Junji Ito is not new to adapting novels into his characteristic horror manga style. In 2018, the English translation of his Frankenstein was released. As disappointing as that was, his No Longer Human (2019) is of a much higher calibre, in terms of the detail in the illustrations but also in the depth of the story. Frankenstein seemed stripped in many respects (of its verbose Romantic style and its homoeroticism, in particular). No Longer Human, on the other hand, actually expands upon the original text. This is at times more successful than at others, but it makes for a startling and unsettling repackaging of the novel.
Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human (1958) centres upon Yozo Oba and his feeling of alienation from the world around him (his name does not appear often in Dazai’s text, so as he is predominantly referred to as Yozo in Ito’s version, I will be referring to him as such throughout this piece). There is some commonality here with one of Dazai’s previous novels, The Setting Sun (1956), whose protagonist, Kazuko, and her brother, Naoki, are utterly beset by their own emotions, bent under the weight of their own anxieties, fears, and feelings of embarrassment. Yozo sees deception and threat everywhere, early in the novel stating that “[w]henever anyone criticized me I felt certain that I had been living under the most dreadful misapprehension. I always accepted the attack in silence, though inwardly so terrified as almost to be out of my mind”.
As a response to his feelings of otherness he takes on the role of a “clown”, “the farcical eccentric”, telling amusing lies, and entertaining others through slapstick. This was not so much an attempt to fit in, but rather as an attempt to conceal and hide. There is the constant concern that difference will not be tolerated, but with Yozo there is not so much an unwillingness to conform, a rebellious attitude to the world around him, but rather a complete inability due to not comprehending the world around him. This contributes to his fear that he must hide, and as such he is constantly afraid that someone will see through the mask he dons through “clowning”. This is what drives his actions throughout the novel. All his energies from childhood onwards are focused on concealing what he sees as the incontrovertible fact that he is not human. His clowning, however, exacerbates his feelings of inferiority as well as trying to assuage them. In Yasujiro Ozu’s silent film, I was Born, But… (1932), clowning has connotations of the fool playing up to their superiors. Clowning has a similar purpose in No Longer Human in that it is an acceptance that those he plays up to are superior to him, in that they are inextricably connected to the world in which he lives. Simultaneously this draws attention away from what he sees as the otherness which resides within him. His feelings of otherness ultimately lead to the maltreatment of the women he meets and to drug addiction. Indeed, there is no happy ending for Yozo.
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Junji Ito takes the key elements of Dazai’s plot and brings out the hints and implications which dwell in between, sometimes even adding his own material. For instance, at the end of Dazai’s novel, the bar madam states something which has been implied throughout the narrative: Yozo’s behaviour and ultimate fate is “his father’s fault”. This has a certain level of ambiguity as a key preoccupation for Yozo has been how women often seem drawn to him and want to care for him, which for him has a sexually threatening subtext. Thus, the bar madam’s claim could be seen as an example of the caring attitude she holds towards him: she wants to divert the blame away from him. On the other hand, his father has a flickering presence through the dialogue of others throughout the novel. He is constantly there beneath the surface, influencing his son.
Whether or not Yozo’s behaviour and mental state can be ultimately blamed upon his father remains uncertain. Ito, however, expands upon the bar madam’s words while also deleting them. The bar madam does not speak those words in his adaptation, but Yozo’s father is brought from beneath the surface of the novel and given a key visual role. We see more of him, we witness his facial expressions, and as such we are guided through more than just word-of-mouth implications of the effect that he is having on his son.
Yozo’s father is not the only figure of which we see more. Takeichi, whose fate we do not witness in Dazai’s novel (he just vanishes from the narrative), receives a deeper treatment, becoming a figure who haunts Yozo throughout the text; a figure who becomes embodied in the other people who move around Yozo. Yozo’s cousin, named Setsuko by Ito, who we briefly meet in Dazai’s novel as someone who he entertained with his clowning, also becomes an important figure in Yozo’s journey towards death. Through bringing certain figures forward, emphasising them, drawing attention to their bodies, Ito creates a narrative more in keeping with the horror genre than Dazai’s original text. Although, as Ito demonstrates, there are elements of the novel which endear themselves to a horror rewrite. While in Dazai’s novel there is a seething world of fears and desires bubbling beneath the surface, occasionally breaking through, there is very little beneath the surface in Ito’s text. The blurb to the graphic novel sees the text as “sublimat[ing] Yozo’s mental landscape into something even more delicate and grotesque”, yet I would emphasise the “grotesque” over the “delicate”, as there is little subtlety in Ito’s vision here. Everything is there for us to see, contorted and constantly under physical modification.
A further implication in Dazai’s novel which Ito brings to the surface is the biographical aspect of the text, an aspect which has often been discussed by commentators (Keene, 1958; Lang, 2020). The biographical note on Dazai in the sleeve of Ito’s text even refers to the idea that the novel was “[Dazai’s] own suicide note”. Ito engages with the biographical aspect of the text by making Dazai a character in the narrative, a “double” of Yozo, who the latter encounters during his stay in a psychiatric institution.
Doubling is a common feature of the horror genre, and Ito uses it to great, arguably self-conscious, effect. Upon first glimpsing Dazai, Yozo thinks to himself, “[t]hose who see a vision of themselves will soon be visited by death”. Through this ominous premonition, and the reader’s foreknowledge that Dazai killed himself, we understand that the fates of both Yozo and the narrative-Dazai are inextricably intertwined. Interesting here is Ito’s use of intertext, which contributes to my characterisation of his use of the “double” as self-conscious. During the premonition of his own death, Yozo thinks of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a short story writer who, like Dazai, committed suicide. In Akutagawa’s “Spinning Gears” (published in Japan in 1927), itself an autobiographical text, the figure of the “double” takes a place amongst Akutagawa’s paranoid concerns. Ito here is situating his text amongst literature of the past, thus perhaps further compromising the realistic presentation in the original.
Ito’s thorough repackaging of Dazai’s novel in the horror genre was already compromising in its physics-defying bodies and the embodiment of the dead in other figures. In these depictions there is an ambiguity as to whether this was just a representation of how Yozo saw the world, or whether the world was actually like that. A self-conscious reference to a literary convention emphasises the liminality of Yozo’s world; the blurring of boundaries between the literary and the real, furthered by a character in one of narrative-Dazai’s works sharing Yozo’s name.
Both versions of No Longer Human are vast and uncompromising. Despite the short length and deceptively simple style of Dazai’s novel, it is a tremendous commentary upon the separation and alienation between the young and the old in post-war Japanese society. In Junji Ito’s adaptation that contemporary relevance is gone, but the text is still vast in terms of the detail and expansion which he gives to the novel. It is one of Ito’s best works, showcasing his abilities in a way that Frankenstein did not, and sets a high standard for future graphic novel adaptations.
Akutagawa, R. 1927 . Spinning Gears. In: R. Akutagawa, 2006. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories. Translated by Jay Rubin. London: Penguin Classics. [Kindle Edition]
Dazai, O., 1956 . The Setting Sun. Translated by Donald Keene, 1956. New York: New Directions. [Kindle Edition]
Dazai, O., 1958 . No Longer Human. Translated by Donald Keene, 1958. Reprint 1973. New York: New Directions.
I Was Born, But… 1932. [film] Directed by Yasujiro Ozu. Sochiku.
Ito, J., 2018. Frankenstein. In: J. Ito, 2018, Frankenstein: Junji Ito Story Collection. Translated by Jocelyne Allen. San Francisco: VIZ Media. pp.3-186.
Ito, J., 2019. No Longer Human. Translated by Jocelyne Allen. San Francisco: VIZ Media.
Keene, D., 1958. Translator’s Introduction. In: O. Dazai, 1958 . No Longer Human. Translated by Donald Keene, 1958. Reprint 1973. New York: New Directions. pp.3-10.
Lang, A., 2020. Book Review: Junji Ito’s ‘No Longer Human’ is a Stunning Semi-Autobiographical Chronicle. [online] Rue Morgue. Available at: https://rue-morgue.com/book-revieiw-junji-itos-no-longer-human-is-a-stunning-semi-autobiographical-chronicle/ [Accessed 29 June 2020].