No Longer Human by Junji Ito is a book about the main character Oba Yozo’s tragic life. The book deals with childhood abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and suicide, as well as many other tragedies of life. It is based on the novel of the same name by Osamu Dazai, which was his last book before he and Tomie Yamazaki committed suicide by drowning themselves.
The book opens with Oba Yozo and a woman deciding to commit suicide by drowning themselves. The couple is first seen drinking together on the bank of a river. After they’ve finished, the woman takes a rope and the two tie themselves to each other. They jump in the river and Oba Yozo is then panicked, wondering if he’s actually going to die this time. The scene ends before we see the outcome and Ito transports us back to Oba Yozo’s childhood.
No Longer Human feels very grounded in reality despite some instances of what one can assume are the supernatural or, perhaps, Oba Yozo’s delusions. It is a story that deals blow after blow of anguish leaving no room for hope. Because of this, it took me quite some time to finish reading this book the first time; I had to set it down for days, sometimes weeks, before being able to pick it up again.
Some of the scenes I found particularly anguishing are Ito’s depictions of Oba Yozo being sexually abused by adults as a child. As these scenes happen early in the book, they set the tone for everything that follows. The initial scene of this abuse is horrifying, but the scenes following are even more explicit. It’s important to know about these scenes going into this book, especially if you’ve dealt with such abuse yourself.
And yet the fact that Ito doesn’t pull any punches is one of the things that makes No Longer Human so powerful. Life can be horrifying and this book reminds its reader of that, for better or for worse. And things continue getting worse and worse for Oba Yozo and the other characters he finds himself around.
My reading of No Longer Human was certainly enhanced by the fact that I found myself relating to the main character in a number of ways. I’m an alcoholic. I’m an addict. I was abused as a child. These were the things that made this book all the more real for me, but I am sure that for anyone who has been in or around these tragic aspects of life, this book’s characters will feel alive.
A further point of connection is the fact that Ito makes a point of showing that Oba Yozo’s abuse as a child put him on the path to becoming an abusive and dysfunctional adult. While this journey doesn’t happen to everyone, it is, unfortunately, a reality. “Hurt people hurt people” is a phrase you hear in spaces that discuss abuse; No Longer Human is a chilling example of how this can unfold. While it’s hard to have empathy for Oba Yozo in certain scenes, the broader context of his life can help you understand how he became this way. He didn’t have support; his trauma is not even discussed with those around him. which is the bare minimum of what a person can do to heal.
Another aspect that stands out in No Longer Human is Ito’s pacing. The narrative feels smooth; I didn’t find myself spending too long on any page and nothing felt like a slog. The lettering also contributes to this, blending seamlessly into the flow. The artwork is also very beautiful. The edition I read has two sections that are colored, one in the front and one in the back. The one in the front is especially striking; the mainly blue colors complement the mood of the first sequence, adding to its feeling cold and hopeless. As well, Junji Ito draws facial expressions that serve the writing and gets across what he’s trying to convey. Especially in the more horrifying scenes, Ito’s hatching provides depth to his more detailed expressions. For example, the third panel on page 25 shows Yozo Oba fearful of his father’s anger. Here, Ito uses exaggerated eyes and details of sweat dripping down Yozo Oba’s face expertly to solidify this emotion in the reader’s mind. While some scenes in No Longer Human are more standard Junji Ito horror drawings, they feel more parallel to reality in this work, something you may experience in an actual dream.
As an aside, but of particular note, is Ito’s treatment of Communism in this book. Ito depicts Communists as insects. I don’t know enough about the author of the original novel to know if this was his view or simply the view of the character he created, but I find it a shame to see this depiction in fiction, especially given the current political climate and all the horrors Capitalism is doing to the world.
In the end, however, Ito neither glorifies nor excuses any of the horrible actions of the characters in No Longer Human, yet the way Ito depicts their actions certainly points to the fact that what is happening on these pages is awful and despicable. I couldn’t help but dislike most of the characters in No Longer Human, but I believe that is the point of the work and it doesn’t make me dislike the book.
Ultimately No Longer Human is worth your time. It’s a heavy read and you should go into it knowing that it contains very horrible things. It’s difficult to grapple with writing about this subject matter, yet I think Junji Ito does a good job here. It’s also worth noting this isn’t a horror book; it’s certainly horrifying but this isn’t what you would usually expect from Junji Ito. If you’ve dealt with any of the traumas I’ve touched on, I still recommend this book to you — but it may be hard for you to read. Take your time with it as I did.