Ain't it fun when you're always on the run
Ain't it fun when your friends despise what you become
—The Dead Boys, “Ain’t It Fun”
In the second volume of No Longer Human there is a moment when Yozo, the self-destructive and conflicted main character who has spent his whole life keeping the rest of the human race at bay, dismisses the idea that he’s a good person. He’s fooled everyone around him into thinking that, because it’s all he knows how to do. “You are a good person,” says the little girl he’s talking to. “Everyone says so.” She is the daughter of the woman Yozo has shacked up with, used for sex and milked for money, and even she chooses to look the other way.
A story about someone so despicable should not be so absorbing. But that was one of the paradoxes of the original 1949 Osamu Dazai novel: it was about someone we ought to hate, who engages in things we find revolting, but all the same we cannot look away because he exposes himself so completely. The face he presents to the world is not the face he presents to the reader, and out of that dichotomy comes all the energy and fire of this story. The same has happened here in Usamaru Furuya’s adaptation, with the split between the Yozo we know and the Yozo the world sees widening all the more precipitously.
The first volume ended with Yozo’s double suicide, when he and a despondent bar hostess agreed to throw themselves into the ocean. He survives; she does not. He is immediately jailed and finds himself facing anything from prison time to a lawsuit courtesy of her family. Paradoxically enough, the threat of either of those things comes as a welcome relief to him. They give him something to work for apart from being hemmed in by his own paranoia and misery. But he’s denied even that when his father springs him from jail and arranges a financial settlement with Ageha’s family.
Yozo ends up in the 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 have left Yozo with the urge to create something. 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.
Sadly, 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. Soon his drinking has become an escape all its own once again, same as when he lived with Shizuko.
This time, however, there is a genuine difference: his drunkenness comes to the attention of a 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. Something like real human happiness has, at last, come within his reach. We are, however, left at the end of the book with a single, ominous hint (a most David Lynch-ian image of a flower swarming with insects) that this will not be enough for him.
One of Philip K. Dick’s lifelong obsessions was the question: What is a human being, exactly? He once read the diary of a concentration camp guard who complained about the cries of starving children keeping him and his cohorts awake at night. “There is obviously something wrong with the man who wrote that," Dick said. "I later realized that, with the Nazis, what we were essentially dealing with was a defective group mind, a mind so emotionally defective that the word ‘human’ could not be applied to them…. Worse, I felt that this was not necessarily a sole German trait. This deficiency had been exported into the world after World War II and could be picked up by people anywhere, at any time.”
Yozo shares some of this. He can talk the talk and walk the walk, to a degree, but he knows something is missing. He feels nothing for his fellow beings—or that when he does, it's so furtive and unpracticed that he can't stay in the habit. He weeps for Ageha after her death, but only at first. In time, he forgets not only her face but the fact that he loved her. It is a defense mechanism: remembering her brings him nothing he can use in the present moment except pain. (The original novel has the same element: when reminiscing, Yozo doubts whether he remembers correctly the name of the girl with which he attempted suicide, but is able to recall with striking detail the ugly man making the sushi he eats the night before their final fatal meeting.)
Where 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.
On most every page the themes that creep through the book are visualized in some form. 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.
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.