I bought this book by Osamu Dazai at the Kaizosha Book Store at Narita Airport on the way back from Tokyo to London. It was one of perhaps a dozen novels available in English from the bookstore.
Having never read the work of a Japanese novelist, I was eager to try one.
The translator, Donald Keene, has an introduction in which he explains that the literal translation of the Japanese title, Ningen Shikaku, would be “Disqualified as a Human Being”. Having read the novel, I don’t feel that either title does the work justice, but I can’t think of a better one. Keene makes the point that Japanese writers and literary intellectuals, in general feel isolated (as is Yozo, the protagonist in No Longer Human) from the West, where the perception may be that Japanese writers have nothing interesting to offer.
Dazai (June 19, 1909 – June 13, 1948) grew up in a small town in the remote north of Japan. His family was wealthy and educated; Dazai himself was familiar with European literature, American cinema, modern painting and sculpture. So he was very much aware of Western culture. Dazai’s earlier novel, The Setting Sun, was reviewed by Richard Gilman in Jubilee: “Such is the power of art to transfigure what is objectively ignoble or depraved that The Setting Sun is actually deeply moving and even inspiring. . . . To know the nature of despair and to triumph over it in ways that are possible to oneself – imagination was Dasai’s only weapon – is surely a sort of grace.”
No Longer Human is told in the first person by Yozo the youngest child of a large, well-to-do family in the north of Japan. In this regard, Yozo’s background (and perhaps his feelings about others) mirror those of Dazai. The story begins in childhood and continues until about the age of thirty. Yozo is a good-looking child, but he suffers from and extreme lack of self-confidence, and to put my own diagnostic on it: he also suffers from some form of autism in the sense that he has difficulty interpreting the emotions and the motivations of others. His father, a powerful figure, remains remote. He feels disconnected from most of the humanity around him. His coping mechanism is to be the clown: valued by others as a sort of entertainer. While Yozo is obviously intelligent, his disconnection means that he has no real identity or a goal in life. Instead, he is buffeted hither and thither by the forces he encounters.
This theme of disconnection is central to No Longer Human, and it is reinforced by contrast with supporting characters. Yozo’s wife, Yoshiko, is trusting of other people to a fault. Yozo’s companion, Horiki, has an entirely selfish method of dealing with other people. Flatfish, Yozo’s family-imposed guardian, is entirely logical. Given that Japanese society is tightly constrained by a complex web of un-written rules of interaction, it must be particularly interesting in Japan to consider the fate of someone who has never learned the rules, but is Japanese.
Yozo stumbles from one disaster to another, but one cannot help but feel some sympathy for this crippled human being. These feelings of sympathy are aided by the various women who fall in love with Yozo for the “good boy, the angel” that he is. It deepens the tragedy that Yozo is unable to see past the feelings of self-denigration the kind, even loveable character that he is.
If No Longer Human is representative of modern Japanese literature, I would say: “Seek it out!”