One of my favorite lines about creative infamy comes by way of Roger Ebert in his review of the movie Heart Beat: "When Bennett Cerf, visiting the James Joyces in Paris, described Joyce as a genius, Mrs. Joyce dryly replied, 'That's all very well for you to say - you don't have to live with the bloody man.'" One wonders what Cerf would have made of Osamu Dazai, the comic-nihilist author whose chronicles of his own downfall made him a literary superstar in postwar Japan right before he finally succeeded at one of his multiple suicide attempts. He had at that point in his life a wife, children, and not just one but two mistresses (one with a child by him), and was by all accounts far too eager to lean into the role of the profligate artiste. Why not? It made him the center of attention, especially female attention, of which he couldn't get enough.
No Longer Human, the movie named for Dazai's last major completed work, is not an adaptation of that work but a recounting of that last year or so in Dazai's life when it wasn't clear whether his erotomania or his alcoholism or his tuberculosis would kill him first. It also makes the sensible choice to give the women in his life at least as much screen time as him. We who read Dazai now have the convenience of admiring him across history and behind the wall of death. The women were the ones who actually had to live with the bloody man. And, in one case, die with him.
Portrait of the artist as a young mess
No Longer Human opens with Dazai (Shun Oguri — yes, he who was the live-action Gintama) failing in one of his joint suicide attempts, which ends with the woman he's with drowning but him surviving. What's grimmest is not his own callousness about the incident, but everyone else's: his own publishers lay bets on whether another suicide attempt will kill him before his drinking does. Everyone around him, including his wife, have resigned themselves to Dazai's suicide algebra. The closest we have to an interventionist in his world is Dazai's editor Sakura, who has a vested interest in making sure the man doesn't collapse before delivering at least a few more profitable manuscripts.
Another romance is not what Dazai needs now, but him being Dazai, he gets one. He knows how some women are drawn to lurid, self-destructive, "passionate" types, because they either believe a) they can heal them or b) they too deserve to die and it's better to die with someone else than to die alone. He gets one of each type, roughly speaking. He meets Shizuko Ōta (Erika Sawajiri), a smart young woman who happens to frequent the same bar he does, and the two swoon for each other. Or maybe better to say, she swoons for him (what with him being a celebrity), and he manipulates her by reciprocating. He's less interested in her than in the contents of her diary, which he appropriates for his hit novel The Setting Sun.
Dazai's instinctual manipulation of people, women especially, kicks in a second time when a hairdresser named Tomie Yamazaki (Fumi Nikaidō) enters his life. She lost her husband after barely a month and is still reeling from the shock; we who know better understand that rebound relationships rarely ever work, but neither Dazai nor Tomie care they are in relationships of the damned. Dazai just wants yet another someone who can validate him unconditionally, and Tomie just wants someone she can cling to whatever the price.
Biographies rarely rise above being glossy Cliffs Notes rundowns of their subjects. The best ones are mavericks that discard any attempts to be factual and just use the lives of their subjects the way jazz musicians improvise on standards (Nicholas Roeg's Insignificance), or detach themselves from any pretense of being biographies and simply become engaging fictions (Amadeus), or find some greater symphonic expression of the facts of the life in question (Mishima). No Longer Human's biggest insight, and the most constructive one for its storytelling, is that Dazai was only part of the picture — the women in his life completed the equation, for better or worse. It stops short of suggesting they are at fault, because that would be dishonest. Dazai is his own worst enemy, always.
Everyone will suffer for his art
It's clear Dazai chooses addiction and dissipation time and again because there aren't enough people in his life who can tell him no. Only Dazai's editor tells him he has to clean up and make art from his suffering, at about the film's halfway mark. But it takes almost the whole rest of the film for Dazai to choke that advice down and do something with it, because he's still surrounded by so many other people who will say yes to him at his worst. His wife does it because it's her job; his mistresses do it because they want him for themselves, either alive or dead. And everyone else is too far away to matter. What Dazai craves most is not love or even recognition but privilege, the ability to do what he wants and always have someone to come back to who'll prop him up again.
To the extent that the movie recognizes this, it seems as powerless to find a greater truth about it than anyone in the film is capable of struggling against it. Creators are interesting despite their self-destructive tendencies, not because of them, but the movie subtly argues that it was only in mining Dazai's capacity for self-destruction that he was able to achieve greatness, especially in a time and a place that was thirsty for shameless narratives about such things. But it doesn't connect enough of those dots to really work.
Most films like this work best as period pieces, which this one is, a lush and gorgeously photographed one. Or as an anthology of notorious moments in the life of the character, which this one also is. J-lit nerd that I am, I had to smile at the way the movie recreates an infamous scene from Dazai's life where he was confronted by the young Yukio Mishima in a bar and told "I don't like your writing," and Dazai shot back "Well, you must like it or you wouldn't bother being here!" Or a moment when Dazai vomits blood into a snowy street, and we who have read the novel that shares this movie's title know what scene is being evoked here.
What works best in the film, then, is the little moments that illustrate larger points, despite there being not enough connective tissue between all of them to really hold things up. Dazai's problem was that he got a little too good at convincing everyone around him that he needed to stay a mess, both for his own sake and everyone else's. Whether or not they believed it is beside the point; they sure acted like they believed it. Hence the moment where Dazai's wife, with their children in tow, blunders across him in a clinch with one of his lovers, and she tells the kids: "Don't disturb your father. He's working."