Film / Reviews

'No Longer Human': A biopic with no decent biography

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

“Great writers can be terrible human beings” was once a truism. Now great writers who once did or said anything terrible by current standards, be it sexist or racist or both, are being unceremoniously tossed on the “cancelled” pile.

One prime candidate for cancellation would seem to be Osamu Dazai (1909-1948). Long heralded as the greatest Japanese writer of the postwar era for such classics as “The Setting Sun” and “No Longer Human,” Dazai was also a womanizer whose turbulent love life scandalized the Japanese literary world, but hardly discouraged his female admirers. He had a child out of wedlock with one, Shizuko Ota, and drowned himself in a Tokyo canal with another, Tomie Yamazaki. Meanwhile, his wife, Michiko, was trying to raise two children on her own as Dazai flitted from lover to lover.

Instead of raging against his many sins in her new biopic “No Longer Human,” photographer and director Mika Ninagawa glamorizes Dazai’s romantic exploits with her signature lush visuals, while taking a fundamentally sympathetic view of the man himself, if one tinged with black humor.

No Longer Human (Ningen Shikkaku: Dazai Osamu to San-nin no Onnatachi)
Rating
Run Time 120 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens NOW SHOWING

Scripted by Kaeko Hayafune and starring Shun Oguri as Dazai, the film focuses on his relationships with Michiko (Rie Miyazawa), Shizuko (Erika Sawajiri) and Tomie (Fumi Nikaido). In fact, it might be subtitled “The Loves of a Literary Libertine,” since Dazai’s troubled past, inner demons and actual genius get short shrift.

Instead, Oguri, who has appeared in some of the worst films of the past decade (“Lupin the Third” [2014], “Galaxy Turnpike” [2015] and “Terra Formars” [2016] heading the list) plays Dazai as a smooth, if sodden, pick-up artist. His pose is that of the idealistic, tragic writer, destroying himself for the sake of his art, with tubercular lungs and massive quantities of alcohol hurrying him on his way.

And in Oguri’s smirking, self-involved performance, a pose is about all we get, along with the impression that Dazai was little more than a creative leech on the women in his life, strip mining Shizuko’s diary for “The Setting Sun” and riding Tomie’s death fixation to lasting literary fame with “No Longer Human” (though published after their untimely ends).

Shizuko and Tomie, together with the long-suffering Michiko, are presented as Dazai’s willing enablers, though Michiko is no longer as enraptured as the others by his scapegrace charm and high-sounding patter. She has lived with the responsibility-avoiding, self-justifying real thing too long.

As played by Miyazawa, Sawajiri and Nikaido — all who have done excellent work elsewhere — this trio comes across as everything from naive to masochistic, to varying degrees. By contrast, the men around Dazai are less impressed, including an excitable young editor (Ryo Narita), who hates his cheating, and a glowering young writer named Yukio Mishima (Kengo Kora), who calls him out as a poseur to his face.

So are these women simple fools for love? Not really. Just as Dazai uses them for his purposes, they use him. Though not “woke,” they are wide-awake to their own needs and goals.

And yet, along the way to the film’s foregone conclusion, the real Dazai, the one whose work has moved millions in the seven decades since his death, gets lost in a blizzard of gaudy cliches. And #MeToo, for better or for worse, has nothing to do with it.