No Longer Human is the most recent book by manga creator Junji Ito to be translated and published in English. It adapts the famous novel of the same name originally authored by Osamu Dazai. The literal translation of the Japanese title is “Disqualified from Being Human.” Set in Pre-WWII Japan, the story follows the life of Yozo Oba, the son of a prominent family who deals with existential anxiety and a deep disconnection with what seems to make other people happy. He deals with this problem from a young age, playing the clown to keep his anxieties hidden from other people. Suffering abuses at home and worried that a classmate has discovered his charade, his life begins a gradual spiral out of control, succumbing to substance abuse, debauchery, and his own declining sanity as he gets older.
This was quite a departure from what I usually expect from Ito. He’s adapted literature before with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but that being a classic tale of horror, it was much more within his wheelhouse. That story is also deeply woven into the fabric of Western culture, so even before reading his adaptation most Western readers probably have a solid understanding of what the story is about.
Before picking up this manga, I’d never heard of the novel No Longer Human, but it in fact ranks as the second-best selling novel in Japan. While not at all inaccessible, I believe there’s a degree of cultural context and history to better understand this story that I am not equipped with, as more of an outsider to the time period and culture, that I assume the Japanese reading audience would be. Though this doesn’t disqualify me from reviewing this book, I feel it bears bringing up in case there’s something obvious that I have overlooked or misunderstood as a result of my ignorance.
As the focal point of the entire book, I found Yozo rather vexing. When he was a child, I found him the most sympathetic. He had an overbearing father, suffered some heinous abuses at the hands of servants, and dealt with mental health issues that he adamantly felt he must hide from everyone. It was his determined desire to keep these issues hidden where his real problems began, however, as his classmate Takeichi, a homely boy with no friends, notices that his buffoonery is an act. At first, he befriends the boy to try and keep him quiet, skirting around how Takeichi noticed his ruse, but this eventually takes a darker turn when Yozo starts spreading manipulative lies.
I actually liked this phase of the story the most for how it dealt with Yozo’s mental health and his role as an unreliable narrator. There is a clear disconnect between the way Yozo perceives everything going on with Takeichi and what the reader can simply infer. The latter boy takes on a rather sinister air, his grotesque features accentuated wonderfully by Ito’s art and his claims that Yozo did things “on purpose” appear overbearing, but he’s really just a lonely kid who noticed an instance of clumsiness was done intentionally. He never uses it against Yozo or actively taunts him, it’s just the mere fact that he knows about it that haunts him. Even further observations of Yozo’s more handsome appearance, which Takeichi likely passively envies, and compliments of his artistic talents are treated like a curse when they don’t really carry such weight.
As the situation with Takeichi tragically concludes, Yozo slowly becomes worse and worse. It became a lot harder to sympathize with him. At best, he is a pitiful character. His buffoonery fades almost completely and he falls into unfortunate cycles of substance abuse, which can understandably be difficult to escape. What I really had an issue with, though, was the way he handled his relationships with women. Though he acts as if they confound and vex him, many of the women he gets involved with are rather good-natured and want the best for him. His behaviour towards many of them is so destructive or bad-natured that I couldn’t help but despise him. While some are spared, many women are utterly ruined or die through their involvement with him.
What was most uncanny to me was the fact that, no matter how destitute his life seemed to be, women were basically throwing themselves at him all the time. I understand that he is supposed to be a rather handsome young man, but would women really throw themselves at a handsome, angsty, artistic type who clearly needs help? Perhaps the answer is obvious, that all being said, but I frequently had trouble buying into it.
This is the heart of what troubles me about Yozo as a protagonist, because I wonder if this disconnection between myself and the character is intentional, and if it is, whether that is a good thing or not. The story is all about his continual separation from the idea of humanity, so in a way it is easy to assume that I am not supposed to feel any particular connection with him (or if I do, I perhaps need help). The side effect of this is that it made for some rather dreary reading, though.
It’s a series of tragic events, so I’m not meant to feel positively about much of it, but there was also an absence of something compelling to keep me more invested in some way. The period of time where he is married came the closest. Some failings notwithstanding, his wife Yoshiko had a good heart and was trying really hard to be the best wife she could—far more than Yozo deserved. So I felt attachment to her, but I knew in my gut that she was doomed. I couldn’t let myself become fully invested.
Aside from the character elements, a component Ito seems to have introduced to his version of this story are aspects of supernatural. Many creepy visuals are more clearly the result of Yozo’s troubled mind, but other uncanny occurrences are observed by other characters as well. I think having a supernatural component, however subtle, hurt the story more than it helped. It created a disparity between Yozo’s mental illness being the cause of his suffering and some sort of external force that he cannot overcome. I would much rather the issues be cemented in the former, with the more mundane actions of other people playing a role as well. The implication that he is somehow actually cursed by his childhood actions didn’t work too well for me.
It also bears bringing up that this story goes to some very dark places. Suicide is a recurring theme in Yozo’s life, which he attempts himself multiple times. I appreciated that this was always handled with an appropriate level of severity. One could argue certain instances get a little excessive, but it is never romanticized nor made to look in any way appealing. It does compound the unpleasantness of the reading, however, with its consequences being depicted rather hauntingly. Sexual assault is a recurring factor as well, though not depicted as gruesomely. These occurrences never felt out of step with the story, but if they’re something you’d rather avoid reading about you may want to skip this book.
My biggest takeaway from No Longer Human by Junji Ito is the desire to read the original novel. I get this impression that while some of this was adapted fairly straight, Ito has put his own unique spin on the story and I would like to see it in its original form. Otherwise, it is a decently interesting exploration of a sick young man’s psyche, with some light supernatural elements that don’t quite land and an ending that left me a little puzzled with its intended message. The art is great, though, creating a haunting atmosphere that reflects the character’s state of mind well.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5