Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #106: No Longer Human (3 vols.) by Usamaru Furuya

With a quick Wikipedia gloss, I could pretend to be familiar with Osamu Dazai's novel No Longer Human -- not just his most famous book, but one of the major works of Japanese 20th century fiction -- and pontificate learnedly about the manga adaptation of that novel by Usamaru Furuya, which interestingly adapts some of Dazai's pre-WW II world into the dawn of the 21st century and translates some of the devices of that novel directly into manga equivalents, even inserting Furuya into the story as a minor framing character.

But I won't do that -- at least, not exactly. I've never read Dazai's novel, and I prefer not to lie when I have a choice. What I know about, I do from investigation after reading Furuya's excellent version of the story.

But that adaptation of No Longer Human seems to be a remarkably careful translation of a major work into another artistic form, down to turning Dazai's original three-memoranda structure into three manga volumes, and using Furuya's own discovery of the "real" diary of main character Yozo Oba online as a precisely equivalent framing device to the one Dazai used in the novel. I was surprised to see that the Oba of the novel is a manga artist as well; while reading the books, I had assumed that was part of Furuya's translation into the modern world.

But all of the elements of No Longer Human are like that: a complex mix of Dazai's original semi-autobiographical story, based on his own life in the 1930s, and the trappings of an Oba of the modern day, born in the high years of Japan's bubble 1980s and living in a world of laptops and online "ouch" diaries.

For most of the length of No Longer Human, we don't know exactly what Oba's problem is: he's a young man who feels the need to "clown," to hide his true emotions so deeply he doesn't understand them himself, to mimic others and obsessively act to make them like him. That mimicry, and his youthful good looks, make him irresistible to nearly every woman he meets -- which is all-too-common for such self-destructive young men. He could be depressive, or perhaps have some disorder that damages empathy, so something else along those lines -- I'd like to think a young man like him in most modern countries would be able to get care for his problems, but maybe not. Whatever is wrong with Oba, it leaves him radically alone and full of inner torment, which he fights off with the usual ammunition: drinking, drugs, sex. And he's the son of a rich family, so he can indulge a lot before anything bad happens.

No Longer Human is the story of Oba's complex spiral: he dips, and rises again, and falls farther, and recovers, around and around again, losing more on every drop and diving further into addiction and self-loathing. He only has one male friend -- not a good friend at all, I'm afraid -- so it's also in large part the story of the women around him, as they each are seduced (almost inadvertently, most of the time; Oba is a misanthrope who hates others almost as much as he hates himself) and dragged through his torments. Some of them make it out the other side intact; some don't make it out at all.

Every generation has the story of the tormented youngster, from The Sorrows of Young Werther to Holden Caulfield. No Longer Human is the version from Japan, nearly a hundred years ago, but the specifics of time and place only ground it, not limit it. Furuya has proven that, by pulling it eighty years into its own future. It sometimes a tough read, full of Oba's self-loathing and destructive behavior -- but it's worth it, every single page. And even the Obas of this world are human -- in all of their complex, damaged horribleness, every bit of alienation and anger and raw nerves is the connection with the rest of humanity.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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