This article has been on my mind for a long time now. It’s the first time I’ve attempted to write something of this sort, so I’m not sure how well I’ll manage to get across all my thoughts… but basically I just want to share how a couple light novels have helped me out in life. I will be talking about a few characters I found resonated strongly with me, namely:
- Chia Takeda and Shuji Kataoka from Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime (volume 1 of the Book Girl series)
- “Ikkun” and Tomoe Emoto from Strangulation: The Kubishime Romanticist (volume 2 of the Zaregoto series)
I will be analyzing these characters closely, so there will be lots of big spoilers for the two books I’ve just mentioned. If you are planning to read them in the near future, I recommend finishing them before diving into this article. (Unless, of course, spoilers don’t bother you.) I will also be writing about the 1948 classic novel that influenced these stories: No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai.
“If you’ve slept soundly at night, the morning is exhilarating, I suppose.” — No Longer Human
Throughout life, I have at times wondered what is the point of living. “Life is what you make of it,” I often hear from others. I don’t care to make my life anything special though. I just hope to get through all this without bothering anyone too much. Regardless, I imagine I’ll one day die with all sorts of regrets.
My main regret I suppose entails the disconnect I feel with the rest of humanity. People all around the world, day in and day out, seem to care so much about and/or get so worked up over so many things. I find it all rather exhausting. Must everyone be so attached to their countries, their religions, their businesses, their pastimes, their ideologies, their convictions, their friends, and their families? (And, perhaps most of all, to themselves?) This is how I often react in my head to all the drama that constantly unfolds on our little planet. Yet at the same time, I don’t really want to be so unfeeling… I’m always trying to empathize, honest.
Now, what would you say is humanity’s number one favorite thing? I think it’s love. Most stories seem to have something to do with it. People can’t stop talking about their own relationships. Play a popular song that’s making the rounds, and chances are someone will be singing about the joy of romance, the excitement of falling for someone, the pain of heartbreak, and all the other feelings associated with infatuation, flirtation, and starry-eyed affection. Unfortunately, all of this is 100% alien to me. I have never once felt the slightest bit of attraction toward anyone in my life. And, as luck would have it, nobody has ever liked me before either. It feels like I was fated to be a recluse since the day I was born. It’s something I imagine I’ll always have vague, mixed feelings about. I guess it’s a shame, not having a heart.
Beyond not having any innate desire to connect deeply with others, I feel I don’t have much passion for anything in general. I did make this website I suppose, but in all honesty I wouldn’t call myself that big a fan of light novels. (And in my defense, there were only a few light novel series releasing in English at the time I created the site.) I look forward to good books, but I wouldn’t terribly mind if, say, all the books in the world were to suddenly disappear. Reading is ultimately just a pleasant way to pass the time for me. I suppose it’s also a kind of escapism too though, a way for me to imagine living as another person. Falling in love, succeeding at some great task, forming strong bonds of friendship, outsmarting some hated enemy… It all sounds quite lively and lovely.
At any rate, due to the way my life has played out, I don’t have any big hopes or dreams. I have never been that talented at anything, have never been that smart, and have never left much of an impact. Still single, obviously. Don’t have children, or a significant other, or a career, or prospects for a decent job, or my own home or car, or any savings. My parents meanwhile are, shall we say, very traditional–and thus their expectations of me have always been very traditional. You can see what I’m getting at here, I imagine… My folks have been nice enough to not disown me or anything, but suffice to say I’ve failed them in every way possible, in this game of life. Likewise, everything society and the world at large has ever expected of me, I have almost certainly fallen well short of.
With all this in mind, perhaps you would expect me to relate strongly to Oba Yozo, the protagonist of No Longer Human, who considers himself a social outcast unable to understand the feelings of others. I do relate to him in certain ways, but I will go ahead and note that my life bears almost no resemblance to his. I don’t clown around, I don’t drink, I don’t take drugs, I’ve never joined in on a radical political movement, and I’ve never magically been loved by others. But I do get depressed, so there’s that at least! And while reading No Longer Human, I did find myself nodding in agreement with many of Yozo’s impressions of society and his thoughts on interacting with others. I’d also say I’ve had times I felt low and worthless, and at my wit’s end.
“No matter what I do, it’s sure to be a failure, just a final coating applied to my shame. That dream of going on bicycles to see a waterfall framed in summer leaves—it was not for the likes of me. All that can happen now is that one foul, humiliating sin will be piled on another, and my sufferings will become only the more acute. I want to die. I must die. Living itself is the source of sin.”
No Longer Human is not a pleasant story, and the author Osamu Dazai indeed committed suicide shortly after it was published. I find it significant though that the story does not end on a dreary note. Someone who knew Yozo explains in the final lines that he was not only a good person, but was an angel who brightened the days of those he spent time with. The point I take away here is that some of us might be failures in life–and in some ways we might even be what most people would call inhuman… but maybe we don’t need to make such a big deal out of such things. Society certainly likes to make a big deal out of them, but we can go ahead and just ignore this Society person. An individual is more than one or two character traits, and life doesn’t have to be a checklist of things to accomplish.
But before I ever picked up No Longer Human, there was a light novel I read that referenced it heavily. It was the book that made me a fan of light novels. You could say it’s the reason I made this site.
One random day in late 2010 or early 2011, I was browsing a Barnes and Noble bookstore and came across a novel with one of the strangest titles I had ever seen. It was titled Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime. The blurb on the back cover made the story sound even stranger than the title implied. A story about a girl who eats books? I had to buy it.
I would soon discover that the story wasn’t really about the eponymous book girl Tohko, however. Nor was it particularly about the actual protagonist of the series, the depressed writing-hating writer boy Konoha. The heart of this volume, to me at any rate, is the story of the suicidal mime. The story of Chia Takeda, a girl who feels disqualified from being human. On the surface she appears to be a cheerful, silly, dimwitted, and happy-go-lucky genki girl–but it is all an act. The reality is deep down she feels nothing. She does not feel joy or sadness, at least not in any of the ways most people do in reaction to fortunate or traumatic events. Even when her best friend dies, she feels nothing but guilt for her own indifference.
It’s probably more accurate to say the suicidal mime refers to three characters: Chia Takeda, Shuji Kataoka, and Oba Yozo–the protagonist of No Longer Human–whom Chia and Shuji both consider a kindred spirit. Chia learns about Shuji’s true self by reading letters he left behind before he died, and strives to understand him better by reading No Longer Human–a book that is likened to a face-to-face and heart-to-heart conversation with its author Osamu Dazai. A running theme in the Book Girl series is how people can come to better understand one another through the written word. Authors are sharing some piece of themselves when they write a book, and readers in turn are affected by the story and its characters.
“There’s a sense of affinity and immediacy in Dazai’s works, as if the author is speaking directly to you…. Dazai’s greatest magic [is] the sympathy between author and reader.”
Throughout this story, Chia is seeking some kind of guidance in life–or perhaps more specifically, some way to escape the constant misery she faces in the mere act of living. But as I mentioned before, No Longer Human is rather bleak, and the way things played out in Shuji’s life was likewise quite disheartening. Fortunately however, in the end Chia does not go through with her suicide attempt thanks to Konoha and Tohko, who arrive in time to stop her from jumping off the school roof. In this scene, it’s Tohko’s words regarding Osamu Dazai that I think hit home with me the most.
“There are people who only read No Longer Human and believe that Dazai’s work is all dark, twisted, and depressing, but they don’t really know what they’re talking about. You can’t judge all of Dazai’s work based on No Longer Human…. That’s not everything that Dazai was. There are lots of kind, bashful people in Dazai’s works. There are also lots of weak, ordinary people who become strong…. You have to live at least long enough to read Dazai’s complete works cover to cover a hundred times and write a thousand-page report on them!”
Mizuki Nomura, the author of the Book Girl series, seems to be one of the few authors I’ve read who really gets just how much more there is to people than we can ever truly know. We can sympathize, but we can never truly understand everything about another person. The characters in the Book Girl novels are an unusual and varied bunch, but each of them is suffering in some way. The novels don’t really shy away from anything, dealing with such topics as depression, eating disorders, self-harm, teenage prostitution, bullying, emotional abuse, and broken homes. The characters generally do not find a simple solution to their problems, but instead find solace in works of classic literature. They learn they are not alone in their struggles. There are others who have suffered much as they do, and exist much as they do.
Before Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime, I had never read a novel that featured a character like Chia before. It was a complete shock to me when it was revealed that she was just like Shuji–a “monster incapable of loving people,” someone “ashamed to be alive.” I wouldn’t say I’m just like them, nor would I say I’ve gone through experiences as traumatic as they have. But here was Chia, a girl who truly didn’t fit in, who couldn’t just “be herself” to find happiness, who would not overcome her misery through some convenient power of love or friendship, and who simply can’t be described with the typical descriptors of a role model heroine.
Finally, someone I could relate to.
But just as was the case with Oba Yozo, neither Shuji nor Chia were hated as much as they hated themselves. Shuji is described as “a kind, complicated person… someone you couldn’t help liking.” And as for Chia, she goes on living the same way she always has–but she has learned to accept the kind of person she is, to accept her existence.
“Apparently it’s not so easy for people to change. I’ll probably go on wearing my clown mask, deceiving the world. But now I won’t be ashamed of it like before.”
After reading this novel, I felt incredibly lucky. Somewhere on the opposite side of the planet, someone who surely lived a life completely different from mine wrote a story about a “no longer human” person, and had the fortitude to portray that character in a positive light, and say it’s okay to not be human. And perhaps even to say that not being human… isn’t so inhuman after all? Well, I’d like to think so anyway. Thank you Mizuki Nomura, for writing this story. And thank you, everyone at Yen Press, for translating and releasing it overseas. I needed this book.
And as luck would have it, I would eventually find another novel that would delve into this sort of thing. I had the chance to pore through it for a second time recently, and I have to say, it just might be the most unusual novel I’ve ever read.
I owned both volumes of Zaregoto that Del Rey had released in English back in the day, but it took a while for me to get around to reading the second one. I thought the first volume was an interesting mystery and overall an enjoyable read, but I suppose it didn’t make me want to dive into the next volume as soon as I could. Once I did get around to reading volume two though…
Well. I was kind of blown away.
So in the first volume, The Kubikiri Cycle (titled Decapitation in the more recent Vertical release), the viewpoint character Ikkun (or “Ii-chan”… technically these are kind of placeholders as the protagonist is left unnamed) is mostly just there to work out the bizarre locked-room murder mysteries on a bizarre remote island mansion filled with a cast of bizarre and eccentric geniuses. It is not until the second volume, The Kubishime Romanticist (titled Strangulation in the Vertical edition), that we really get to know who this Ikkun is. And in the grandest of fashions, the author Nisio Isin pulled the rug out from under me.
“I’m not much for sentimentality. I’m no pessimist, either. Nor am I a romantic. Rather, I’m a woefully misguided trivialist.”
Ikkun calls himself a defective product, “an ordinary guy missing some vital component.” He says he “can’t understand the pain of others, not even a little.” He explains that his brain isn’t defective, but he himself was “broken from the outset.” He is “only pretending to be human,” and is willing to torture himself on the spot for the sake of making a point. When someone threatens to kill him, he breaks each of his fingers to show just how much killing him would be an exercise in futility.
Strangulation is a fascinating book in which the protagonist becomes chums with a serial killer (a boy named Hitoshiki Zerozaki, who murders random strangers because… well, that’s just what he does), and at the same time thoroughly denounces the killings that his friends conduct for the sake of a loved one. In most works of fiction we are supposed to despise the heartless, and sympathize with those who go to great lengths to protect the people they care about so much. But Strangulation has the audacity to challenge this. In this story, love does not conquer all. In this story, love strangles itself. And no, the protagonist is decidedly not moved by the act.
Many of the characters in Zaregoto (and indeed, perhaps in all of Nisio Isin’s works) have pretty extreme personalities. Many of them are wild killers, unpredictable geniuses, bombastic maniacs, self-important idealists, or impulsive schemers. But then there’s Ikkun, whose extremeness may be in how extremely his personality runs contrary to everyone else’s. To be honest, I can’t say I fully relate to him because of this. At the very least, I definitely don’t have the ingenuity or endurance to deal with all the craziness and tragedy that he has to.
In that respect, I find myself relating more to the first victim of Strangulation, Tomoe Emoto. A conversation between her and Ikkun early on in the story particularly stuck out to me. (For context, the Mikoko they refer to is a lighthearted and spirited friend who is, shall we say, in the springtime of her youth.)
“There’s another me here.” Tomoe pointed over her own right shoulder. “Even when I get all rowdy and have fun with Muimi and Akiharu and Mikoko and you like this, that part of me is just watching and saying, Yeah right. It looks down on me with cold disdain as I have my fun and says: Like that’ll get you anywhere.”
“Yeah right,” Tomoe sighed as herself. “I know I’ll probably never be like Mikoko until the day I die, but maybe I’ll pull it off once I do die. If I’m reincarnated, I want to come back as Mikoko. I want to be able to laugh with complete innocence like her, but also to get mad when I want to be mad, and to cry like crazy when I’m sad, and to enjoy my life.”
“Me…” This time I was speaking from the heart. “I don’t want to be reincarnated. I want to just hurry up and die.”
“I’m sure,” Tomoe said with a gentle smile.
As is the case with most topics, I don’t have a strong opinion regarding the afterlife. But the idea of becoming a different person–of getting to live a normal life filled with all that deep and meaningful passion everyone loves so much–I can’t help but think what a fine thing that would be. Which means it’s probably too good to be true! And of course, even if reincarnation is a thing, it’s not like my next life would be problem-free. There are all kinds of unfortunate lives I could be living instead of this one. Perhaps I should be more like Ikkun then, and not hope for something as ridiculous and frustrating as living through yet another life, even if it is a love-filled one. After all, it’s not like nothing bad ever comes out of love, as Strangulation makes abundantly clear.
Back to Tomoe though–she is repeatedly described as an individual who never gets too close with anyone, not even with her best friends. “She’d never touch your sore spot, and more than that, she never let anyone touch her own,” as one friend puts it. “She always maintained a cautious distance, never too near or too far.” For people like Tomoe and me, we’re the sort who actually mean it when we say we’re not interested in having any drama. Some of us are too worn out to do much of anything, let alone fight for something, struggle for something, and die for something, again and again and again.
But the worlds of reality and fiction alike love to go on and on about how that’s no way to live. We’re supposed to never give up, no matter what. We’re supposed to never turn our backs on the ones we care for, or on the ideals we believe in. We’re supposed to do whatever it takes to make our dreams come true, to form eternal bonds, and to achieve pure happiness. These are the things that make us human, or so we are told.
To be honest, I’m fine with all of that. I get that’s how it really must be for most people, and I think that’s great. But every now and then it’s nice to get a story like Strangulation and hear something different. To hear something crazy like, you know, you don’t have to try so hard, because that thing you want so badly really isn’t something worth getting so worked up about. In a dream, Ikkun holds a conversation with Tomoe some time after she has died. She explains how she holds no animosity toward the one who killed her, and asks if Ikkun has any questions for her. He asks, “Is it okay for me to be alive? Do I, a specimen in a colony called humanity who doesn’t benefit the whole, have a right to live?”
“Now that’s a fine question,” she says. I agree, and want to know her answer to it.
We don’t find out what it is until the final line of the book:
“Don’t be so spoiled.”
I think it’s an answer that can be interpreted in multiple ways, but the way I take it, I think dream!Tomoe is simply telling Ikkun what he already feels on the matter. It may be a fine question for people to mull over in general, but it’s a pointless one for Ikkun to ask when he doesn’t care if he’s a benefit to humanity in the first place. At the same time, I think Tomoe’s (and Ikkun’s) answer is also reminding us all that we simply aren’t always going to have things go the way we want them to. Our lives may never be exactly the way we want them to be. We ourselves will perhaps always be less than what we wish we were–our ideal, wonderful, heroic, lovable, imaginary selves.
But that’s okay. That’s something we can learn to live with, can learn to accept. And dare I say it? Maybe that’s just part of being human.