幌木のあの不思議な美しい微笑に自分は泣き、 判断も抵抗も忘れて自転車に乗り、 そうしてここに連れて来られて、 狂人という事になりました。 いまに、 ここから出ても、 自分はやっぱり狂人、 いや、 癈人という刻印を額に打たれることでしょう。
人間、失格。
もはや、自分は、完全に、人間で無くなりました。

-- 「人間失格」 太宰治

Crying when I saw that mysterious, beautiful smile of Horiki's, forgetting all judgement and caution, hopping on my bike and letting them take me here... and now I had become this thing called a madman. From now on, even I leave this place, I will always be a madman, nay, I will have the stamp of "cripple" on my forehead.
Ningen shikkaku.
I have become no longer human.

-- No Longer Human, Osamu Dazai
(translated by gn0sis)

Ningen shikkaku (人間失格), usually translated No Longer Human but literally "Human Disqualified", is Osamu Dazai's second masterpiece, eclipsed only by his breakthrough novel Shayo (The Setting Sun). The book is a largely autobiographical work that helped create the modern Japanese style of shishousetsu (私小説), the "I-novel", which recounts the author's own life in first person under the thinnest of disguises. (Later examples include Yukio Mishima's Confessions of a Mask and almost everything by Amy Yamada.) Dazai actually goes to some length to hide the autobiographical nature of the book, including a lengthy afterword which states that he does not know the protagonist of the story and then proceeds to concoct an unlikely tale about receiving the manuscript from a Chiban barkeeper after a customer had left it in the bar by accident. Still, the similarities between the lives of the unnamed protagonist (known only as Jibun, "me") and Dazai's own life seem more than coincidental, as both:

  • were born in Tohoku to a wealthy family
  • were sickly as children but excelled in school
  • dabbled with communism at university
  • were expelled from their families
  • avoided military service during WW2
  • attempted suicide with a lover by throwing themselves off a cliff, surviving while the woman died
  • committed adultery
  • drank too much
  • became addicted to opiates and were forced to quit cold turkey in a mental hospital
I could go on, but you get the picture. As for differences, Dazai was a writer but Jibun is a mangaka (comic artist), and -- the only thing that surprised me in the plot -- Jibun's ultimate fate does not match Dazai's.

But, perversely fascinating as Dazai/Jibun's life may have been, this is not a book to read for the plot. Dazai is at his best here, weaving a complicated, egocentric tapestry focusing on the many torments of his life, all the failings of body and character that he is painfully, debilitatingly aware of, the pain he inflicts on others and his utter inability to stop committing what he calls his crimes (罪, tsumi). Yet amidst the bleakness and devastation are stunning scenes of beauty and horror, like this one:

東京に大雪の降った夜でした。 自分は酔って銀座裏を、 ここはお国を何百里、 ここはお国の何百里、 と小声で繰り返し繰り呟くように歌いながら、 なおも降りつもる雪を靴先で蹴散らして歩いて、 突然、吐きました。 そらは自分の最初の喀血でした。 雪の上に、大きい日の丸の旗が出来ました。 自分は、しばらくしゃがんで、それから、 よごれていない場所の雪を 両手で掬い取って、顔を洗いながら泣きました。
Snow fell on that night in Tokyo. I was drunk, walking around the back of the Ginza, kicking at piles of snow and singing "Ah, these are the miles of my country!" quietly to myself, over and over again. Suddenly, I vomited. It was the start of my lung hemorrhage. On top of the snow there was now a large Japanese flag, a red circle on white. I squatted for a moment, then started to scoop up undirtied snow with both hands, washing my face and crying.
No Longer Human was published in May 1948, a time fraught with contradictions for Dazai. On one hand, after the runaway success of The Setting Sun, Dazai was now an icon for the entire post-war generation, wealthy, married, with a third child just born... and some of this shows in the book, which, far from being a tome of relentless gloom, is shot through with humor; not only the black humor of Jibun's own bumblings, but some absolutely hilarious (and entirely untranslatable) sake-fueled conversations with his buddies Hirame ("Flounder") and Horiki.

On the other, Dazai was an alcoholic with rapidly failing health, who half a year earlier had effectively abandoned his family and moved in with war widow Tomie Yamazaki. (Most of the book was written while staying with her at a hot-spring resort.) One month after the publication of No Longer Human, Dazai and his paramour committed suicide together.


English translations of No Longer Human are available, and while I haven't read any and thus cannot vouch for their quality, Dazai usually translates pretty well. (Although some of the horrible puns will be lost on the way.) By Japanese standards the original is quite readable, although Dazai's affection for really, really long sentences is at times annoying.

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