Junji Ito is a master of horror storytelling. His beautifully illustrated comics offer deeply disturbing, strange tales, exploring cosmic and body horror. Fantastic though these stories generally are — in my experience — they tend not to focus on character development, as much as they reveal the bizarre ways the world can be twisted into utterly horrifying experiences.
In this way, No Longer Human is somewhat of a departure from his previous work. While it contains the same level of gorgeous artwork combined with incredibly unsettling horrors, it’s more grounded, focusing on the life and experiences of Yozo Oba.
From a young age Yozo feels a deep disconnect from the rest of humanity. He doesn’t understand what it means to be human and this misunderstanding makes it difficult for him to know how to interpret and react to the actions and facial expressions of the people around him. As a result of this, he doesn’t know how to behave himself and lives with a constant, desperate anxiety that someone might find out his secret.
As a youth, Yozo covers up his anxiety through clowning — constantly cracking jokes, so that people focus on his antics rather than noticing the deep-seated fears that lie underneath. However, this survival tactic comes to a head, when one of his fellow students begins to catch on as to what’s happening — which ultimately leads to misfortune.
Throughout his life, Yozo’s anxiety and inability to know how to understand and interact with humanity leads to his constantly being taken advantage of by the people around him (even facing assault as a child, which he doesn’t understand is wrong until he’s much older). Again and again, he’s led into situations that bring danger to himself and the people around him.
Yozo grows up haunted by the wreckage that he leaves behind him, sensing ghosts in his peripheral and viewing the people around him as monsters. He looks for whatever small comforts he can find. As he grows older, he moves away from the clowning to seek comfort in women, alcohol, and eventually drugs — experiencing only small moments of reprieve along the way.
No Longer Human is not an easy book to read. The story leans into subjects that are uncomfortable and often depressing (particularly when it comes to many of the sexual encounters). However, it’s one of Ito’s strongest works, partly because he says with a single character long enough to fully explore his psyche.
Footnote: While writing this review, I learned that No Longer Human is based on a work of the same title by Osamu Dazai, a well-known Japanese author. I’m interested in picking up the original version and diving into the tale. I’d like to see how much Ito leaned on his horror background and how much was already present in the story.