“I’ve lived a life full of shame.”
“Human beings terrify me…”
While surfing the Internet for inspiration, manga-ka Furuya is drawn to the voice behind an enigmatic online diary titled No Longer Human. In it, a broken young man named Yozo Oba recounts in deeply personal, painful, and unsparing detail the depths of his fear — of his father, of other people, of himself — and the wreckage it has left in its wake.
This three-volume manga series by Usamaru Furuya is based on a quasi-autobiographical novel of the same name published in 1948 by celebrated Japanese author Osamu Dazai. Shortly before his 39th birthday, and after multiple failed attempts to end his life over the years, Dazai drowned in a double suicide with a female acquaintance. Furuya’s adaptation of Dazai’s last completed work presents an unpretentious, unsentimental, and devastating depiction of a gifted soul crushed by anxiety, guilt, and the weight of existence.
“Troubled” seems an inadequate description of pitiable protagonist Oba as he stumbles from one experience to another, imagining himself a marionette dangling from strings controlled by the hands of his cold, detached, un-pleasable father. On the surface, he has everything going for him: beauty, charm, intelligence, talent, and a good heart. But as much as these smooth his way in the world, they also feed his personal demons, enable his weaknesses, and leave him, and occasionally those around him, vulnerable to his failures and the cruel vicissitudes of fate.
Oba’s overwhelming fear and incomprehension of others (especially “ordinary” people who don’t seem to have to fake it) is countered by his desperate struggle for their acceptance even as he perceives himself to be inherently unworthy. What makes this particularly affecting for the reader is the fact that Oba knows that something’s wrong with him, that he’s falling apart, and that he’s hurting people who care about him. He wants to fix things, to get better; and yet he’s often helpless to save anyone, believing the most he can do is try to relieve them of the burden of himself.
Amid all the tension and drama, there are still moments of sweetness and humor, sincere and sarcastic, as Oba experiences the happiness of honest connections and creative pride. The reader is thankful for these emotional reprieves, as well as for the distancing frame of the fictional Furuya’s sympathetic yet safe perspective.
The art subtly adds to the power of the story’s blunt, irony-edged text (including select passages and echoing refrains from the original novel). When we see through Oba’s wary eyes, realistically detailed and clean-lined panels are exchanged for more textured, pencil-sketched images, where laughing classmates become leering, hollow-orificed faces swirling off into the air as though smeared by erasers and sucked up into a vortex. In contrast, as he slides further into the miasma of addiction and depression, Oba’s surreal hallucinations are deceptively clear and sharp. Other touches elsewhere, such as innocent blushes or too-wide eyes or harmlessly nondescript features, encourage the reader to form her own opinions about who can or can’t be trusted; opinions which Furuya uses to his advantage.
Unusually, the left-to-right art of this edition was prepared simultaneously with the original by Furuya, himself. Perhaps he felt the story was so important that he wanted as few barriers as possible between it and readers outside of Japan?
In his afterword, Furuya talks of his adolescent identification with Dazai, calling him his “depressive hero,” and of their shared belief in the need to portray the “ruin and negativity” of reality. His acknowledgement that he nevertheless finds himself unable to replicate Dazai’s unqualified hopelessness, in either life or art, is another tiny, but appreciated, comfort.
With its sobering focus on thwarted potential, No Longer Human isn’t for everyone. A tragic, haunting confessional made all the more heart-wrenching by Dazai’s fate, its pages document the protagonist’s self-destructive escape mechanisms as well as the imagined and real-world traumas from which he’s running. Sex, prostitution, rape, nudity, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and strong language — some of which involve minors — all add their weight to a story from which adults and mature older teens should come away moved and thoughtful.