No Longer Human (Ningen shikkaku, 2019) has the same title as a famous novel by the Japanese writer Osamu Dazai (1904-1948). Several adaptations of this novel first published in 1948 have been produced for both the big and the small screen. However, despite its title, Mika Ninagawa’s film is not another adaptation of the novel but instead a tale inspired by the last years in Dazai’s life, a period during which he reached the height of his popularity.
The film starts in 1930 with Dazai’s attempted shinju (double suicide) with the 19-year-old bar hostess Shimeko Tanabe, an attempt that resulted in her death while Dazai survived. The focus in Ninagawa’s film is on the relationships Dazai (Shun Oguri) has with three women: with his wife Michiko (Rie Miyazawa) and with two of his fans – Shizuko Ota (Erika Sawajiri) and Tomie Yamazaki (Fumi Nikaido), each in turn becoming his mistress.
The Setting Sun (Shayo), a novel published in 1947 that propelled the already popular Dazai into celebrity, is largely based on Ota’s diaries, and in the film Ninagawa shows just how much reality and fiction are intrinsically intertwined. Dazai’s love life is presented as a significant aspect of his creativity, with his family life as well as his extra-marital affairs subordinated to his writing. He acts rather like a director, staging his own life in order to create the blueprints for his short stories and novels.
No Longer Human is not an autobiographical novel, but in common with other works of fiction by Dazai it draws heavily on his own real-life experiences. Jozo Oba, the protagonist in the novel, is rather like Dazai – the offspring of a wealthy family from a rural area who has an authoritarian father and is disowned by his family. And like Dazai, Jozo has alcohol and drug problems and a self-destructive lifestyle.
Ninagawa’s protagonist is driven by the search for pleasure, seeking it in sexual affairs and alcohol abuse. However, Dazai is not depicted as a mere hedonist, for pleasure is never dissociated from pain. His remark that “something of beauty can only come from one who is damaged” echoes the idea of the transient nature of all beauty, a concept stemming from Buddhist thinking.
The real-life Dazai made several suicide attempts, only two of which figure in the film – the one with the bar hostess and the last and successful one. However, Ninagawa suggests that Dazai has no real desire to die, and the double suicide attempt with his lover is depicted primarily as a romantic act that becomes a source and an inspiration for his writing and as a kind of experiment with death as the ultimate pleasure. His morbid fascination with death suggests that Dazai is unable to lead a normal life, or indeed to lead any kind of life at all. In one sequence, he is shown playing happily with his two older children, but later in the film he expresses his boredom with the matters of everyday life, leaving them to his wife. A pure egoist, he takes advantage of the women in love with him.
Michiko is depicted as the devoted wife of a protagonist who leads a life of debauchery, as in Dazai’s Villon’s Wife (Viyon no tsuma, 1947). Not unlike the female character in this short story, she endures her husband’s selfishness but is also a strong character. After giving birth to a third child, Michiko quits the family home with the newborn baby but returns after a while to take care again of the two older children – one suffering from Down syndrome – that she had left with her unfaithful husband. She is shattered when she finds out that during her absence, Tomie has been taking care of the children. However, she soon regains her composure, shown in one of the most joyful moments in the film when Michiko joins her two older children while they are playing and daubs blue paint on her face.
Following Dazai’s sensational suicide death, Michiko’s home is surrounded by journalists and press photographers, but Michiko, seemingly unaffected by the tragic event, does not allow this intrusion to interrupt her household tasks; she continues to put out the washing. The reporters and photographers very quickly disperse, as if disappointed by this clear demonstration of normality. By keeping her grief to herself, Michiko implies that for her, life will simply continue.
The film not only casts doubt on the sincerity of Dazai’s romantic feelings and on his wish to die but also reveals that he is a manipulator caught in his own trap. Shizuko Ota, herself a writer and poetess, remains loyal to him even after he has started an affair with Tomie. In a conversation with her brother, who is appalled by Dazai’s lifestyle, she defends her lover: “This is art. Public opinion does not matter.” However, she is a determined woman, insisting on her significant contribution to The Setting Sun.
In fact, far from being mere objects under Dazai’s control, both Shizuko and Tomie force their will upon him, Shizuko giving birth to the baby she wanted Dazai to father while Tomie persuades him to die with her – a young woman just as manipulative as the writer with whom she is infatuated. Just how much power she has over him is revealed when she threatens to die alone, something that Dazai is not prepared to accept as it would imply that she is not under his control.
Ninagawa does not explore Dazai’s troubled nature, his chronic depression or his drug addiction, even though the second half of the film is concerned with his psychological problems and isolation. She focuses instead on Dazai’s tuberculosis, showing him spitting blood in several sequences as a visual reminder that death is his constant companion. Emphasis is put on the fear and repugnance felt by other people – friends, colleagues and his wife – towards this highly stigmatizing disease, which at that time was still incurable in Japan. His mouth smeared with blood, Dazai gives his friends a scornful smile, expressing his disdain for the fear and repugnance that they quite clearly show.
Ninagawa contents herself with just a few references to the historical context, giving no more than glimpses of the early post-war years in which most of the action takes place. In one shot, a man in a worn-out military uniform is a reminder of the many returned soldiers who roamed the streets of Tokyo after the war. In another shot, an American soldier, representative of the occupying nation, is drinking in a bar. In the brief encounter between Dazai and Yukio Mishima (Kengo Kora), at that time a writer still at the beginning of his career, Mishima provokes Dazai, mocking his obsession with death. However, Ninagawa gives no clue that could explain Mishima’s dislike of his famous colleague.
Instead of offering a nuanced psychological portrait of Dazai, photographer-director Ninagawa relies heavily on stylization as an approach to depicting her protagonist’s decadent way of life. The sophisticated colour and lighting design creates moments of great beauty, and the fact that exteriors are shot in a studio is never disguised and is used to heighten the feeling of artificiality and the portrayal of a man who is the prisoner of his own obsessions. In one sequence, Dazai is no more than a dark silhouette framed in a snowy street, already a ghostly appearance closer to death than to life. Coughing heavily, he stumbles and collapses into the snow next to a huge circle of the blood he has just spat out that reminds him of the flag of Japan. “The flag of Japan,” he mumbles, adding “Shall I cry banzai?” Then, he shouts out “Banzai” several times. This word, meaning “a thousand years”, has mainly been used, especially since the Meiji era (1868-1912), to wish the emperor a long life, and it also served as a battle cry during World War II. Dazai’s disrespectful attitude towards the flag, once a sacrosanct national symbol, is an allusion to the real-life Dazai’s criticism of Japanese traditions.
Ninagawa’s film does not capture the malaise of the post-war era or deliver a faithful portrayal of Osamu Dazai. However, it does reveal Dazai’s nihilism, the way he used reality as a basis for fiction and made a reality out of fiction, and it also shows his inability to have full control over his life.