No Longer Human, Volume 3

No Longer Human, Volume 3Creator: Usamaru Furuya
Original story: Osamu Dazai

U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781935654377
Released: February 2012
Original release: 2011

Osamu Dazai’s semi-autobiographical novel No Longer Human, originally published in Japan in 1948, has had a least three manga adaptations. Of those, only one is currently available in English—a three-volume series by Usamaru Furuya. I have been interested in Furuya’s work ever since I read Lychee Light Club, and so I was very happy when Vertical licensed his No Longer Human manga series. No Longer Human, Volume 3 was first published in Japan in 2011 while the English-language edition was released in 2012. The original novel was a fairly dark work. While Furuya has taken some liberties with his version of the story—using himself as a framing character and updating the setting to contemporary Japan, among other changes—the No Longer Human manga is also quite dark. Furuya argues in the afterword that his ending is somewhat more uplifting than Dazai’s, but it is still severe. Vertical describes the third volume as “the devastating finale” which is incredibly apt.

Disowned by his family and the survivor of a double suicide, Yozo Oba’s life was falling apart. Getting by on his good looks, he lived for a time as a kept man until he ran away from that situation, too. But then he met and fell in love with Yoshino, a young woman working at the cigarette shop that he frequented. Yoshino and Yozo elope and have now been married for a year. For the first time in his life Yozo is genuinely happy. He has a wonderful trusting wife who loves and accepts him for who he is, the only person with whom he can be completely open and honest. He’s gainfully employed, his manga for children is popular and selling well and with the extra income from his side job drawing erotic illustrations, he and Yoshino are able to live quite comfortably. Yozo still carries some guilt over his past, something that his supposed friend Horiki never lets him forget, but he’s now starting to look forward to his future. And then it all comes crashing down. Yozo’s perfect fantasy life is destroyed and he is destroyed along with it.

Having previously read Dazai’s orignal novel (several times, actually), I was all too aware the direction that Furuya’s No Longer Human was heading. Actually, from the beginning of the manga series alone it is known that Yozo’s story is not a happy one. But knowing what’s in store does not necessarily make it any easier to witness it happen. There is nothing that the reader can do but to watch the events unfold. Yozo is doomed from the very start. Something happens to this young man, seemingly loved by all, to cause his life to completely shatter. He should be in the prime of his youth but becomes so broken that most assume him to be more than twice his age. The third volume of Furuya’s No Longer Human outlines his final and ultimate downfall, the one from which he is never to recover. It’s made even more tragic because he has finally experienced true happiness and contentment only to have it torn from his grasp.

Throughout the No Longer Human manga the tremendous disconnect between how Yozo views himself and how others perceive him has been shown. It’s one of the driving forces behind the story. Up until the very end people insist that Yozo is a good person, but to him it has all been an act. He holds a pessimistic view of the world and recoils from humanity. What many people would consider to be a source of hope and salvation only guarantees Yozo’s undoing. Eventually he becomes a drug addict which only amplifies his fears and anxieties and further damages his precarious state of mind. His increasingly twisted and tormented psyche is reflected quite clearly in Furuya’s artwork. No Longer Human is an unrelenting and even terrifying tale. Even at his worst I can still see a little bit of myself in Yozo. It’s perhaps because of this that I find the series to be so effectively gut-wrenching. Furuya’s adaptation of Dazai’s novel is excellent, bringing his own interpretation to the story while staying true to the dark heart of the original.

Genkaku Picasso, Volume 3

Genkaku Picasso, Volume 3Creator: Usamaru Furuya
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421539201
Released: May 2011
Original release: 2010

The third and final volume of Usamaru Furuya’s short manga series Genkaku Picasso was originally published in Japan in 2010. Viz Media released the English-language edition of the volume in 2011 under its Shonen Jump imprint. Genkaku Picasso was initially serialized in the manga magazine Jump SQ. Furuya mentions in the series’ afterword that he was somewhat surprised to have been approached to create a manga by one of the Jump SQ editors since he didn’t consider his previous work to have had much popular, mass appeal. (Furuya made his debut in the alternative manga magazine Garo and is particularly well-known for some of his more avant-garde work.) Genkaku Picasso was originally intended to be only two volumes long. Happily, Furuya was able to expand the series to three volumes, which allowed him to tie everything together in the way that he wanted. Although I enjoyed the first volume of Genkaku Picasso the manga starts out a little unsteady. But by the end, Furuya has created a fantastic series.

For most of his life, Hikari Hamura has been content to keep to himself and concentrate on his drawing. He’s earned himself the nickname of Picasso from his classmates (much to his dismay as he greatly prefers the work of Leonardo da Vinci), but up until recently they have mostly ignored him. Picasso is as strange and gloomy as he ever was, if not more so, but many of his classmates are beginning to feel drawn to him for some unknown reason. What they don’t realize is that Picasso has been helping to solve their personal problems. After nearly dying in a bizarre accident Picasso has gained a strange ability that allows him to see and draw the darkness that exists in another person’s heart. He can enter into those sketches, and by changing them he influences his classmates lives, hopefully for the better. This power is something that Picasso has tried to keep hidden from the others but it becomes difficult for them to disregard his increasingly odd behaviour, especially when he seems to know things that they would never reveal to someone else.

Genkaku Picasso starts out as a fairly episodic series. Generally, I found the longer stories—those lasting several chapters—to be more successful than the shorter ones as they feel less rushed and more thoroughly developed. It’s only really during the second volume that it becomes clear that there is also an overarching plot. The details of that larger story are completely reveled in the third volume of Genkaku Picasso. With a little bit of a lead in, “Hikari’s Story” takes up nearly half of Genkaku Picasso, Volume 3. It’s the longest story in Genkaku Picasso and is what pulls together the entire series. Up until this point in the manga, while Picasso has certainly been the protagonist, the stories have largely focused on his classmates and the issues that they are struggling with. But in “Hikari’s Story” their roles are reversed and it’s Picasso who needs help. It’s an extremely effective turn of events that brings the series full circle quite nicely.

The ending of Genkaku Picasso is actually a little heart-wrenching. Picasso starts the series almost a complete loner. Except for Chiaki, who hung out with him despite his protests, most of his classmates simply took no notice of him. Picasso was perfectly fine with this, or at least that’s what he told himself. As Genkaku Picasso progresses, Picasso slowly gathers people around him as he helps them with their problems. But it’s not until the third volume that he actually admits that he has friends and that he actually wants friends. Picasso has to be completely honest with himself and with the others, which in reality is a very terrifying thing to have to do. With “Hikari’s Story” the entire series becomes about Picasso and shows the tremendous amount of growth that he has gone through. I’m very glad that Furuya was able to extend Genkaku Picasso and give it a marvelous conclusion. Even considering its somewhat awkward start, Genkaku Picasso is a wonderful series. I thoroughly enjoyed its quirky humor and characters, its engaging artwork, and its somewhat peculiar but ultimately heartfelt story.

Short Cuts, Volume 2

Short Cuts, Volume 2Creator: Usamaru Furuya
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781591160694
Released: August 2003
Original release: 1999

Originally serialized in Young Sunday, Short Cuts was Usamaru Furuya’s first manga created for a major, mainstream publication. It was also his first manga to be completely released in English. His debut work, Palepoli, was serialized in the alternative manga magazine Garo and has only partially been made available in English. (Select excerpts from Palepoli are available in Japan Edge: The Insider’s Guide to Japanese Pop Subculture and Secret Comics Japan: Underground Comics Now.) Short Cuts began its serialization in 1996, two years after Furuya made his manga debut. The second collected volume of Short Cuts was initially published in Japan in 1999. The English-language edition of the volume was released by Viz Media in 2003. This was after Pulp, the magazine in which Short Cuts was being serialized in English, was canceled. I very much enjoyed the first volume of Short Cuts and so am happy that both volumes, though sadly now out of print, were released.

Short Cuts is a darkly comedic and vaguely surreal gag manga and satire. Each cut—there are exactly one hundred of them in the second volume—is a short manga only a page or two in length. As in the first volume, there are some recurring jokes, characters, and setups, but even the related cuts can generally be read on their own. Any sort of overarching plot is nearly nonexistent. Kogals and the kogal subculture, which were particularly prominent in Japan while Short Cuts was initially being serialized, remain the most common topics in the manga. However, there are plenty of other subjects that Furuya uses for his material, often the stranger the better. He draws inspiration from Japanese pop culture and celebrities, other manga creators (frequently mimicking their individual styles in the process), and even history and contemporary politics.

In the afterword to the series, Furuya mentions that Short Cuts was initially intended to be “light, pop, and sexy” but as the series progressed it became a bit stranger until “old people and weirdos stood out.” I’m pretty sure Furuya includes himself when he is talking about weirdos. Increasingly, the gags in Short Cuts refer to the trials and tribulations of manga artists and illustrators. Furuya has several personal avatars in Short Cuts who either break the fourth wall to interact with the cuts or are the stars of their very own. With the second volume the humor in Short Cuts has become even more self-aware. Furuya is not afraid to make fun of himself or his manga. Another recurring character is a kogal named Mai. (The frequency of her appearances actually becomes a joke in and of itself.) She’s a delightfully peculiar young woman with an even odder family. In some ways, Mai and Furuya together are representative of the series as a whole and the relationship between creation and creator. The ending of Short Cuts—if a series without much of a plot can be said to have an “ending”—is actually rather touching because of this.

Short Cuts is a very strange manga, which is probably one of the major reasons that I like it so well. I enjoy Furuya’s chameleon-like artwork in the series as well as his absurd, dark, and surreal humor, all of which can admittedly be rather raunchy and vulgar from time to time. Many but certainly not all of the gags in Short Cuts rely on the reader having at least passing familiarity with Japanese culture and society, but there are plenty of notes from the translator included for those who might need a bit of extra help. Overall, I think I slightly preferred the first volume of Short Cuts over the second, though I can’t seem to identify exactly why that is. I was still consistently amused by Short Cuts, Volume 2 and Furuya can still make me laugh out loud. Short Cuts remains one of my favorite gag manga, but its peculiar sense of humor and sharp social commentary definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste.

No Longer Human, Volume 2

No Longer Human, Volume 2Creator: Usamaru Furuya
Original story: Osamu Dazai

U.S. publisher: Vertical
ISBN: 9781935654223
Released: December 2011
Original release: 2010

Usamaru Furuya’s manga series No Longer Human is an adaptation of Osamu Dazai’s 1948 semi-autobiographical novel No Longer Human. Furuya’s manga adaptation began serialization in Weekly Comic Bunch in 2009. The second volume of the series was published in Japan in 2010 while the English-language edition was released in 2011 by Vertical. No Longer Human was the second manga by Furuya that was published by Vertical, the first being the one-volume Lychee Light Club. Although Furuya’s No Longer Human is based on Dazai’s novel, he has taken a few liberties with his rendition, one of the most notable changes being that the story is now set in the 2000s instead of the 1920s and ’30s. Furuya has also inserted himself into the manga as a framing character. These changes, as well as others, are actually quite effective. It is not at all necessary to have read the original No Longer Human to appreciate Furuya’s interpretation of the story.

Yozo Oba attempted a double suicide with a club hostess named Ageha, but only she drowned while he survived. He’s come to the realization that although he doesn’t want to die, he doesn’t want to live, either. Yozo has long since been disowned by his family and the one person for whom he held any sort of honest feelings is now gone. He spends his days directionless and in despair, slowly recovering from a torturous situation partly of his one making. He desperately wants some meaning to his life, but has failed to discover what that might be. At one point he thinks he’s found it, only to have it snatched away from him. Yozo was once adored by all and even in his current pitiful state people are drawn to him and dare to care about him. He uses this to his advantage, putting on airs to get what he wants and needs, recognizing all the while how distasteful it is. Yozo uses people and he knows it. To him, life is still an act.

No Longer Human is a dark and troubling manga series. Yozo doesn’t treat himself well and treats those around him even worse. He is extremely manipulative and frankly can be a terrible person. And yet at the same time Yozo is a tragic figure; No Longer Human is heart-wrenching. While I don’t find his portrayal in the manga to be as sympathetic as it is in the novel, there are still points with which I can empathize. Yozo has a fear of people and their expectations of him that prevents him from being authentic. He’s repeatedly told that he is a good, sweet, and kind person, but this is the last thing he wants to hear. Yozo’s extraordinarily anxiety-ridden and conflicted over it because he see the life he is living as one big lie. He is very aware of his dishonesty and how he misleads people, but continues to do so because he is so desperate to be liked and accepted. Occasionally he manages to express some feelings of legitimate remorse and genuine caring, but more often than that it is already too late to undo any of the damage done.

No Longer Human, Volume 2 follow Yozo from the depths of despair to the heights of happiness and back again. Those glimmers of hope that Yozo will be able to turn his life around make his failure to do so even more anguished as he lets chance after chance to slip through his fingers. Furuya’s artwork in No Longer Human suits the story well, capturing Yozo’s internal and emotional turmoil and dragging the readers along for the ride. Furuya provides disconcerting glimpses into Yozo’s psyche, visually expressing his suffering through imagery of suffocation (harkening back to his near-drowning) and showing the ugliness he sees in the world. No Longer Human isn’t necessarily an easy read and it can be emotionally exhausting, but I find it to be incredibly compelling and difficult to turn away from as well. Yozo may not often be particularly likeable, but as with so many of the other characters in the series I can’t help but wish the best for him no matter how doomed he seems.

Genkaku Picasso, Volume 2

Genkaku Picasso, Volume 2Creator: Usamaru Furuya
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421537542
Released: February 2011
Original release: 2009

Genkaku Picasso was the second multi-volume manga series by Usamaru Furuya to be released in English. The first was a seinen gag manga called Short Cuts which, like Genkaku Picasso, was published by Viz Media. Genkaku Picasso is very different from Short Cuts. It’s an example of one of Furuya’s few shōnen manga and is currently his only shōnen series available in English. Furuya is an extremely versatile artist, changing styles, genres, and demographics to suit his needs. He had his start in alternative manga, but Genkaku Picasso, while quirky, is a more mainstream title. Initially serialized in Jump SQ, the second volume of Genkaku Picasso was released in Japan in 2009. Viz Media published Genkaku Picasso, Volume 2 under its Shonen Jump imprint in 2011. I found the first volume of Genkaku Picasso to be intriguing, but more uneven and less compelling than some of the other manga by Furuya that I had read. But with the second volume, the series finds its footing.

After a bizarre near-death experience, Hikari Hamura, given the nickname Picasso by his classmates, finds himself in an even stranger predicament. Chiaki Yamamoto, a victim of the same accident that nearly killed Picasso, is now small enough to fit in his pocket and is sporting angel wings. Picasso himself has gained the ability to see into people’s hearts and minds. Compelled to draw what he sees, he can literally enter into the psyches of others through his illustrations. Using this newfound power, Picasso is able to help his fellow classmates. Not that he really wants to go to all that effort. In fact, he’d much rather be left alone to concentrate on his artwork. But unless he wants to let his arm rot away—another peculiar consequence of his accident—Picasso must do what he can to help those around him. With Chiaki’s assistance and prodding he has successfully resolved some of his classmates problems and has even gained a few friends in the process, but Picasso is still incredibly reluctant to get involved.

Although there has always been an ongoing story in the series, the beginning of Genkaku Picasso felt fairly episodic. However, with the second volume the series starts to become a bit more cohesive. The stories in the first volume seemed to be resolved a little too simply and cleanly, but as Genkaku Picasso progresses it becomes apparent that it’s not really that easy. Picasso has helped some of his classmates (though they are only aware of that subconsciously) but they continue to have problems; he hasn’t solved everything for them. The first volume’s stories had a “one and done” sort of feel to them while the issues in the second volume, even after they are initially resolved, are long-lasting challenges. They are things that the characters may very well struggle with for the rest of their lives. I much prefer this approach since realistically matters of the heart and mind are not so easily mended. I think Genkaku Picasso becomes a stronger, better series with the inclusion of these more complicated and nuanced narratives.

From the very beginning one of Genkaku Picasso‘s strengths has been its artwork, something that continues to be a highlight in the second volume. Furuya uses a variety of art styles in the series. Picasso enters the drawings he creates of other people’s hearts. They are filled with beautiful, surreal, and even disturbing imagery, allowing Furuya to creatively illustrate and explore the characters’ internal states of mind. But probably the greatest reason that I find the second volume of Genkaku Picasso to be more effective than the first is that the problems that Picasso must help to try to solve happen to be more relevant to me personally. For me, many of the stories in the first volume were little far-fetched while those in the second volume are a bit more realistic and universal. Most of them focus on love, romance, gender, or sexuality which are themes that I have a particular interest in. I could personally identify with the characters in Genkaku Picasso, Volume 2 in ways that I previously couldn’t. I did enjoy the first volume of Genkaku Picasso, but I was able to appreciate the second volume even more.