When Osamu Dazai’s Ningen Shikkaku opens, an unnamed narrator is confounded to the point of repulsion by three photographs, each depicting the same man in three phases of his life. As a child, he appears “odious” and “inexplicable,” and in his student years “lacks the feel of a living, breathing person.” “The last photo is the most disturbing,” he explains: the man, older, is entirely devoid of any emotion. “Even the face of someone slipping into death holds some kind of expression,” he remarks. “It is an unpaintable face, impossible even to caricature . . . There is only disgust, irritation, and the almost overpowering impulse to look away.”
Despite this repulsion, Dazai invites readers to look even closer. Ningen Shikkaku is composed of three journals narrated by Yozo, the mysterious man in these pictures. Chronicling his childhood, youth, and adulthood, the text illuminates the analytical inner-workings of a Dostoyevskian social outcast as he struggles to find connection and a sense of self-worth in his alienated, lonely life.
Originally released serially in 1948, Ningen Shikkaku first appeared on a threshold of Japanese literature: throughout the early twentieth-century, and in particular after the war, many Japanese writers tackled themes of cultural transition between East and West, a world of tradition against the world of tomorrow. Yet despite these demarcations, Dazai found a way to create something that flourishes on both sides of this rift: emotionally and tonally timeless, Ningen Shikkaku feels as pre-war as it does post-war, effortlessly threaded between two powerful poles.
Although shortest in page count, the novel’s first journal is its most complex, as Yozo muddles memories of his childhood with the critical, analytical mindset of his adulthood. As a child, Yozo found he could hide his emotions behind a clowning, comedic mask; his hijinks did not stem from a childish enjoyment of making others laugh but instead, as he explains, were the result of his relentlessly tortured soul. “From the time I was a child,” he recalls,
I have had no conception of the suffering of others or what was going through their minds as they went about their lives, even among my own family. Terrified and unable to endure the relentless awkwardness of human interaction, I found that, without realizing it, I had transformed into an accomplished clown. Before I knew it, I had become a child incapable of uttering a single word of truth.
An unreliable narrator recounting his years as an emotionally conniving child makes for a strangely layered read, and matters are further complicated when, buried towards the end of his journal, Yozo quickly mentions a trauma that may or may not be the cause of all this emotional weight: “Young though I was, I had already been violated and exposed to the most desolate things by our maids and servants.” Dazai chooses not to revisit this line throughout the novel, leaving readers with a difficult choice of whether to consider it a confession or a lie. The answer, however, may reside somewhere in the grey areas between.
As the novel progresses, further binaries are presented that are difficult to navigate within the absolutes that Yozo considers them. Is he lying or telling the truth? An outcast or part of society? A human or a monster? Is this story tragic or comic? In his second journal, Yozo makes a friend, an act which conflicts with his social-outcast self-perception. “There is a word: ‘pariah,’” he contemplates:
In human society this word is used to indicate those who have failed, the pathetic, the immoral. Ever since I was born, I felt I was a pariah, and whenever I met someone that society had also deemed worthy of being so branded I always felt a deep sense of compassion. So deep was my compassion that I sometimes caught myself in silent admiration of it.
These sullen, contradictory tangles abound in Ningen Shikkaku. Despite proclaiming to have a “fear of people,” Yozo feels compassion towards another social outcast. Later in the novel, he recounts a game he played that “consisted of categorizing nouns as either ‘comic’ or ‘tragic.’” Similar to how words in many languages are either masculine or feminine, Yozo explores the emotional essence of words and attempts to similarly divide them. This, of course, is impossible, as so much of life falls somewhere in between. (Unintentionally illustrating this, Yozo later deadpans a story about falling into a manhole, a banana-peel caliber slapstick that’s objectively both funny and sad.) In a curious literary tangent, Yozo directly considers Dostoyevsky: “What if we looked at Mr. Dost’s Crime and Punishment not as synonyms but reconfigured as antonyms? Crime and punishment . . . Utterly at odds with one another, chalk and cheese.” Ultimately, Yozo’s emotional salvation can only come once he frees himself from this worldview of opposites and absolutes. One can be removed from society and not be wholly incompatible with the world, just as something can exist in the midpoint between comedy and tragedy, truth and a lie.
Remarkably, Gibeau newly translates Dazai’s title into A Shameful Life, which is drastically different from Donald Keene’s celebrated and widely-accepted 1958 translation, No Longer Human. While some might object to the audacity of a new translator shaking up literary standards by changing the title of a classic, Gibeau’s translation is an upgrade, as he illuminates the nuances of Dazai’s work. Keene’s title suggests a threshold, a line between human and nonhuman, but Gibeau’s title renders Yozo as he is throughout the novel, stuck in a loathsome place between his actions and intentions. Ningen Shikkaku is, broadly, about recognizing and ultimately blurring these thresholds. Shame is a complicated sentiment that incorporates a range of emotional comprehension; a person can’t feel bad about their thoughts and actions without an understanding of what’s acceptable. Yozo struggles throughout the novel with social mores and his interactions with others—he wishes he could no longer care, no longer feel so obligated to fit into society. This kind of self-consciousness is overwrought and tortured, but it’s also devastatingly human.
About the Reviewer
Jeff Alford is a critic and collector based in Denver, CO. He works as an archivist and writes for Kirkus Reviews, Rain Taxi, New Orleans Review and Run Spot Run.