If art is about anything, it is about shouting across a void. I do not believe in life after death in the conventional sense of the term, but I do believe in the possibility of transcending death, of immortality through one’s works. It shakes me to the core to open a book written by someone long dead and feel as if they were seated next to me, speaking into my ear. When I first read Osamu Dazai’s novel No Longer Human, I could scarcely believe the man had been dead for decades. He was speaking to me in a voice that was completely contemporary, and speaking about things which seemed too private to ever have been anyone else’s domain.
When Lychee Light Club creator Usamaru Furuya elected to produce this manga adaptation of the book, I wondered how much of Dazai's rending whisper would be left once filtered through Furuya's sensibilities, fittingly dark as they might be. But No Longer Human, the manga, feels not so much like a living creator interpreting a dead man’s work as it does a collaboration between two men, one living and one long dead.
The result is akin to a brilliant cover version of a classic song, one where the despair and fury of the original strike like fresh lightning, and one of the finest examples of how one can adapt a work of literature into comics. The book also serves as further evidence that Vertical, Inc., the English-language publishers for the comic, has more taste in a single season of their backlist than most manga publishers have in their entire catalog.
1. A requiem for Japan's postwar dream
I am surrounded by psychotics. Often I suspect I am one. Then certain records come out and I know I am not alone.
— Lester Bangs
On the day of Japan's capitulation to the Allies at the end of WWII, the father of an aspiring young novelist named Yukio Mishima turned to his son and said, "We're in an age of culture now," meaning he was being given leave to think less about war and more about letters. Postwar Japan was hungry for a literature that reflected its disorientation and shattered sensibilities, and Mishima fast became one of the authors that helped feed that hunger with his sensual and confrontational works. Another was a man Mishima would describe as one who embodied everything that he despised: Osamu Dazai, Japan's already-established bad boy of literature, at least as (in)famous for his boozing and lechery and suicide attempts as for his writing. His no-b.s., arrow-to-the-bullseye prose, as lean and unsparing as Mishima's was ornate and flowery.
It was Dazai's quasi-autobiographical 1948 novel No Longer Human that cemented the man's reputation, not just because the tormented and demented narrator was a ringer for its author, but because of how the book's cry of pain resonated with the rest of Japan as well, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of copies sold every year since. Here was a book which presented the reader with the unsparing story of a man’s self-destruction, which offered no sociological bromides, no coy rationalizations, no easy answers of any kind. The book was not meant to be analyzed, but empathized with. If you came away from No Longer Human musing that the poor narrator might have turned out okay if only he’d gotten the right sort of therapy for his problem, you’d have missed the point. Dazai was a romantic through and through, and part of the romantic worldview is that for some problems there simply are no solutions.
Such a view stands in stark contrast to today’s impossibly upbeat society — whether American or Japanese — where almost all problems have a solution (typically a technical one), where the experience of despair is treated like a bad smell to be routed by cloying spiritual perfumes, and where we pave over the mess and bother of life a little too neatly for our own good. Those who originally took it to heart were among the generations numbed by the devastation of war; now, in the 21st century, another generation of disaffected youth feeling shut out from partaking in Japan’s prosperity has started to do the same. Furuya's manga adaptation (as well as a contemporaneous anime version) is aimed at them, and it says as much about Dazai as it does Furuya that the original story only needed the most topical of changes to bring it up to date. Most of the plot points, beats, emotional revelations and sheer heartbreak of the original have been not only preserved intact, but expanded on in ways that wholly complement the story.
2. Yozo the clown
Ain't it fun when you're always on the run
Ain't it fun when your friends despise what you become
... Ain't it fun when you know you're gonna die young?
— The Dead Boys, “Ain’t It Fun”
If Furuya kept so much of the original, it was only because the original worked so well. In the original, an unnamed narrator describes three photos of the same man as a young boy, a teenager, and a grown man, each one radiating their own peculiar kind of strangeness and horror. The bulk of the story is then told in the form of several confessional notebooks kept by the man in the photos. In the manga, Furuya himself is the unnamed narrator; at the opening of the first volume he's clicking around idly on the Internet for inspiration while trying to come up with a storyline for his new comic, and he stumbles across a website with the three photos and the confessional writing.
The confessor is one Yozo Oba: son of affluence, class clown, successful student, everyone’s source of good times. But even from an early age, he knows the smiles and jokes are a façade, a way to keep everyone around him at arm’s length. There is no part of his outward personality that is not a product of relentless calculation and second-guessing. Human beings are frightening to him — capricious and unpredictable, mysterious and ultimately alien. (At times Furuya renders the faces of everyone around Yozo into smeared eyeless masks, like the anonymized students in Pink Floyd The Wall who go into the meatgrinder.) The effort required to maintain the front is exhausting.
He enrolls in art school. Before long he’s made a friend of sorts there: Masao Horiki — the loudmouth, the horn-dog, the drinker and, yes, clown. Except that Horiki doesn’t seem to be hiding anything with his jokes, and for the first time Yozo feels halfway comfortable around another person. They get drunk together, visit prostitutes together, but their togetherness is hollow: they’re getting very different things out of the same experiences. During one visit to a soapland club, Yozo underscores all the lubricious goings-on with commentary that makes it seem about as erotic as changing a tire: “I hand over my money and satisfy my desires. There is no troublesome process here.” The less he has to deal with other people as people — especially women — the better. It saves him the trouble of actually having to figure out what they want, even if he’s got precisely the kind of shy, handsome, genial qualities that turn him into a chick magnet. When one of the soapland girls tries to hook up with him outside of work, he throws her number away. The last thing he wants is anything that “ordinary” and therefore “beyond [his] comprehension.”
The problem is Yozo doesn’t know what he wants. It may not be possible for him to know, adrift as he is, clinging to Horiki like a drowning man hugging a piece of debris. When Horiki introduces him to a radical political group by way of a girl he dated, Yozo finds he likes the frisson of criminal activity. He tells himself he’s comfortable there, that he’s even happy, but it’s clear these are just rationalizations as well: he isn’t interested in politics as such (although he talks a good game to get in with the group, much as his clowning was used to buy acceptance with his fellow students), and he has mostly contempt for the other members of his cell. Except maybe for Misaki, the girl Horiki was eyeing, and over time it becomes clear Yozo thinks of her entirely in opportunistic terms. She dotes on him, and Yozo quickly realizes he can exploit her kindness. He has never had a single relationship that was not either parasitic or sadistic, and we see how his father’s domineering behavior primed him for such things. In one of the book’s many ingenious visualizations, Yozo sees himself as nothing more than his father’s marionette — quite literally so, with nothing but one of his wires (a single plangent, grainy line of white against equally grainy darkness) taking up an entire two-page spread.
Yozo winds up exploiting Misaki’s kindness a good deal more thoroughly when he’s booted out of his apartment and forced to fend for himself on a pittance of an allowance. He uses Misaki to survive, to have something like companionship, to wring from her money and a laptop computer and eventually sex as well. That last turns out to be his undoing: Misaki is the girlfriend of Sasaki, the revolutionary cell leader, and one night Yozo finds himself climbing out the window of his own apartment when Sasaki comes banging on the door. He ends up in a hostess club, where he gives the girl he meets his last thousand-yen bill and soon finds himself taken in by her — “taken in”, like a stray dog, like something not quite sentient. And yet he feels genuine affection for her, maybe because they are both rejects of their own kind.
The girl, Ageha, also dotes on him. She gives him money, which only depresses him further when he discovers he’s been completely disowned by his father: all he’s managed to do is trade up one kind of dependency for another. He crosses paths with Horiki again, who’s stunned to discover how far his friend has fallen — but who also seems incapable of relating to him as anything but a source of compulsive good times. They end up back in Ageha’s club, drunk, where Horiki paws her and slobbers over her but then pushes her away: she’s too much of a “sad-sack” for him. So that’s the kind of woman I’ve ended up loving, Yozo thinks, and drinks himself blind. The one woman he cares about has a grip on life that’s even more tenuous than his own, and soon there is a moment when the two of them are on the beach, staring at the water, and then wading in together hand-in-hand and pushing each other under. (This incident, like many in the story, mirrored Dazai’s own life closely enough that people considered the book to be an autobiography — or even a suicide note, given how his death came mere months after its publication.)
3. A kept man
Hey look at me lady
I'm just a little baby
You're lucky to have me
I'm cute and sweet as candy
As charming as a fable
I'm innocent and disabled
So hug me and kiss me
Then wipe my butt and piss me
-- Faith No More, "Zombie Eaters"
Yozo survives drowning; Ageha does not. Spared from jail in the first pages of the second volume by his father's arm's-length manipulations, Yozo ends up in the condescending custody of a family friend — “Flounder”, the ugly, strabismic wheeler-dealer who stuffs Yozo into an upstairs room in his house and apparently skims from the money remitted to him in private by Yozo’s older brother. In a scene that is note-for-note identical with the original story, he tries to get Yozo to “open up to him” and speak of his real ambitions for the future, but Yozo has nothing of the kind in mind: all incentive to become his own person has been bled out of him. It’s hard enough for him to even think about sneaking off and blowing some sponged-off money on smokes and pachinko — which he eventually does, as a partial step towards ending up back on the doorstep of his old friend Horiki.
What is it that draws Yozo back to someone who’s barely any better than him? It is, I guess, a cousin to the same behavior that draws women back to abusive spouses: better the devil you know than any other devil. Likewise, Yozo endures Horiki’s hypocritical hectoring only because it’s better than the soul-eating indignity of being Flounder’s parasitic houseguest. It also provides him with a stroke of luck: he meets Shizuko, a woman for whom Horiki works as an illustrator. By now Yozo’s sense of how to play people has become remarkably well-honed, and he uses all of his tricks — his ability to wring pity out of people, especially women; his self-deprecating charm — to become a kept man under her wing.
It’s with Shizuko and her daughter, Shiori, that Yozo catches his first glimpse of something like a respectable life. Months of little more than lolling around, watching TV and serving as Shizuko’s lover leave Yozo with the urge to create something, anything. At first he begins writing the diary / novel he had mused over before (much to Horiki’s condescending amusement). But then a much larger ambition comes into view: he draws impromptu comics for Shiori, and soon finds himself creating a manga title that is published professionally through Shizuko’s own company. It’s real work, from which he can earn a real living at last, but even this is tainted as well. Yozo has not embarked on this project as a way to give Shiori something to enjoy; he’s done it because, as he openly admits to Shizuko, he think he’s a better artist than Horiki. And because he wants money — and if Shizuko wasn’t supporting him he’d be gone in a minute anyway. (She allows herself to love him, even if she is quite conscious of the fact that it’s one-sided and opportunistic; she is that desperate for companionship.) His earnings from his comics go into booze and smokes; he grows all the more insular and prickly with his new family. His work gives him no joy; it has merely become another wall to put between himself and others. Once again he has put himself in a situation where his relationship with others is predicated entirely on lies.
What is different now is that he can no longer lie to himself about it. He finds solace of a sort in a bar, where the madam — a much older woman — brings to mind Ageha, had she not died. He drinks there, and confesses he knows all too well that nothing good will come of him using women like this — not realizing by doing so he is simply trading the sympathies of one woman for another. A man’s greatest madness is always invisible to himself, and it is only by painful degrees that Yozo has come to realize his parasitism is chronic. The mere presence of a woman in his life will be marked by his attempt to use her. The only way he can get away from Shizuko is by drinking — not just by seeking solace at the bar, but by allowing his drinking to make him all the more into a beast and maybe push her away in the process. He comes to avoid both mother and child, the latter whose company he can no longer savor (especially after she idly wishes she had her real father back). He steals from Shizuko to support his habit. In a sickening moment of cruelty not in the original story, he orders Shizuko to prove her love by disrobing, ostensibly so he can draw her. Then guilt sets in, and he runs out the door without even putting on his shoes (all the more to punish himself). At the bar, sodden once more, he makes an oblique plea that those two will be able to find happiness — a happiness that, most noticeably, does not include him.
He repeats himself. He lives in the bar’s upstairs room, drawing his comics by day and serving as one of the bar staff by night. He finds comfort there, somehow: all he needs to do is put on the face he’s so good at wearing and drink with the other customers. But over time he emerges from his alcoholic stupor to realize he has a crush on the naïve young girl who works at the smoke shop where he buys his cigarettes. For the second time in his life, he realizes he’s in love for real — and possibly for the first time ever, he realizes it’s a relationship that’s neither parasitic nor exploitive. Small wonder he scarcely knows what to do except ruin it.
4. The last attempt at paradise
Whatsoever I've feared has come to life
And whatsoever I've fought off became my life
Just when everyday seemed to greet me with a smile
Sunspots have faded
Now I'm doing time
-- Soundgarden, "Fell On Black Days"
This woman, Yoshino, is “a genius at trusting”, as Yozo puts it. When Yozo confesses about his attempted suicide to her in the third volume, 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. His delusion becomes ours, however fleetingly, however much we would like it not to be.
5. Through a new lens
Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out.
-- Martin Scorsese
The original book relied entirely on Dazai’s artistry and narrative to connect with us. Here the difference is split between Dazai’s story and Furuya’s art and adaptation. The story has stayed faithful in all the ways that matter, and individual sequences in the book that have become emblematic of the book as a whole have been retained: Yozo’s awkward conversation with Flounder about his future; the stumbling way Yozo courts Yoshino, the tobacco-shop girl (and the slapstick way he ends up at her mercy when he stupidly injures himself outside her store). Even the kite caught in the wires outside of Shizuko’s apartment — a throwaway touch in the original which was used to poignantly mark the passage of time — is preserved here.
What Furuya also brings to this story, the way a good director might, is how he's able to visualize the themes that creep through the book on most every page. When Yozo is shacked up in Flounder’s upstairs room, Furuya puts the “camera” on the floor or scrunches all the goings-on into a paranoid fish-eye lens view. The snatches we see of “Fretty Ping” (Sekkachi Pin-chan), Yozo’s cute animal-story comic, turn into a monstrous parade of grotesques when a drunken Yozo falls asleep at his drawing board, a brilliantly nasty piece of visual invention not in the original story. And again and again, the faces of others become hollowed-out masks as their fundamental otherness becomes an inescapable fact of life for Yozo.
Furuya sensed (correctly) that a story like this needed to contrast the objective world with Yozo’s own subjective impressions. He switches adeptly between both modes: when Yozo yuks it up for the class, his fellow students (all “ordinary”) appear as yearbook photos that distort and become eyeless phantasms. When Yozo becomes consumed with thoughts of his father in the middle of a discussion, he transforms into a marionette as mentioned above — the image of which returns time and again as the embodiment of Yozo’s sense of alienation. The artwork switches between straightforward, strong-lined, relatively conventional manga stylization and heavy, black-backgrounded, chiaroscuro-style shading that feels like darkness is closing over all the characters (or at the very least staining them permanently). It echoes Yozo’s own sense of being divided against himself and split off from the rest of the world. There’s the reality everyone else sees, and then the reality only he sees, and there’s only room enough for one of them in the end.
But most of all, even if only intermittently, there is Dazai’s language. So much of what he describes has simply been replaced with imagery — the torn kite, for instance — but the words he uses that cannot be easily condensed into pictures all remain. At the end of the last chapter, he casts a foreshadow across his own fleeting happiness by hinting at how he was about to find out “how bottomless, untamable and terrifying the world really is”. We who have read the original story already know what he means, but for us so much of the pleasure of reading this adaptation has been in watching how, specifically, that unfolds in Furuya’s hands.
I mentioned 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.
Then again, 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 exploitative 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.
And 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.
6. Fallen angels
Did I see tenderness where you saw hell?
Did I see angels in the hand I held?
God only knows what kind of tale you'd tell
-- Talk Talk, "Living In Another World"
I write all this knowing all too well how attached I am to 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, Furuya's 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. Small wonder I found Furuya's version far more rewarding in the long run than the slavishly faithful film version (or one of the other manga adaptations, for the Manga de Dokua series). There was more room for him to work — and also that much more room for us to reflect on what he’d created.
One thing Furuya follows quite closely is the wraparound story, where Furuya's own narration bookends the main action, and which at the end 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. 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 there, he still has room to fall. For some people there is no bottom. There is only down.
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. 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.
We are moved most profoundly by tragedy not because pain is more worthy of art than joy, but because it’s loss (and, perhaps, the salvation and redemption that can come afterwards) that inspires us to reflect and understand far more deeply than simply winning. That and pain is no less legitimate a subject than joy — and, like joy, it is all too easily expressed in art through any number of unworthy devices. It’s easy enough to simply make the reader feel happy or miserable, and less easy to tie what they’re feeling into the meaning of the work itself.
I go by Roger Ebert’s comment that no truly good film (or work) is depressing; only the bad ones are depressing. Great art, no matter how much sadness it encompasses, is exhilarating because it showcases people working at the top of their game. That by itself is redemptive. That by itself shouts across the void.