Dazai Osamu’s No Longer Human had been on my reading list for a long time. I first found out about the author, like many other people who indulge in watching anime, through the series Bungo Stray Dogs. I was intrigued by the character, and as most characters are based on real Japanese authors, I researched Dazai Osamu and came upon this book. Coincidentally, a few weeks later the book began to gain popularity in the West. Various book YouTubers made review videos about it, and the book had its own table in the waterstones shops. However, I still had a pile of books to read before. But now, after the craze has subsided, of course, I have finally read it. And what can I say, just as I thought, I loved this book. Well, ‘love’ would be perhaps a word too strong to use; but it has been one of the best books I’ve read this year so far.
This book is semi-autobiographical as Osamu himself felt like a misfit and tried to commit suicide several times before he eventually succeeded. This book has an embedded narrative, three notebooks, which form the main story. An author is given these notebooks with three photos. In the prologue, the author discusses those photos, giving a first glimpse of the protagonist of the story. The three photos are of Yozo’s growing up, from childhood to adulthood. ‘I have never seen such an inscrutable face on a man,’ the author concludes, stating that the man seemingly has lost his humanity, which is the central theme of the novel. After the analysis, the reader gets to read the notebooks. The notebooks were written by Yozo who grew up in a wealthy family in Japan’s countryside. The family is rather restrictive, doesn’t communicate during dinner, and the father doesn’t show much affection for his children. Yozo, ever since a child, struggled to fit in. He took to clowning, acting as the family’s clown and later the class clown, to be liked by other people. But his inward struggle remains unresolved and further deteriorates his mental state throughout the three notebooks. He cannot figure out other human beings, feeling disqualified from the human race (the literal translation of the book title is ‘Disqualified as a Human Being’). As a result, Yozo is highly insecure and depressed. He later goes to school in another town, is taken care of by relatives, and studies in Tokyo, but he drops out of classes to drink, smoke, and have sex with prostitutes. He has got one friend, or more like acquaintances who brings him to art classes and becomes his drinking crony. But Yozo can’t confide in him, nor anyone else. He remains timid and scared, most of the time he’s broke because of his drinking habit, making a bit of money by selling mangas he draws or porn. He hides his self-portraits which he excelled at drawing back when he was a child, scared that people will reject them/him. Yozo has several relationships and wives, but runs away each time he can no longer handle being with them. He tries to commit suicide with a woman; the woman dies and he survives, and is subsequently interrogated by the police; as helping someone to commit suicide is a crime in Japan, he might end up in jail. His family abandons him as he’s now become a disgrace, but he gets help from an old benefactor who brings him to his place, from which Yozo eventually also flees. There too was no comfort or love for him, but further reticence and coldness. Yozo ends up working in a bar in Tokyo, and marries again, but grows more and more desperate. He tries to commit suicide again, fails, and is sent to an asylum, where he writes his notebooks.
Yozo’s story is a story of loneliness and alienation; someone who is afraid of the human race, doesn’t feel like he qualifies for being human, and thus, never opens up to others but keeps running away, drowning his problems in alcohol and drugs. The novel concludes with an epilogue of the man revealing he is an author who was given this notebook by the madam of the bar Yozo used to work for. The author, just as he thought badly about Yozo when he analysed the photos, says to the barwoman he’d also have put Yozo into an asylum. This is the general perception most people, Yozo and most readers included, would have of him. The barwoman, on the other hand, puts Yozo in a different light. She blames Yozo’s father for his misfortune and concludes the novel by saying ‘he was a good boy, an angel.’
The introduction and epilogue serve as a second perspective we gain of Yozo. The author who reads the notebook sees him as a madman, much like Yozo sees himself, whereas the barwoman who gave the author the notebook and knows Yozo personally, gives the reader a hint of both, the author and Yozo himself, weren’t aware of. Yozo wasn’t a bad man, he’s neither white nor black, good or evil, he is a complex character who makes us question how we view people, and how they are responsible for their actions when they experience extreme mental illness. Yozo made mistakes and was flawed, just like any other person. But he was also just a man trying to make sense of life, and his anxiety and distress made living a literal Hell for him. Never does the reader once gets the sense that he experienced happiness. We don’t know if Yozo is still in the asylum, succeeded in another suicide attempt, or is perhaps living a better life (though, I would say it’s one of the former than the latter).