The first thing you hear is an eerie synth tone, followed by a portentous, insinuating voice. “Tell me, Dazai,” it says. “Why is it you wish to die?”
“Let’s turn that question around,” someone earnestly replies. “Is there really any value to this thing we call … living?” Then a beat drops, accompanied by distorted shouts.
There are nearly 7,500 videos on TikTok using this particular, hypnotic combination of words and music (the song is by the SoundCloud rapper Mag.Lo), and many more use the same piece of dialogue with different combinations of backing tracks. It often accompanies short clips displaying the cover and pages of Osamu Dazai’s novel NO LONGER HUMAN (New Directions, 177 pp., paperback, $12.95), a modernist classic of dissipated alienation and suicide, first published in Japan in 1948 and translated into English by Donald Keene in 1958. The comments on these clips are full of what sound like very young people proclaiming their devotion to the book, raving that it changed their perspective, or, in some cases, expressing excitement about reading it as soon as Mom picks them up a copy.
To someone with a great deal of interest in postwar Japanese literature and almost no working knowledge of TikTok, anime or manga (surely I’m not the only one), this combination of elements is baffling, if not alarming. What would it mean to unabashedly identify with a novel that turns on the Hobbesian epiphany that society “is the struggle between one individual and another, a then-and-there struggle, in which the immediate triumph is everything”? Why is Dazai, continually in print but long overshadowed in the United States by his philosophical and literary inheritor Yukio Mishima, now prominently featured on display tables at Barnes & Noble and prompting new translations and reissues of his 75-year-old back catalog from New Directions, the venerable independent publisher not exactly known for viral hits?
The immediate instigator, as recently chronicled in the pop-culture newsletter Dirt, is the popularity of “Bungo Stray Dogs,” an anime adaptation of a manga series — a sort of “X-Files” meets “X-Men” situation — about a group of supernatural investigators who share the names and (very selective) characteristics of classic Japanese authors. Dazai, introduced in the first episode floating down a river after a suicide attempt, his feet sticking up out of the water like those of a duck bobbing for fish, is the show’s charismatic, androgynous protagonist, an improbable combination of Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and Harold from “Harold and Maude.” (Here it must be noted that there seem to be many more videos of people dressed up as or creating fan art about the anime character than there are those directly referencing the novel.) Like the author from whom he takes his name, the Dazai of “Bungo Stray Dogs” is constantly contemplating and attempting suicide (the real Dazai succeeded, on his fifth attempt, with a lover just before his 39th birthday), though on the show this is mostly played for morbid laughs. And Dazai’s superpower, which allows him to reverse the powers of his foes, is called No Longer Human.
This all has only slightly more to do with the author’s literary achievements than, say, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have to do with Michelangelo’s Pietà, but I don’t know — maybe if there’d been TikTok in the Turtles’ heyday, we’d have a lot more Renaissance art aficionados among us. There aren’t any supernatural battles in Dazai’s novels. “No Longer Human” is presented as a found diary of unmitigated despair by Yozo Oba, a man whose social anxiety and fear of other people is so extreme that he believes he has never been happy. He has, since childhood, put up various acts and false fronts in order to trick people into believing he’s worthy of love and attention. Like Dazai himself, Yozo comes from a wealthy family, spends time in Communist organizations and is an incorrigible drinker, a womanizer and, eventually, a morphine addict. His testimony is operatically self-pitying. When his wife is sexually assaulted, he takes an overdose of sleeping pills not out of sympathy for her, but because he has lost faith in her “immaculate trustfulness.”
In other words, Dazai’s brand of egoistic pessimism dovetails organically with the emo chic of this cultural moment (he himself came by it via miserabilist classics like Baudelaire’s “Paris Spleen” and Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground”) and with the inner lives of teenagers of all eras. They aren’t reading Dazai “wrong,” if that’s even something people still worry about. Rather, they’ve been gifted with a cult hero, albeit by an unlikely avenue, who channels their pain. There’s something oddly ingratiating about Dazai’s despair. His characters’ candidness about their cruelty and selfishness — disturbingly matter-of-fact in “No Longer Human” but often ironized in his other stories and novels — paradoxically renders them vulnerable. Dazai’s art transcends the emotional volatility of Yozo, his most famous literary alter ego, and though “No Longer Human” exerts a nihilistic charm, venturing further into his body of work as it becomes more widely available in English presents a subtler and more complex picture of this writer’s vision.
THE FLOWERS OF BUFFOONERY (New Directions, 96 pp., paperback, $14.95), a 1935 novella newly translated by Sam Bett, features an earlier version of Yozo and explores Dazai’s usual concerns in a lighter, more comic key, albeit in a story that, yes, chronicles the aftermath of a suicide attempt. As in “No Longer Human,” and echoing Dazai’s own experience, Yozo has survived a leap from a cliff into the sea thanks to a passing fishing boat; the cafe waitress with whom he jumped has not. Dazai focuses on the relationship between Yozo and his friends Kosuge and Hida, both of whom keep Yozo company as he recovers at a sanitarium and tries to evade legal responsibility for his action. Dazai captures the sweetness under the pretended bravado of these baffled youth. The boys play silly card games and strike poses on the balcony to catch the attention of the female patients. They won’t allow themselves to comprehend the enormity of what Yozo has done.
Neither, perhaps, can Dazai himself at this stage of his career. In a creaky metafictional device, the author interjects frequently to comment on the banality of the story we’re reading and to lament his inability to grasp the profundity of the situation. Like the young men themselves, the narrator is clowning to keep from crying, but the story never develops the depth of feeling that marks Dazai’s mature work. Whereas “No Longer Human” ends on the ironic revelation that an old acquaintance of Yozo’s remembers him, despite his misdeeds, as “a good boy, an angel,” the narrator of “Flowers of Buffoonery” bluntly asserts midway through the book that “Yozo was not merely close to god, but like one. Like the goddess of wisdom, Minerva, sending her sacred bird, the owl, out into the dusky sky and laughing to herself at the sight of it all.” One imagines this is a parody of or homage to the French decadents he admired (as is the title’s play on “The Flowers of Evil”), but, like the literal cliffhanger ending, it’s more clever than convincing.
More illuminating, and an altogether more impressive demonstration of Dazai’s psychological insight, are the three stories collected in the recently published EARLY LIGHT (New Directions, 72 pp., $17.95), particularly “Villon’s Wife.” Like “The Setting Sun,” Dazai’s best novel, the story focuses on a woman forced to deal with the consequences of heedless, Dazai-like behavior. Desperate to pay back her husband’s astronomical bar tab, Mrs. Otani goes to work in his favorite restaurant, and surprises herself by finding joy and satisfaction in the job. After she is followed home and raped by a customer, she returns to the restaurant the next day to find her husband blithely unaware, reading a newspaper article about himself. “It says here that I’m a monster,” he reports. “That’s not true, is it?” His wife, summoning the wisdom and resignation of countless partners of egomaniacal artists, gets the last word: “There’s nothing wrong with being a monster, is there? As long as we can stay alive.” I think it would make a great TikTok.
Andrew Martin is the author of the novel “Early Work” and the story collection “Cool for America.”