The Horror of Being Alive in Junji Ito’s No Longer Human

In most of his work, Junji Ito explores the things that terrify us. In some of his most known books— Uzumaki, Gyo, and Tomie— he finds images that are shocking, disturbing, and maddening and shapes the stories around them. These visual motifs are practically their own stories (spirals, beautiful women, horrific sea creatures) but he doesn’t just stop there. Those images are hooks into our imaginations, an entry into our souls where Ito plants these horrors and watches them grow. His stories act as carriers of an idea that he just can’t keep to himself. That may be why so many of his stories are about obsession on some level or another.

So where his horrors have been something other than human before (even Tomie was a supernatural terror,) No Longer Human focuses on the horrors of being human. In this book, Ito casts us into a pit of our own ridiculously shallow view of our own worth. At a young age, Yozu Oba tries to be the clown of his school. He finds that role to be easy but also to be free of responsibility so it fits him. If he can be a clown, it’s all that he needs to be. At a young age, he recognizes a futility in trying to amount to anything grand so why even try. He definitely doesn’t have the ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps so really all that’s left is to be the clown and skate through life. He even studies Buster Keaton, understanding what Keaton did without ever comprehending the why. He wasn’t being the clown to bring joy to others but to try to escape the watchful and judging eyes of everyone.

As Yozu gets older, he grows up but he never matures. He never becomes a man, just a boy who refuses to hold himself accountable for anything. In school, he acts as the clown to avoid any kind of responsibility. No one, not his family, his teachers, or the other students see it as any kind of performance. They just think that the clown is who he is. The only one to see through his facade is Takeichi, a boy everyone sees as just a weak simpleton. If Yozu was the kid everyone laughed at, Takeichi was the kid everyone picked on. He was the true outcast, much more than Yozu ever was, so he had a perspective that Yozu could never understand. And Takeichi understood Yozu like no one ever had or ever would. Yozu thought he had everyone fooled but his world ended when Takeichi told him that he knew that Yozu’s foolishness was just an act.

Once Takeichi breaks nearly all of Yozu’s self-illusions, Yozu’s life begins a spiral of destruction. Even while his family, particularly his cold father, does everything he can to protect Yozu from himself, such as sending him to live with his cousins, there’s already a corrupt nature to Yozu’s life that just destroys everything good around him. His two girl cousins love each other as only sisters can until they both fall in “love” with Yozu, resulting in one of their deaths and another’s pregnancy. No Longer Human is a cataloging of Yozu’s sins against everyone who tries to like or love him. Ito doesn’t sugar coat anything at all as every good gesture by and for Yozu rots both his and everyone else’s soul just a bit.

Following the path laid out by Dazai’s novel, Ito crafts his manga with sobering clarity. His pages are full of images that convey both the hope and the despair that Yozu lives his life in. In a lot of ways, everyone who moves through this tale is a ghost, either fully or on their way to being a specter of themselves. The book opens in the midst of a mysterious suicide attempt, bathed in a light and strangely eerie blue hue. The man almost looks like he’s already crossed over to the other side and she is only too happy to join him. Ito will come back to this moment in the last pages of the book but these opening pages set the tone for the rest of the book. It starts in death; and not even a natural or accidental death but a purposeful and directed one. We may not know them but there’s a reason, a despair, that has brought them to this moment. This isn’t Yozu’s suicide or death but his story begins and ends with this suicidal couple’s story.

As Ito progresses from this pair trying to kill themselves to Yozu’s life story, he never lets go of that absence of hope that’s so overpowering from the opening pages. That’s what makes this such a great read even as it’s possibly one of the most depressing things you could read this year. Ito’s more well-known works connect with the reader because their threats are so otherworldly. He brings a maddening realism to them but they’re largely fantasy. It’s easy to disconnect from those books. No Longer Human occasionally delves into dreams and visions but the book operates on an emotional and spiritual plane that’s not too far removed from our own. This is a book where we identify with Yozu and become wrapped up in him. He’s our protagonist and antagonist.

It would be an easier read if Yozu was clearly a bad guy and the way he destroys lives does give him an air of evil. He falls in and out of love, looking for a savior but only ever finding people who can fall under his influence and give him the love, the drugs, or the validation that he longs for. His father is one of the only people who ever see what Yozu really is and even that eats at him, seeing his son living his life more as a parasite than as a fully formed human being.

Eventually Yozu is a ghost walking through this world, creating more ghosts with everyone he touches, even a writer who writes under the name of Osamu Dazai who Yozu meets in a sanatorium. And oddly enough, “Yozu Oba” was the name of one of Dazai’s characters. In these final chapters, the book becomes a disorienting conversation about the lines and boundaries of fiction. Dazai and Yozu form a bond in their loneliness and isolation. It gets difficult to tell where Ito is merging fact and fiction or even at this point is there even a difference. Is this book fiction or biography (autobiography in its original novel form) or does it even matter as Dazai enters into this story inspired and originally told by him?

Dazai’s moments bookend Ito’s tale as he was one of the people at the beginning contemplating suicide, which even further muddies any lines dividing story and reality. By adapting Dazai and Yozu’s lives, Ito delivers one of his most powerful horror stories as the root of this madness is far more internal and personal than his other books are. There’s no external or fantastic threat to his characters here. There’s no spirals or unseen creatures injecting their madness on us; there’s just the madness that’s actually part of the human condition. It’s innate and that’s the most troubling thing about this book.

No Longer Human
Written and Drawn by Junji Ito
Adapted from the novel by Osamu Dazai
Published by Viz Media