The path that led me to reading Dazai Osamu’s No Longer Human was paved by anime. My pandemic-fueled internet immersion led me to an anime called Bungou Stray Dogs (Literary Stray Dogs), which re-imagines famous Japanese writers as seinen characters whose powers and personalities derive from the writers’ works and lives. It’s tremendously popular in Japan, Russia, and Brazil, but less so in the Anglophonic world. The second season introduces American writers, and is unsurprisingly the best-loved by the American audience. For me, it’s served as a fantastic diving board into Japanese literature. For instance, Be Not Defeated by the Rain by Kenji Miyazawa is my new favorite poem, and it is hilarious to see it being quoted as its eponymous character (who is a country bumpkin cinnamon roll) demonstrates his super strength (link to the poem here: http://www.kenji-world.net/english/download/works/Rain.html). Another of the characters is named Dazai Osamu, and his power is called No Longer Human, which allows him to nullify other’s abilities. That is the story of how I came to read this classic of Japanese literature.
Perhaps the least-discussed symptom of depression is selfishness. We know that those afflicted with depression suffer, and that if those around them also suffer, it isn’t intentional. Depression also defeats its own cure: what is required to overcome depression is precisely what the depressive can’t do. Even in this age, where we understand mental illnesses better and have effective treatments and medicines, researching therapists, pursuing treatment, and doing the necessary work outside of therapy sessions are all things that a depressive finds oppresively difficult.
Depression, at least in my experience, causes you to turn almost entirely inward. You don’t see the outside world; you are locked into your perception of it, your perception of yourself, your perception of your past. You aren’t interested in anything outside of yourself, and that includes the people around you. It’s so difficult to engage with the people external to you that they start to aggravate you; if they try to help, all you can see is their failure to understand, the undue burden they place on you. In his portrait of a protagonist almost certainly experiencing clinical depression, Dazai Osamu centers this aspect of depression. In a communal society, selfishness is perhaps the worst sin, one that disqualifies Yozo from being human (one way of interpreting Dazai’s title).
Yozo is not a good person. Throughout the story, he is helped over and over again by those in his orbit, even though he cultivates few social relationships, and he doesn’t seem to recognize that help and at times resents it. Any offense or difficulty he faces is inflated and portrayed as impossible to overcome. He is preoccupied with his inability to understand human interaction and consumed by clownishly aping it, and the entire process fills him with anxiety. He turns an innocent young woman into his redemption, and when she is raped, he makes her loss of innocence and trust all about himself.
Many of the details of Yozo’s life are similar to Dazai Osamu’s—both characters attempt suicide multiple times. Like Yozo, Dazai failed in his attempt at a double suicide and was charged as an accomplice in the death of the woman, Shimeko Tanabe. Like Yozo, he was an alcoholic. He eventually succeeded in a later double suicide with Tomie Yamazaki, a short time after the last installment of No Longer Human was published.
Weirdly, considering its content, No Longer Human is compulsively readable. Its autobiographical nature makes it feel like you’re reading someone’s diary. It also has a psychological depth I usually find in French literature—in fact, many Japanese writers of this period were heavily influenced by French writers, and Dazai studied French literature at Tokyo Imperial University. Yozo isn’t a good person, but his failure to grasp the world around him, and himself, is more compelling than another protagonist’s successful grasp may be. No Longer Human remains one of the most popular books in Japan.