police squads.
Eventually recognizable bits of the novel start turning up. Would-be artist Yozo lives in a squalid room upstairs from a bar, thanks to the largesse of the madam. He has talent, but his self-destructive urges outstrip everything else: the first time we encounter him, his friends Takeichi and Horiki have to dial 911 to get him rescuscitated by remote control after yet another overdose of pills. Having a death wish doesn't mean much in a world where they can just reboot you.
Horiki has plans about that, though. He's concocted a drug that allows people to disconnect from the health networks and die for real, although once that happens they mutate into out-of-control monsters. For him, it's all part of the plan to bring down a system that he himself helped engineer, the better to give life and death back to the people who actually do the living and dying. He ropes Yozo into a terrorist action that involves a hearse full of explosives, and after a dazzling chase sequence Yozo and Takeichi both become Lost ... only to have Yozo destroy Takeichi single-handedly after the cops fail, and — even more surprisingly — revert back into a human form when it's over.
There's clearly something about him. Yoshiko, the sincere and bright-eyed young woman who's highly placed in the medical authorities, believes Yozo is the embodiment of forces that will help bring catastrophic projections about the world's direction back into balance. Her colleages don't agree about that part; they just want her to recruit Yozo to fight Horiki, whose power to create and control the Lost threatens the order of things. Soon the bigger question is not which side Yozo is on, but in what form: should he fight to tear down a system that should be torn down anyway, or attempt to reform it from the inside? (Screenwriter Tow Ubukata explored similar ideas in Psycho-Pass.) But the biggest dangers are in how Yozo and Yoshiko both can be exploited by a system that sees all human life as mere raw material for its own self-perpetuation.
Connections and disconnections
Polygon Pictures, the folks behind the animation production, first came to my attention with the admirable work they did for Knights of Sidonia. All-CGI animation looks less and less marionette-like and janky with each passing year, and Polygon have been pushing that particular envelope with growing confidence. Very little of HUMAN LOST has that unpleasantly synthetic look to it, something that matters doubly when the inner lives of the characters are supposed to take primacy. Still, the best-looking stuff remains the action sequences — like the motorycle chase that takes up most of the first third of the movie, and the climax where human beings take a backseat to a monster-vs.-monster clash.
How to evaluate all this in the light of its source material? The same week I watched HUMAN LOST, I also reviewed another movie that constituted a very loose remake of a classic piece of source material: Shinya Tsukamoto's Gemini, from Edogawa Rampo's short story "The Twins". The movie only has the barest resemblance to the story, but that's fine; it has its own destinations to arrive at. HUMAN LOST is even more heedless: it's still possible to see connections to the original by the time we get to the Evangelion-esque climax, but only by squinting really hard, and where it actually arrives is a muddle of good and bad ideas.
I say all this knowing full well sources are just that: sources, from which you can derive any number of things. Taking liberties are what art's all about; slavish devotion to material is not creative. I liked the way Rampo Kitan riffed on its source material, because the spiritual connection with the original never went completely out of sight. (Trickster kept more of the connections, but didn't really go anywhere with them.) And then you have stuff like Bungo Stray Dogs, where any original material, or personalities, are essentially there for totemistic value and not really as a source.
HUMAN LOST is a distinctive enough mix of these approaches that it might well constitute its own fourth category. Many of the character relationships from the original story are templates for how things unfold — chiefly Shizuko's sincere and unwavering faith in Yozo, and Yozo's own doubt in his ability to return that faith. There's even more than a little of the original story's theme of how Yozo is chiefly defined by the way others manipulate and exploit him (Horiki in particular).
But there's even more missing, and what's missing matters. Virtually nothing remains of the original story arc, where Yozo spirals down through the whole of his life bleeding to death from his emotional wounds. The story as constructed, with all its operatic techno-millennialism, has its attention elsewhere. And one of the consequences of that is how the most significant parts of the original either don't make it in, or become distorted in the translation and turn antithetical. Consider the nihilistic ending of the novel, where Yozo was left not to die but to merely exist meaninglessly. Here, that's nodded towards, but the filmmakers try to put a positive spin on it, by turning Yozo's lingering existence into a kind of heroic Sisyphean struggle. It isn't a bad idea, but the book had nothing to do with such things.
When people talk about the spirit of a work, they refer not to its plot or even to its themes as such, but its worldview. Dazai's worldview was that of a harsh, ironic laugh. I originally thought HUMAN LOST's cyberpunk approach would be a great vessel for a brew that bitter. But in the end, the romanticism wins, and maybe that's the biggest reason this project works best without its brand associations: it's not in the one spirit I associate most with its namesake. One must imagine Dazai sneering.