A Review of No Longer Human

A Japanese classic from almost 75 years ago tells the timeless and visceral story of mental illness.

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photo by Jess Daninhirsch

Osamu Dazai (1909-1948) gives a piercing look into depression before the era of modern psychology.

Aris Pastor, Staff Writer

Trigger warning: This review contains discussion of depression, mental illness, and suicide.

When I first read No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai in an attempt to expand my focus beyond American literature, I did not expect the book to impact me as much as it did. 

No Longer Human was the Japanese author’s last complete work before he committed suicide in 1948. As a semi-autobiographical work, it depicts much of Dazai’s own life through the eyes of the main character, Oba Yozo, from his failures with love to his participation in the Communist Party to the momentary bits of tenderness in his life. Dazai shows a scarily realistic look into the mind of a man that struggles through depression, alienation, and addiction as he searches for a way to be human.

The book holds a particular focus on the alienation of childhood depression, describing the way Yozo moves through life in a time before the language of mental illness was ever discussed out loud. I found that I related a lot to the visceral feelings of “otherness” that Yozo describes, and in the time and culture it was published—post-World War II Japan—the descriptions are especially poignant. 

Dazai threads the needle of writing about mental illness without seeming melodramatic, even with Yozo’s descriptions of feeling inhuman scattered throughout the book.

Interspersed with examinations of society and work culture, I found the book increasingly interesting and moving. I especially related to how Yozo finds things that help him for a little while, fleeting moments where he thinks everything will turn out alright, only to be brought back into the throes of depression. The constant struggle to find something that pins a person to life, or in Yozo’s words, to being human, is something I had never seen, even when I read self-help and modern books about mental illness. 

Even though it was written almost 75 years ago, Dazai’s semi-autobiographical account of his mental illness easily reminds me of modern depictions of depression and anxiety.”

There is also something to be said about the beauty of translation. Ever since my class read the poetry of ancient cultures in ninth grade, I have found that there is a distinct loveliness to translated works. In the particular edition I read, translator Donald Keene manages to balance content and mood well, but in return he sacrifices the form of the original. There is no doubt that if I were to read a different publication, I would have had a different experience. 

I actually do plan on rereading this story in Junji Ito’s manga form simply to see how the lines between Dazai’s original Japanese, the English translation, and Ito’s horrifically visceral drawings connect. 

While I found that the book portrays depression, and the alienation that is created, with an accuracy that I have not read before or since, it should be said that the book, like many classics, has a very loosely structured and character-driven plot. If you are more interested in books rife with action and adventure, this is definitely not the book for you. The climax is not so much a flurry of action as it is a character climax, slower and rife with realization. 

It should also be said that this book will not be a good experience if you are not prepared for it. No Longer Human is not a cheerful book, and it is not an easy book. It describes the thought process of depression in graphic detail, and if you are not careful, it can very easily be triggering. 

One of my other favorite authors, V.E. Schwab, often describes books and stories as mirrors—No Longer Human is no exception. Even though it was written almost 75 years ago, Dazai’s semi-autobiographical account of his mental illness easily reminds me of modern depictions of depression and anxiety.

In a book so enamored with the inhumanity of its protagonist, it felt acutely human to me, and at times, a reflection of my own life that I was not prepared to look into. 

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is prepared to read it, or more accurately, to anyone prepared to gaze into the mirror of mental illness and face what stares back.