No Longer Human

by Osamu Dazai
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Last Updated on August 26, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1508

No Longer Human is a novel written by Japanese novelist, short story writer, and playwright Osamu Dazai. First published in 1948 by Chikuma Shobo, it is both an I-novel (shisosetsu) and an epistolary work, told in journal entries and structured in the form of three “notebooks.” The novel chronicles the troubled life of Oba Yozo and explores themes of alienation, substance abuse, and severe depression.

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The novel is considered a semi-autobiographical work, as Oba Yozo bears many similarities to Dazai himself. An example of these similarities is Yozo’s childhood, during which his father, as a member of the National Diet, was absent most of the time. Dazai’s father was also a distant parental figure, due to his pressing political duties as a member of the House of Peers. Other similarities between Yozo and Dazai include their dependence on alcohol (and later in life, morphine) and involvement with the Japanese Communist Party. Perhaps the most striking similarity between the two, however, is that both attempted to commit suicide with a woman and survived. When Dazai was barely in his twenties, he and Shimeko Tanabe attempted to drown themselves in the same location that Yozo would in the novel: the Kamakura beach. Dazai would then once again attempt—and succeed—in drowning himself with his lover, Tomie Yamazaki, shortly after No Longer Human was published.

The semi-autobiographical configuration of No Longer Human raises questions of self-image and if one can truly perceive one’s self wholly and truthfully. While it is fraught with confessions, No Longer Human is also a novel of tragic omissions. Although Yozo articulates well his thoughts concerning himself and other people, he does not delve into nor speculate on the reasons behind his feelings of alienation and depression. In “The First Notebook,” he reveals that he was sexually abused as a child by a female servant and a manservant. It is also hinted throughout the novel that his father is an abusive parental figure. However, Yozo does not confront these unpleasant experiences and instead attributes his misery to something fundamental and inalienable within himself—that he has been merely at odds with the rest of the human race since birth. The fact that he has never felt hunger, for example, he presents as proof that he is something alien or not quite human. However, it is not that he does not feel hunger—only that mealtime as a child was such an unpleasant experience for him that he grew to dread the idea of it:

At my house in the country the whole family—we were about ten in number—ate together, lined up in two facing rows at table. Being the youngest child I naturally sat at the end. The dining room was dark, and the sight of the ten or more members of the household eating their lunch, or whatever the meal was, in gloomy silence was enough to send chills through me. Besides, this was an old-fashioned country household where the food was more or less prescribed, and it was useless even to hope for unusual or extravagant dishes. I dreaded mealtime more each day. I would sit there at the end of the table in the dimly lit room and, trembling all over as with the cold, I would lift a few morsels of food to my mouth and push them in.

As the novel is written in the first person, certain aspects of Yozo’s narration can be interpreted as skewed or lacking verisimilitude. Yozo’s relationships with women are one such aspect. As early as “The First Notebook,” Yozo declares that women have always taken advantage of him throughout his life—when, in fact, it is the other way around. When his classmate Takeichi makes the prediction that many women will fall for him, Yozo sees it as an insidious prophecy that will come to haunt him and bring him much misery. For the most part, Yozo sees women as greedy and indecipherable creatures who indulge themselves far more than men. Although he feels burdened by their affection, his fear of other human beings prevents him from rejecting them outright. Yozo flirts with and engages in carnal relations with the women who fall for him, but he maintains that he is merely forced to reciprocate their interest in him.

Although Yozo portrays himself as helpless at the hands of women, he himself initiates or is in large part responsible for their relationships. For example, he asks his landlord’s daughter, who has taken a liking to him, to buy him sleeping pills from the drugstore with her own money. Yozo feels that he is doing the landlord’s daughter a favor by giving her an errand, as he thinks that women are always delighted to serve men. He also omits the details of how he came to live with Shizuko and become her “kept man,” giving the impression that the living situation was imposed upon him against his will. It is likely, however, that Yozo played a part in convincing Shizuko to support and shelter him. Throughout the novel, Yozo asks favors of and relies heavily on the women in his life—even those he does not pursue a romantic relationship with, such as the madam of the bar in Kyobashi.

Where women are concerned, Yozo—for the most part—refuses accountability. Although he eventually admits that women have always looked after him, he glosses over the fact that this is because he has actively encouraged their advances. Ultimately, Yozo dons the mask of the lover in order to gain affection and a few creature comforts from the women in his life, all the while inwardly professing his disgust for or uneasiness of them. This hypocrisy is illustrated perfectly in Yozo’s description of the prostitutes with whom he spends time during his college years.

I never could think of prostitutes as human beings or even as women. They seemed more like imbeciles or lunatics. But in their arms I felt absolute security. I could sleep soundly. It was pathetic how utterly devoid of greed they really were. And perhaps because they felt for me something like an affinity for their kind, these prostitutes always showed me a natural friendliness which never became oppressive. Friendliness with no ulterior motive, friendliness stripped of high-pressure salesmanship, for someone who might never come again. Some nights I saw these imbecile, lunatic prostitutes with the halo of Mary.

While Yozo’s treatment of women has misogynistic implications, his despondent view of them does not wholly stem from hatred. He feels animosity and despair toward women because they—and ultimately, intimacy and romantic love—bring out the worst in him. In all three of the major romantic relationships in his life, he neglects and takes advantage of his lovers. The women in Yozo’s life act as a mirror with which he perceives his most terrible faults. In the same vein, Yozo falls in love with Yoshiko not only because of her virginal and trusting nature, but because he can see reflected in this nature an unsullied version of himself—one devoid of shame and hypocrisy. This vision of purity and happiness Yozo describes as waterfalls framed in green leaves. When Yoshiko is sexually assaulted by a casual acquaintance of theirs, however, it dooms their marriage—not because of the brutality of the act, but because the purity  Yozo cherished in Yoshiko is forever tarnished. Yozo feels rebuked by his misguided idea that it was Yoshiko’s trusting nature that led to her assault, and his image of waterfalls framed in green leaves thus turns ugly. Finally, after another failed suicide attempt, Yozo expresses his desire to escape: not only from Yoshiko, but from all women.

Because Yozo establishes that he has been a wretched and abnormal being from a young age, he maintains throughout the novel the illusion that he has little to no agency or free will. This is one of the reasons why his recounting of the events in his life can seem distorted and lacking in self-awareness. Dazai undermines Yozo’s skewed self-perception with the epilogue of No Longer Human, which is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who has acquired Yozo’s notebooks from the madam of the bar in Kyobashi. Through the narrator’s sober eyes, a fresh and empathetic portrait of Yozo is given. And in the epilogue’s final lines, the madam from Kyobashi pinpoints for the narrator the source of Yozo’s miseries:

“It’s his father’s fault,” she said unemotionally. “The Yozo we knew was so easy-going and amusing, and if only he hadn’t drunk—no, even though he did drink—he was a good boy, an angel.”

Not only do these lines display a sudden and radical awareness of how others’ perception may be contrary to one’s perception of one’s self, they also offer a brief yet hopeful redemption of Yozo’s character—one that is rarely seen in confessional narratives as tragic as No Longer Human.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66

Keene, Donald. “Dazai Osamu and the Burai-ha,” in Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era, 1984.

Lyons, Phyllis. The Saga of Dazai Osamu: A Critical Study with Translations, 1985.

O’Brien, James A. Dazai Osamu, 1975.

Rimer, J. Thomas. “Dazai Osamu: The Death of the Past,” in Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions, 1978.

Ueda, Makoto. “Dazai Osamu,” in Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, 1976.

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