Don't you just hate spoilers? I do, too. That's why I always try to include warnings. However, I sometimes ramble a bit too much here or there and maybe a few (or many) key plot points slip without me giving proper notice. So I'd like to include a blanket spoiler warning for the weary internet travelers of the world: Here There Be Spoilers. You've been warned.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai

First of all, if you are the easily depressed type then don't read this book. This book is flat-out troubling in its frankness, but it is utterly fascinating for that very same reason. What is this book I am talking about? Well, the name of it is the title of this blog entry so it shouldn't be that much of a mystery. And the subject matter is not much of a secret, either. It's all in the title of the book. Sort of. The literal translation of the Japanese title is Disqualified from Being Human. That one fits just a bit better, I think. 

This semi-autobiographical novel is about a man named Yozu who feels like he is not a human being and cannot associate with them properly. It reads like a book written by a man at the end of his rope because... well, it is. Less than a year after this book was published in 1948, Osamu (real name: Tsushima Shūji) killed himself by drowning in a canal with a lover; a scene eerily similar to that depicted in this very book. And I suppose that isn't a surprise. Much like the main character in this story, Osamu tried to kill himself but failed on the first try. And then failed again on the second. And third, I think. 

Honestly, I lost count. 

You certainly wouldn't think this is the second highest-selling novel in Japan, but it is and it is considered to be Osamu's masterpiece. Even if it is a barely fictionalized suicide note to the world. What has held this novel- technically, a short novel at only 177 pages- up over the years is that it is just plain well written and very much a fascinating piece of literature. And I do mean literature. I almost forgot what it was like to read literature because it has been so long. 

Of course, I can't speak about the Japanese text because I can't read Japanese. Spoken, I can recognize a few phrases here and there, but written? I only know a few symbols and even then I certainly wouldn't get very far with those. 

However, I trust Donald Keene. This guy actually wrote entire original novels in Japanese and that is mind-boggling to me. This American knows more about Japan than I do about America. And I was born in America and still live in America. He translated the novel in 1958 ten years after it was originally published and his translation is wonderful. I felt like I was reading the original words written by the man himself even though I knew I wasn't. I can only imagine how powerful this novel is in its original text. Even accounting for what was undoubtedly lost in the translation, Keene did a damn good job.

Keene is still alive, too. He is 91 and currently lives in Japan where he plans to live out the rest of his life. 

Osamu is not alive, though. Born in 1909, he surely wouldn't be alive today. However, he certainly should have lived a longer life. When he killed himself in 1948 shortly after getting this book published and before he could finish a novella titled Goodbye (the title yet another chilling foretelling), he proved once and for all that he was a man on a mission. And I suppose he succeeded with that mission. More is to pity. After surviving alcoholism, addiction to morphine, ostracization from his family, and even the WWII air raids... the one thing he couldn't survive was himself. 

And I suppose that makes this novel a bit of bitter irony because it ends openly. Perhaps even hopefully. The main character Yozu disappears after ten years and no one else hears from him again, but we are never explicitly told what happened to him. Perhaps Osamu didn't know what really would happen to Yozu because he didn't know what would happen to himself or perhaps it is because he did know all along. Either way you look at it, this novel ends just a bit happier by not really ending at all. 

If this kind of book interests you then I highly recommend it, but you need to adjust yourself. Western books are different than Japanese books. Japanese literature is about nuance and subtlety. Each word is a morsel to be savored and reflected upon. Indeed, the situations that arise are sometimes more important because of how they are expressed than because of what the situations actually are. Based solely on a plot description a Japanese novel may not sound interesting at all (possibly even dull and boring), but the way it is told is the key to getting enjoyment out of the tale. A simple tale on the surface is often a complex passage into the mind of a scarred human being and you are left changed for the experience. 

At 177 pages this is a short book but at times it felt like a thousand page tome because it weighs so heavy on the mind and I found myself reaching points where I just had to stop reading for a bit. And it is a tough to read. I didn't look forward to picking it back up at times, but I had to. Yes, the subject matter is delivered in an almost cold and clinical manner, but the narrator is even more human and understandable for this very same approach. The dual nature is what makes the book so complex and yet so simple. So tough to read, but so easy to understand. I know that sounds odd, but the answer is simple: He is human and he is as much likeable as he is unlikeable. As cold as he tries to be toward himself it makes you want to be all that more warm towards him. And you will want to root for him even though you know it won't end well. 

But the narrator is far from perfect. Much like the man wielding the pen. Osamu puts himself in this novel in so many ways that you could read his biography (if he has an official one I am not sure, but there's always Wiki) and this book back to back or alongside each other and notice that the changes would be only superficial ones or ones made just to fit the narrative. It is pretty uncomfortable. 

But Osamu was a talented guy, no doubt about it. This one book made me realize that this guy could write and I will read more of his work. This is well-written literature. I said that before, but even if you don't give a crap about Osamu (after this book, you will) you will probably be touched by this book or have your eyes opened just a bit. There were definitely moments where I thought, "You know, that's exactly how I feel" or "I have felt exactly that way before." And I have thought that with other authors, but not quite as often in one book. Considering the source it really does add a layer of perspective to things. 

And the man who couldn't stand himself continues to speak to so many today. This novel alone has been adapted into an anime, multiple manga incarnations, and it has been referenced in other media quite a few times as well. And to think this is a Kindle download... I mean, there's something so bizarre about that. This book is so conveniently available to everyone despite the fact that there is not one thing to be found convenient within these pages for many of those same people. The very people Yozu claimed to not be able to understand. He would probably try to kill himself again if he were alive today. Yozu and Osamu. 


  1. Sounds interesting. I'm going to put this on my list. I was looking at the Kindle version but didn't see anything about the translator. Is there only one English translation? I want to make sure and get the right one if there are more than one floating around.

    1. As far as I know there is only the translation by Donald Keene. I haven't come across anything that tells me of a different translator unlike other books. There are three different translations of a book called Kokoro by a different author that I really want to read, but I am holding off because I want to make sure I pick the one that is truest to the source material. But there is only one translation of No Longer Human that I know of.