No Longer Human

Author: Osamu Dazai
Translator: Donald Keene
U.S. publisher: New Directions
ISBN: 9780811204811
Released: January 1973
Original release: 1948

No Longer Human is only the second work by Osamu Dazai that I’ve read, the first being The Setting Sun. The Setting Sun was also the first of Dazai’s works to be translated into English. In 1958, No Longer Human became the second. New Directions then later republished Donald Keene’s translation in a paperback edition in 1973. The novel was in the middle of serialization in Japan in 1948 at the time of Dazai’s death. Along with The Setting Sun, No Longer Human is one of Dazai’s most well known novels. It also remains one of the top bestselling books in Japan to this day. The story has received several adaptations, including a manga adaptation by Usamaru Furuya to be published in English by Vertical in 2011. I have been meaning to read No Longer Human for some time now. Since it played such an important role in Mizuki Nomura’s Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime, which I recently read and enjoyed, I figured it was about time I got around to it.

To all appearances, Oba Yozo is a normal young man. The youngest son of a respectable family, leading a good life, and well liked by others, very few people would guess at his personal turmoil. He feels completely alienated from human society and finds it difficult to understand what exactly it is that is required of him. To cope, he becomes the class clown, hoping that if he can keep people amused and distracted they won’t notice his failings as a human. He is absolutely terrified that he will be revealed as a fraud. Because of this, he finds himself easily taken advantage of and subject to other people’s influence and desires for better and for worse.

No Longer Human spoke to me on a very personal level and considering how well received the novel is I’m assuming I’m not the only one. I identified very closely with the protagonist and his worldview, although admittedly we have dealt with our issues in drastically different ways. It is this potential for empathy that makes No Longer Human so compelling. There are very few people in this world who haven’t felt some sort of disconnect between themselves and the rest of society at one point or another. Dazai captures this feeling of alienation honestly and completely in No Longer Human. The novel almost reads like a confession. In some ways, while being very personal, Yozo’s struggles are also incredibly universal.

As with many of Dazai’s other works, No Longer Human incorporates many semi-autobiographical elements, lending to the novel’s sense of authenticity and immediacy. The story is tragic and probably not something you would want to read if you’re already feeling down or depressed. Yozo is arguably an unreliable narrator, certainly other characters don’t entirely believe him and assume much of his story is exaggerated, but I am convinced he is being truthful. In fact, the others’ disbelief helps to emphasize his feeling of separation from those around him. The structure of the novel is interesting in that Yozo’s narrative is bookended by a prologue and epilogue by another, unnamed character who provides a supposedly objective view of the events described. No Longer Human is not a particularly long novel but it is still a potent story. I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself returning to read it again.

The Setting Sun

Author: Osamu Dazai
Translator: Donald Keene
U.S. publisher: New Directions
ISBN: 9780811200325
Released: June 1968
Original release: 1947

One of my sempai at my dōjō took a class in Japanese literature a few years ago and Osamu Dazai’s The Setting Sun was the book that stuck with her the most. I know of Dazai from reading John Nathan’s biography of Yukio Mishima since he is mentioned several times in that book, but I know very little about him and his work beyond that. The Setting Sun, first published in Japan in 1947, was one of his last novels to be finished before his death by suicide in 1948. Like much of his work, The Setting Sun incorporates autobiographical elements into the story. Dazai was a very popular author in Japan, particularly during the postwar period, and quite a few of his books have been translated into English. In fact, I believe The Setting Sun, translated by Donald Keene, was Dazai’s first novel to be made available in English.

Kazuko is a young woman from a minor aristocratic family, although that means less now after the war. Married once but now divorced she lives with her mother. After her father’s death the two move to a house in Izu, no longer able to afford living in Tokyo. With their money gone and little support available to them from surviving family members, the two women resort to selling off their clothing and belongings. Kazuko’s troubles continue when her brother, thought to have died during the war, returns home. As glad as she is to see him alive, Naoji is a relapsed opium addict and a strain on the family’s dwindling finances. Kazuko is steadily losing her sense of self and place in society. However, she knows she is the only person who can change her own fate and she is prepared to take those steps.

I liked Kazuko as a protagonist. I definitely didn’t agree with all of the decisions that she made, and she occasionally annoyed me, but she was an authentic character. Her fondness of and frustration with her mother and brother is obvious, but she truly does care about her family. Kazuko both admires and reveres her mother, realizing that she will never be able to achieve the same level of distinction that comes so effortlessly to her mother. Naoji’s relationship with her sister is understandably strained, but at the same time she still seems willing to do anything for him. This is certainly not to say that Kazuko is entirely unselfish—she is quite capable of acting in complete disregard for other people, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

The Setting Sun is a short novel, well under two hundred pages, but Dazai is still able to create quite an emotional impact. The book is written from Kazuko’s perspective, but much of it is made up of journal entries and letters rather than being a straight narrative. Dazai also has a propensity to use flashback sequences which can be effective but also confusing if the reader isn’t paying attention. There is also a significant amount of symbolism involved but it is not impenetrable. Overall, The Setting Sun is a rather melancholy and pessimistic story. Kazuko is having to deal with the literal and figurative death of both the Japanese aristocracy and her family while struggling to claim her life as her own in a society still in transition. I found The Setting Sun to be an engaging novel and will probably seek out more of Dazai’s works to read.