On page 377-380 of Junji Ito's 2017 adaptation of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human (1948) the protagonist Yozo Oba, after another suicide attempt, narrates:
The fourth misfortune [of his "ten misfortunes"] was woman. Human women. More than difficult, these incomprehensible, insidious beings. The ones who always drew near and looked after me for some reason. [...] Women have no sense of moderation. They always asked for more of me. Their demands are insatiable. They sap me of all my energy.
If that sets off red flags for you, then stop reading now, and don't read this manga. If I hadn't been asked to review it, I would have. There had been numerous other warnings signs of this book's misogyny, and this one was the most direct. But I was reviewing the book so I kept reading through all 600 pages of it, hoping, maybe I would see some light between the protagonist's statement and the authors'. That moment never came.
I was so struck by the issues in the manga, that I went back to Dazai's original novel (in English translation), thankfully now out of copyright. And you can find where Ito's text came from, much earlier in the novel's plot:
Women led me on only to throw me aside; they mocked and tortured me when others were around. only to embrace me with passion as soon as everyone had left. Women sleep so soundly they seem to be dead. Who knows? Women may live in order to sleep. These and various other, generalizations were products of an observation of women since boyhood days, but my conclusion was that though women appear to belong to the same species as man, they are actually quite different creatures, and these incomprehensible, insidious beings have, fantastic as it seems, always looked after me. (translation by Donald Keene)
And this is how women are portrayed in the novel and the manga. In the novel there is some small room for distance between the narrator and the author, as the novel is offered as a series of notebooks by Oba, with a preface and afterword by an unnamed narrator who came into possession of the notebooks along with a few photos of Oba. Dazai inserted someone between Oba and himself, though, in the end, it is generally seen as an example of the so called I-Novel genre, a naturalist novel written in the first person, where there is assumed to be a connection between the protagonist/narrator's life and the novel's author. Many consider No Longer Human to be a form of suicide note. The protagonist attempts suicide multiple times, and Dazai killed himself (a double suicide with his lover) shortly after the novel's publication.
Ito's adaptation offers less of a distancing element, but conversely also removes the I-Novel association. In lieu of the notebooks and the unnamed narrator, Ito goes a little more metafictional and inserts Dazai himself into the story. The manga opens with a rather beautifully colored chapter of a man and woman committing suicide by drowning in a canal. There is no clear indication that the man is Dazai and not the protagonist of the story. The suicide is immediately followed by a recollection of childhood, and one just assumes the man in the first chapter is the older representation of the narrator. In fact, it is only clarified, hundreds of pages of later when Dazai is reintroduced into the story, meeting the protagonist in a mental hospital (and then only if you go back and compare the rendering of the characters). The protagonist tells Dazai his life story and then Dazai decides to write No Longer Human. By seeing Dazai talking about this, the previous narration and plot are no longer in the same register as the novel. We are not reading a character's notebooks transcribed for us by someone else; we are just seeing the character's life without the mediated aspect. But we are also no longer given the easy inferred association between Oba's life and Dazai's. In some ways, for me, that brings the author (in this case, Ito) and the character closer together and exacerbates the awfulness of the content.
But let me go back and offer brief summary of the story. Yozo Oba is a man who grows up in a fairly well to do family in early 20th century Japan. He has trouble interacting with people and society, seeming to be one of those people incapable of understanding that people are not perfectly frank and truthful all the time, and thus he adopts "clowning" as his mode of interaction. He lives a dissolute life, abused (subtle in the novel, not so in the manga) and abuser, drinking, drugs, prostitutes, some association with Communists (heavily oppressed in the Japan of the time), multiple suicide attempts, multiple lovers, and various minor work in the arts. Ito changes the plot a lot, but one thing I thought he added, which turned out to not be the case, is that Oba draws manga. This is not a protagonist one finds easy to like or even empathize with. In general, it reads like a story a disgruntled teen boy might fall in love with and (hopefully) later regret loving so much.
The novel is one of existential horror. Oba cannot survive in the face of society. It is also not a novel with an excess of dialogue or scenes. It is presented as notebooks and thus it is very much a novel narrating thoughts and feelings. Add in that the horror is one of, one assumes, mental illness and (charitably) societal illness, and it is not at all something that sounds easy to adapt into a visual medium. This is obvious from the beginning of the novel. In the prologue, the narrator describes one of the photos he has of Oba as a child:
Indeed, the more carefully you examine the child’s smiling face the more you feel an indescribable, unspeakable horror creeping over you. You see that it is actually not a smiling face at all. The boy has not a suggestion of a smile. Look at his tightly clenched fists if you want proof. No human being can smile with his fists doubled like that. It is a monkey. A grinning monkey-face. The smile is nothing more than a puckering of ugly wrinkles. The photograph reproduces an expression so freakish, and at the same time so unclean and even nauseating, that your impulse is to say, “What a wizened, hideous little boy!” I have never seen a child with such an unaccountable expression.
One can almost immediately see that Dazai has the advantage in being able to describe the look on the boy's face without having to show it. He can make us understand the effect of the image. In adapting this to a visual medium, the artist must instead make us see this effect. And when Ito shows us this smile (as part of the story, not as a photo) he resorts to:
And we get a child posed in a monkey-ish way, but instead of a nauseating feeling one just see a stupid looking pose.
Another problem this novel poses is its frequent use of the iterative. Oba's writing covers a long period of time, with a focus on habits and routines and recurring issues. Comics are not generally great at portraying such, without certain formal "tricks" (I'm failing to find the word I want here) that Ito does not attempt. (One could also show this with sheer volume, as in a long running serial, but this manga is not that.) Without that iterative aspect, the story loses some of the effect of Oba's life, and Ito ends up relying too heavily on the text to convey the feeling.
I admit to having read no other works by Ito. I know of him as a creator or horror comics that are often well liked, but horror is not generally a genre I read. I decided to read this manga because it sounded more interesting, with less gore and more existential concerns. Less blood and guts, but with more awful nothingness. And as a 600 page hardcover from the, often better than average, Viz Signature line, the odds were slightly in its favor.
But Ito, apparently, did not want to really take on the challenge of the adaptation as it was. He changes the plot heavily in places, adding death, gore, more sex and ghosts (or at least visions of the dead). And more importantly, he makes the story even more misogynistic, adding plotlines for various women characters that are even more awful and prone to offensive stupid tropes than the original.
To start with an early example (and yes, I am going to start spoiling the story a bit). As a child Oba goes to high school and ends up living with some cousins, including two younger women (slightly older than he). He also meets this classmate, Takeichi, a social outcast, who one infers had some kind of mental illness. Takeichi sees Oba clowning around, purposefully failing at some gym activity to get laughs, and tells Oba that he knows he did it on purpose. Oba is horrified by this (as if he thinks no one else could imagine that his clowning is a put-on), and then tries to win the boy over so he won't expose Oba to their classmates.
In the novel, Takeichi basically serves as a soothsayer. He prophecizes to Oba that women will fall for him and that he will become a great painter. These two statements haunt him. Takeichi disappears from the story when Oba goes to college.
In Ito's adaptation, well... Oba considers murdering Takeichi in one scene. Then he convinces Takeichi that one of the cousins is in love with him, and when that of course goes wrong Takeichi murders himself (by cutting his own throat with a sickle), frequently appearing afterwards as a ghost to Oba.
Then the cousins both fall in love with Oba and sleep with him. The younger one goes crazy upon seeing Oba with the older one (and you know someone has gone crazy in this manga because their face is draw in closeup with their often bloodshot eyes opened wide, their upper face is stroked with hatching), murders the older one, and then has Oba's baby. He later reconnects with that cousin in the mental hospital, where she is still crazy, but he goes to live with her and her son, who is drawn to look like Takeichi.
And thus Ito adds a whole storyline just to have more women being crazy and awful. And that is not the only time it happens in the adaptation. In general Ito reaches for the crazy woman trope.
It happens with Oba's wife later in the story, in another change from the novel. In the novel Oba's wife Yoshiko is, it is heavily implied, raped by a casual acquaintance. Oba (despicably) sees it happening and runs away, then gets all messed up about it, on his own behalf (he seems mostly unconcerned about his wife's trauma). In the manga, the scene he observes is much more heavily implied to be an affair (at least it is not at all implied it is not consensual) without any logic, but then the wife, you guessed it, goes crazy (cue bulging eyes and darkened forehead).
Even subtle changes in the adaptation seem to shift more blame and awfulness to the women. A box of sleeping pills Oba uses to overdose on, is, in the novel, one he hid from her in case he wanted to use them. In the manga she bought and hid them.
I usually write much more about the formal qualities of comics, but I found myself unable to avoid the problematic content of this manga. And then, I was unable to avoid thinking about how much of the content was Dazai's and how much was Ito's. It feels like Ito, by bringing in his horror tropes, amplified what was already problematic, taking the subtler elements and making them all too obvious.
Formally speaking, Ito's art is decent enough, a simple naturalism, but one quickly becomes bored with the imagery he falls back on. The wide eyes and open mouth of surprise and/or horror are so overused and stiff as to be annoying rather than moving. Images of pain and pleasure vary from this only by having the eyes closed. One gets kind of sick of the facial expressions, not sick like sick with horror, but sick like sick with boredom. His figures are often stiff until he goes into horror mode and is drawing some kind of grotesquerie. That tends to be effective to shift the mood from the normal to the amped up, especially in comparison to if his art used a conventional big-eyed manga style. A really effectively creepy image he uses are the medicinal plants hanging on the walls of a pharmacist's house later in the story (another plotline Ito amps up the drama on). Ito draws it as if the wall were made of plants, merged together, looking like some kind of many eyed alien.
By the end, reading this manga was just a slog. Ito is known for his horror work, and I was horrified by this book but I don't think it was in the way he meant.