The first time I read Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, about which I may have written here more than almost any other thing from Japan, I made the following note: "This is a horror story." Dazai's novel, a perennial in its homeland since it first appeared in 1949, is horror in the same way as Céline's Journey To The End Of The Night, or Nine Inch Nails's The Downward Spiral, or Selby/Aronofsky's Requiem For A Dream. The horror right inside you, in your head and emanating from your fellow human beings, is far more ghastly than any Lovecraft monster. And so when horror manga maven Junji Ito produced his own manga adaptation of the novel, seventy years after Dazai's death, it made sense he might want to riff on the story in his own way, as Usamaru Furuya did before him. Fans of both Dazai and Ito deserve to experience this, even when I suspect Ito fans will be happier with what has been done with Dazai's work than Dazai fans will.
Mr. Self Destruct
Dazai's original novel is barely 200 pages in its original English edition, but accomplishes all it needs to and then some. Its narrator, Yozo Oba, has left behind three notebooks detailing his "life of much shame" (as per Donald Keene's translation). Uneasy around other human beings from as far back as he can remember, the victim of sexual assault by his family's servants, he puts on a happy face — one he can't take off — and clowns his way through adolescence and early adulthood. He unwittingly becomes a master of emotional manipulation, eliciting pity and sympathy from women. He falls in with a fellow would-be art student, who exploits Yozo and introduces him to a radical political fashion. His family all but disowns him after he attempts suicide with a bar hostess, the only other person he's met up until then who says out loud what he's kept in his heart.
Yozo ends up in the company, or maybe better to say the patronage, of a succession of women — the editor of a children's magazine who sparks off something resembling a career for him in cartooning, the hostess of a bar who gives him refuge and alcohol (one and the same thing for him, really), the naïve young tobacco-shop saleswoman whom he eventually marries and ends up destroying, the pharmacist whose morphine becomes a terminal stop on his self-destruction train. There is nowhere to go for him but down.
Related like this, it all sounds self-indulgent and one-dimensionally decadent. When read off the page, it becomes hypnotic, all-enveloping. Dazai lived through at least half of what he wrote about in the story, and he put it on the page in a way that makes even the self-pity sting. Its flavor has also not aged in any significant way; it feels fresh and immediate. Small wonder it's read regularly in classrooms, remains perennially in print in both Japan and elsewhere, and has inspired adaptations in every medium.
(Over)full of hell
Now Junji Ito has given us his own manga adaptation of the story. Maybe adaptation is the wrong word, since it doesn't convey how radically Ito has reworked Dazai to fit his own vision. I am not talking about the way Ito uses his visual style, which is excellent throughout, and appropriately unnerving: we see everything through Yozo's haunted eyes, just as we did in the original story. And most, if not all, of the original story is in fact there. It's that Ito has added about a hundred percent more of his own atop and within it, in much the same way a stretch limo has the same front and back of the original car but absurdly more in the middle.
Some of this is just spelling out what Dazai only chose to hint at. The sexual assaults that shaped Yozo's young life are shown graphically — he's both violated by a male house servant and seduced by one of the maids, and it makes appropriately grim foreshadowing for how later in life Yozo retreats from people and finds comfort in women (even when they exploit him at least as much as anyone else). But Ito also inserts plot developments of his own into the story: one of the complications of Yozo's life at home involves him seducing (if that's the word) two female relatives, impregnating one, and inspiring her to kill the other. The doltish fellow student who unwittingly unmasks Yozo's clowning as fakery meets a horrible, bloody end when Yozo tricks him into thinking his crush on a girl will be reciprocated.
Some of the expansions seem like little more than opportunities for Ito to draw things out. Yozo mentions his "pack of ten misfortunes" in the first chapter; Ito pounces on this and inflates it into a sequence that runs dozens of pages, where Yozo vomits up each misfortune and is tormented by them like Dante. But the sequence doesn't really tell us anything we don't already know, and it takes forever to get there. The other thing Ito does is make literal things that were figurative: the way Yozo is haunted by his childhood turns into literal haunting straight out of any of Ito's other horror stories. At one point Yozo's cruel father moves in with him to make his life even more miserable, and also turns out to be an apparition of sorts. This development isn't remotely plausible on the face of it, undermining what horrific quality it would give to the story, but worse than that, it just grinds everything to a standstill. That's not what you want to do to a story about a guy's vertiginous plunge to the bottom. It's all the more ill-fitting when you read Ito's other material and see how good he is at building tension when he doesn't have to do it around the bones of someone else's work.
There is one other radical change Ito has brought to the story; skip this paragraph if you hate spoilers. The original novel had a pair of wraparound chapters written by the man who discovered Yozo's manuscript, and which help frame his misery in a large context. Ito swaps that for a wraparound featuring Osamu Dazai himself. He opens with Dazai's suicide, switches to Yozo's story, then brings Dazai back towards the end to meet Yozo recuperating from his various addictions in an asylum. The two men bond over shared miseries, and Dazai vows to turn Yozo's suffering into art. Then Dazai meets Yozo again years later, after he has become little more than a living corpse (in keeping with the book's original ending), and we're led to believe the experience was so spiritually devastating to Dazai that it helped him loosen his grip on life that much more. It's clever, inspired even, but it suffers from the same problem as Ito's other inventions: it all smacks of Ito rather than Dazai, and in the wrong way.
A clash of sensibilities
Dazai's work is so familiar to Japanese audiences by now, so well-worn, that a "mere" adaptation of it wouldn't draw much attention. Before Ito's version hit my desk I had encountered no less than five other versions — three manga, one anime, one live-action. The anime version and Usamaru Furuya's manga version worked both because they looked good and because they understood the material. Other manga versions were created as "literature-into-comics" products, and so they amount to dutiful but not very inventive run-throughs of the story. And at some point I mean to talk about the live-action version (direct by Taishō Trilogy producer Genjiro Arato), which is so misguided it deserves an article of its own.
If Ito's version goes as far off the end as it does, I suspect that's because anything less than that simply wouldn't draw notice with its intended audience. Anything to make it a little more striking, a little less tiresomely familiar. But who benefits more from this approach, Ito or Dazai?
Here is what I mean by Ito fans likely being happier with this project than Dazai fans. It's not that Ito has disrespected the original work, or even that he's emphasized things about it that didn't need emphasis. It's that only some of his sensibilities turned out to be a good fit for this project. His horrific visuals work wonderfully; e.g., the grotesqueries in the back of the pharmacist's office, or the way everyday presences in Yozo's life turn into horrible phantasmagoria.
But when Ito expands on the original story, it's clear to a fault where Dazai leaves off and Ito picks up. The two storytelling sensibilities — the melancholy if also black-humored decadent, and the cackling prankster of deadly humor — lie one atop the other instead of blending. Maybe this stems from Ito being more comfortable in the short-story format than with longer work. Too many of Ito's interjections here feel like self-contained shorts he wrote somewhere else, never used, and then retrofitted atop Dazai's work.
When I wrote before about Furuya's version, I noted how he too used jolting, horrific imagery to give us Yozo's blackened vision of things. Where Furuya did better, I think, was in two ways: he sticks more directly to the pacing of the original story, and his images are more inspired by Surrealism than by pulp horror. The flavor of that whole felt closer to what Dazai aimed for. I don't doubt Ito knew he was going further afield, and wanted to make the story more explicitly his; I just think it pays off in ways that run against what the book is all about. I had the same problem with Baz Luhrmann's misguided film version of The Great Gatsby: it wasn't the casting or the cinematography or the recreation of the era that felt off; it was that the movie didn't seem to exhibit the first understanding of what the book dealt with, or why, or to what end.
Do I still think this No Longer Human is worth reading? Yes, for a few reasons: Junji Ito fans are likely to be happy, and it's a case study in how far an adapter's sensibilities can push the source material being adapted. But those who loved Dazai's work may wonder why Ito needed to go as far as he did, especially when Dazai already went so far in his own way. More isn't always better. Sometimes it's just more.