I had written before that I wouldn’t touch on No Longer Human again until I had read the novel and also seen the arc in Aoi Bungaku, but after getting about halfway through the novel, I felt compelled to note the drastic differences between the two. Spoilers for the first episode and first half of the novel.
The anime begins in the middle of the story and, most notably, the spotlight is on Tsuneko, the hostess that would later attempt to commit double suicide with our protagonist, Yozo. The novel, on the other hand, is quasi-autobiographical from the start, excepting the short prologue. The anime seemingly wants to make a sympathetic character out of Tsuneko. She arrives late at the cafe because she was busy looking for her husband. The owners cast furtive glances as she hurries up to the dressing room. This is a big shift in character from the novel where Tsuneko’s husband isn’t missing at all but in jail. In fact, she has given up on him, resolving to never visit him in prison again. The anime makes the curious decision to render Tsuneko as a somewhat faithful woman; yes, she indulges in a one night stand later on with Yozo, but there’s a clear motive behind this action consistent with her portrayal:
She adds a second later, “I’m happy,” because this implies that unlike her husband, he returns for her. This change also bothers me because it doesn’t fit Yozo’s character either. You don’t get the impression that novel Yozo would have returned for her, but we’ll get to Yozo later. To continue, this whole scene isn’t in the novel at all. Not once is anyone chasing after Yozo and not once does Tsuneko have to aid him in anyway. It’s as if Madhouse felt there wasn’t enough action in the source material so they decided to add it. I personally don’t think it adds anything to the understanding of either character–in fact, it completely fabricates a part of Tsuneko’s personality (the loyal woman enduring for her man) that is nowhere to be found in the novel. Personally, the part where Tsuneko hides Yozo under her dress was ridiculous when I first saw it (not to mention that it seems rather well-lit around her crotch), and its absence from the novel just makes it even sillier.
On a similar note, Madhouse introduces an element of mystery into the story that just doesn’t belong. In the anime, it appears as if Yozo pushed Tsuneko off the cliff. Maybe we’re seeing things from his flawed perspective, i.e. we’ll find out later that he didn’t kill her at all but felt guilty about the whole affair. Nevertheless, it’s a stark contrast from the novel where it’s clear that they both jumped in at the same time and he just had the unfortunate luck of surviving. Why did Madhouse do this? Maybe they felt the original story, a psychological profile of a young sociopath, wouldn’t be interesting enough to the audience. I just think this is a little patronizing; I think the original novel is utterly fascinating by itself so all these attempts to add tension to the anime merely serves to obscure the point of the novel: a man painfully trying to explain how emotionally distant he is from the rest of the human race.
My biggest gripe of all: Yozo seems a little too much like an angsty, immature child in the anime.
After uttering this line, Yozo breaks down into laughter and runs off. They portray him as an artistic soul trapped in a rigid lifestyle who then acts out by swindling people. This reduction of his character betrays the complexity in the novel:
Unable to suppress such reactions of annoyance, I escaped. I escaped but it gave no pleasure: I decided to kill myself. — pg. 73
In both representations of Yozo, he expresses his wish to be an artist, but the anime (currently) leaves out an important fact: in the novel, he does nothing but self-portraits. It’s not so much that Yozo is egotistical, but rather, he is trying to understand his true self and art provides that outlet.
The book and dragon mask scene demonstrates the difficulty in translating subtlety from novel to anime. In the anime, the viewers are led to believe that the young Yozo wanted books, but chose the dragon mask because he didn’t want to disappoint his father. This is somewhat accurate of the novel, but the inaccuracies, the missing details, are crucial. In the novel, he cares for neither books nor the dragon mask. Like the anime, he didn’t want to disappoint his father either but there’s a difference: young Yozo feared potential repercussions more than his dad’s disappointment. The anime lacks Yozo’s utter indifference with the human world even at such a young age. When asked what he would really want, Yozo had no real answer; he wanted nothing and could only smile dumbly, a mock representation of how he thought a child should act.
Reading the novel, you get the feeling that you’re reading about a Japanese Patrick Bateman. He’s smart, he’s charismatic and he’s a lady killer. The only difference is that he’s just not a murderer. He cares very little about people, but he does state explicitly that he would never kill anyone:
During the course of my life I have wished innumerable times that I might meet with a violent death, but I have never once desired to kill anybody. — pg. 45
In the anime, on the other hand…
No, he never wanted to murder Tsuneko in the novel; hell, she’s the only person he ever felt like loving.
Yozo in the novel is a fake; ever since he was born, he’s felt different from everyone else somehow. He just doesn’t understand human beings whatsoever and, at one point, he even comments that he doesn’t comprehend what hunger is. That’s not to say that Yozo is a rich kid (he is) and thus has never been hungry; he literally doesn’t understand what hunger is and only eats because it’s something humans do three times a day. Humanity utterly eludes him and every attempt he makes to understand the world around him ends only in disappointment. This point is better elaborated by a review I found of the novel:
In one of my favorite passages, the young Yozo marvels at a bridge built over a railway station, thinking it to have been the product of someone’s urge to beautify their world. He loses interest in it when he realizes it in fact has a wholly boring function: to allow people to cross from one platform to the next. This revelation of fundamental human dullness, as he puts it, is intolerable to him, and he spends the whole of his life trying not to be a creature of such dullness. Unfortunately the only way he is able to do that is by becoming “disqualified as a human being” (the most literal translation of the book’s original title). Each step Yozo takes away from the insufferability of what being “human” means leads him to even greater torment, but never in a way that seems contrived. He’s not running towards anything — just away, always away. — Genji Press (source)
This portrayal is utterly lacking in the anime. Maybe it’s hard to portray a sociopath, but I doubt it. It sounds cynical, but I just get the feeling Madhouse didn’t want to paint Yozo too negatively as major aspects of his youth are left out: his constant clowning, his generalizations and exploitation of women, his utter disgust with the communist movement. There are three episodes left in the arc so Madhouse may eventually touch upon these missing elements of Yozo’s character, but the first episode wasn’t encouraging.
I’ll grant that it’s hard to adapt certain novels, especially something like No Longer Human. The scene above illustrates (no pun intended) this fact quite clearly. What do we take out of it? A dumb smile from a child who doesn’t realize that he’s being raped? The problem is that he does understand what’s going on in the novel; in fact, he calls it the cruelest, vilest thing anyone could do to a child, but he wore a smile out of “weakness.” One might prefer the subtlety of the anime over the blunt directness of the novel, but the latter served a purpose: he told nobody of the rape because of the distance between him and other humans–he feared being argued into silence.
Not everything was a disappointment, however. Madhouse stays true to their roots in delivering powerful scenes in the build-up to the double suicide. The scenes are wordless, but they nevertheless manage to say all that needs to be said.
In comparison, the double suicide in the novel comes and goes with little fanfare. I liked the moments pictured above so kudos to Madhouse in this regard.
I have spent most of the entry voicing my displeasure with the anime adaptation, but don’t get me wrong. As an interpretation of the novel, it takes unnecessary liberties with the source, not to mention completely changing the tone of the suicide into a mystery for no reason. The anime is also an incomplete picture and, as a result, if the anime interests you at all, I highly recommend reading the novel. I will, however, continue to follow each episode of Aoi Bungaku. By itself, the anime is pretty entertaining and gripping. It just has big shoes to fill.