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Book Review: Junji Ito’s “No Longer Human” is a Stunning Semi-autobiographical Chronicle

Friday, January 17, 2020 | Review

By Alison Lang

During a pivotal scene in horror manga artist Junji Ito’s latest book, No Longer Human, the protagonist/antihero Ōba Yōzō is invited to a Marxist group meeting in 1950s-era Tokyo. Yōzō isn’t really a joiner type, and he contemptuously imagines the activists morphing into a cluster of giant cockroaches with twitching antennae and black glistening eyes. If this was a typical Ito tale, this scene might end with the narrator slowly backing away from the bugs, his mouth gaping in madness and terror. But in Yōzō’s twisted worldview, human society is the nightmare; the insects, instead, are a soothing balm. “It put me at ease,” he reflects, “because the most dreadful thing in the world for me was human beings.”

So unfolds Ito’s stunning 600-page illustrated ode to misanthropy, self-destruction and malaise, based on the 1948 novel of the same name by Osamu Dazai. Widely touted as Japan’s second best-selling novel, No Longer Human also serves as a semi-autobiographical chronicle of a writer’s life etched with self-loathing and despair. An alcoholic, addict and womanizer, Dazai attempted suicide twice, once with a woman who died while he survived. He then discovered a talent for writing novels and began growing in stature. In 1948, after the publication of No Longer Human, he successfully ended his life, drowning himself with a lover in a Tokyo canal. With these facts in mind, it’s safe to say that No Longer Human is a rather grim ride – one that plumbs the depths of psychological and philosophical horror far deeper than anything Ito has produced before.

On the surface, our dear narrator Ōba Yōzō seemingly has everything going for him – he’s born to an affluent family with good standing in Japanese society. He’s rakishly handsome and shows signs of artistic talent. And moreover, he’s hilarious – a goofy joker who engages in pratfalls and mugging to the great delight of his classmates, teachers and most of the adults in his orbit. Yet, Yōzō harbours a secret: he’s completely unable to relate to any of the people in his life, and harbours a profound sense of alienation and emptiness– a howling chasm that yawns ever-wider within him as he lurches towards adulthood. 

To make matters worse, Yōzō’s disconnection kicks into rapid overdrive when he is raped by both a male and female servant on his family’s estate. This act of traumatic violence is rendered with shocking and grotesque clarity by Ito and sets the tone for the chronicle of pain that Yōzō endures and inflicts upon everyone in his orbit. To describe the ensuing plot is to list an endless catalogue of maladies: Yōzō lies to an ugly classmate about a matter of love, driving him to commit suicide, and gets involved in an incestuous love triangle that ends in murder. As one might expect, it’s the women in Yōzō’s life that receive the brunt of his sociopathy, offering him their bodies, shelter, money and endless forgiveness in exchange for broken promises, repeated betrayals, and a roiling numbness and lassitude that grows along with his seemingly unquenchable thirst for gin. The book reaches an early fever pitch when Yōzō encourages his depressive lover to overdose on pills with him by the seaside: as her tongue swells and her body convulses, the still-conscious Yōzō kicks her into the river. And still, his miserable life plods onward.

No Longer Human would be truly insufferable if not for  Dazai’s skill at crafting narrative and character and Ito’s thoughtfulness and creativity in translating the story into art. Much like Howard Ratner, the horrifying jeweller dealer played by Adam Sandler in the Safdie Brothers’ 2019 movie Uncut Gems, Yōzō becomes somehow more unlikeable and makes progressively worse decisions throughout the course of the story. Yet inexplicably I found myself rooting for this depressive wretch – that somehow, he would see the value of living an honest and kind life and set himself on a better course. This weird, untenable desire keeps the pages turning and hearkens back to Dazai’s literary brethren in self-loathing and societal hatred, including Albert Camus and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Ito’s translation of these ideas on the page is almost unfathomably visceral, a brilliant experimentation with texture and movement that marks a career highlight. He renders No Longer Human’s characters with astonishing detail and a humanity that belies Yōzō’s stunted perspective while still honouring his twisted imagination. In this manga, the rigors of life turn all of Yōzō’s friends and family into monsters: eyes bulge in wordless shock at his deceit, mouths twist into cackling rictuses, and bodies convulse and slump in rage, pain and defeat. In one scene, Yōzō and his lover are depicted as two bodies melting into each other: a perfect visual metaphor of how Yōzō’s misanthropy consumes everyone around him.

In the novel’s most visceral moment, Yōzō begins a descent into hell, weighted down by 10 tumor-life “misfortunes” in his body. He begins violently vomiting them up one by one, reliving the pain he has wrought upon others in a desperate attempt to slow his downward slide. The whole scene is the most Junji-Ito-esque thing I can imagine: a combination of existential dread and body horror that’s almost beyond comprehension. But he knows when to dial back, too: in a new ending to the story, Ito imagines Yōzō meeting Dazai himself while staying in a sanatorium. The imagined interaction between the two men is gentle and evocative, using gestures and gazes to convey an unexpected and beautiful moment of compassion. It’s a moment of much-needed respite and loveliness.

As I read through No Longer Human, captivated and repelled in equal measure, part of me wondered: Do we really need more stories about misanthropic men constantly getting second (and third, and fourth) chances, even when their stories are rendered by geniuses like Junji Ito? After all, we’ve all known people who, to a less extreme effect, exist like Yōzo: sad sacks and energy vampires of all sorts who enact casual cruelties on the people around them and still manage to get by and find people to take care of them, apologize for them, even love them. But I also feel most horror fans (especially marginalized folks, especially folks with mental illnesses, and especially those who are creators themselves)  have a passing familiarity with this type of artistic disconnection – of feeling misunderstood, of craving space and silence from other humans, away from judgement and expectation and pre-conception. In No Longer Human, Ito and Dazai tap into this potential alienation like a vein and plunge deep into its nightmarish possibilities. There is something perversely cathartic about seeing how deep into the the darkness an artist can go, wondering if we could go there too and be strong enough to emerge on the other side.