Ningen Shikkaku: Usamaru Furuya

NingenShikkakuYears and years ago, when my Japanese was very much not up to the attempt, I read Osamu Dazai’s Ningen Shikkaku. And it took what felt like months to read this slim novel, months I spent looking up every other word in my crappy paper dictionary, because electronic dictionaries were way out of my price range and I did not have a computer. (And even if I had, I lived in such a remote area, I couldn’t have gotten an Internet connection in my apartment.) I didn’t put all this effort in because I am a sucker for punishment. (Although I can be.) It was Yozo Oba, the novel’s very troubled protagonist, that kept me going. I related to him in so many ways. He seemed like a reflection of my own worries and fears about life.

Oba is constantly playing a part, fearful of humanity and the ways of the people around him. This eventually leads him down a dark, dark path to some serious mental problems, alcoholism, and sure, why not, some drug addiction too. (In fact, this is one of the parts of the novel that remains most firm in my memory: the local chemist offering him heroin to help him kick his addiction to alcohol. Um… It was the forties. They still thought heroin could save the day, I guess.) Growing up moving about all the time like I did, as a survival mechanism, you learn pretty quickly to play the part you’re supposed to play, whether or not that part is anything like the person you actually are. And although I did not end up on Oba’s dark path, I’ve come very close and it’s something I wonder about. What if I weren’t as lucky as I am? What if I didn’t have the friends and family I have, what if I hadn’t been born in a country with such a strong social safety net; there were (and are) a lot of what-ifs knocking around in my head.

So Dazai’s Oba really spoke to me in a lot of ways, and I’ve read Ningen Shikkaku more than once since then, my growing understanding of the language bringing new facets of Dazai’s genius to light each time. (And it was weird when in a total coincidence, I actually moved to Atami, the place where Dazai wrote the novel, a fact I did not learn until I was already living there.) Which is why you can imagine my delight/dread when I learned that Furuya was adapting the novel into a manga. Delight because I love Furuya’s work (despite the way his mouths hypnotize me), dread because what if he wrecks it???

He does not wreck it. So you know, relax. Incredibly, he takes the heart of Dazai’s work and turns it into something that feels new and exciting, and yet is just as inevitable and unflinching. It is hard to take your eyes off young Oba’s tumble to the bottom, and just like in the original, with each new turn his life takes, you find yourself hoping against hope that he will take this chance, that this time he will get his life together. But of course, even as you have this hope flare up in your heart, you know it’s impossible. Furuya conveys so adeptly that sense of futility that permeates Oba and his life. He is on a course that cannot be changed, and all we can do is watch.

Doom

Unlike the novel, which has an unknown narrator begin the book, the narrator here is Furuya himself. And unlike other times he has inserted himself into his work, he is not a rabbit here. He is himself, a manga artist looking for something new to write about. So he settles down at his computer after his assistants have left and starts poking around online, where he finds the diary of one Yozo Oba. It starts with the same three photos as in the novel, one of an unpleasant child, the second a beautiful young man, and the third, a white-haired disheveled man. Of course, they are all the same man, and Furuya feels compelled to read the diary to see how all three could be the same person.

Photos

Furuya quotes liberally from the novel and tracks Oba through a parallel series of events as the novel’s Oba goes through. The main difference is that Furuya’s Ningen Shikkaku is set in the present, while Dazai’s original work was written in the forties. But he still meets Horiki, goes out drinking, gets into prostitutes, smokes too much, finds love, destroys that love, looks for somewhere he can belong and destroys that too when he finds it. I won’t lie to you: this is a powerfully depressing read.

I really love how Furuya captures the spirit of the original while making it his own in new and unexpected ways. And I especially love how the narrative format he chose allows him to open up art-wise. The main story is told in his familiar crisp lines (and yes, wide-open, oddly hypnotic mouths), but Oba’s inner turmoil and thoughts are depicted using some really wonderful pencils (and maybe charcoal?), adding roughness and uncertainty to his otherwise clean style that are really necessary to give his story the emotional weight of the original. And the depiction of Oba as the puppet he feels he has always been to his father is so perfect, I’m glad it pops up again and again throughout the three volumes.

Puppet

This is one of the few books I’ve read in Japanese that has actually been translated into English, and if the English version (No Longer Human) is even half as good as the original, you need to put it at the top of your reading list. Ningen Shikkaku is one of those rare books that pulls you, compelling you to keep reading, even while you know it is all going to end very badly and you wish you could avert your eyes. Read it. Take some time to think about how close you have been to the edge yourself. Go on, go to that dark place. It’s so worth it.

2 thoughts on “Ningen Shikkaku: Usamaru Furuya

  1. You’re right. It’s a depressing read. But it’s still a book worth reading, yeah?

    Oba played his part really well for a young man as empty and alienated as he was. And in a way, his downward spiral to self destruction was not surprising, because everything that he presented to the world was ultimately a show. How could someone be happy with living like that?

    And yes, the puppet. With the smiling face but empty eyes. It’s perfect.

    • Oh, for sure, it’s very much a book (series) worth reading. I would suggest in fact, that people read the original novel, despite how much I liked the manga version. Either way, both works present a lot to think about, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend either.

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