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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

A new, definitive translation of Osamu Dazai's postwar classic known to the west as No Longer Human

Updated: May 31

A Shameful Life by Osamu Dazai
A Shameful Life by Osamu Dazai

Osamu Dazai is one of the most famous—and infamous—writers of 20th-century Japan. A Shameful Life (Ningen Shikkaku) is his final published work and has become a bestselling classic for its depiction of the tortured struggle of a young man to survive in a world that he cannot comprehend. 

Paralleling the life and death of Dazai himself, the delicate weaving of fact and fiction remorselessly documents via journals the life of Yozo, a university student who spends his time in increasing isolation and debauchery. His doomed love affairs, suicide attempts, and constant fear of revealing his true self haunt the pages of the book and reveal a slow descent into madness. This dark tale nevertheless conveys something authentic about the human heart and its inability to find its true bearing.

A Recipient of the 2018 William F. Sibley Memorial Subvention Award for Japanese Translation, Gibeau's translation cements A Shameful Life's place in the existentialist literary canon from Dostoevsky to Camus. Fans of Bungo Stray Dogs will recognize Osamu Dazai as one of the characters named after the giants of Japanese literature. Those familiar with the numerous adaptations in graphic novels and animation can experience the source material in faithful, modern prose.

A Shameful Life: Ningen Shikkaku by Osamu Dazai, translated by Mark Gibeau is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.

Read a sample of A Shameful Life below:



I’ve seen three pictures of him.

The first is a photo of what I suppose might be called his childhood days and appears to have been taken when he was about ten years old. He stands at the edge of a garden pond, surrounded on all sides by a crowd of girls (his sisters and cousins, I imagine), dressed in rough-spun, striped hakama trousers, head tilted thirty degrees to the left and with a hideous grin on his face. Hideous? I suppose that the less perceptive (those with no training in aesthetics) might blandly say, “My, what a cute boy.”

Empty praise perhaps, but the child’s grinning face does possess a hint of what the vulgar call “cuteness,” or at least enough of it to save the remark from crude flattery. Yet anyone with the least experience in aesthetic matters would but glance at the photo before thrusting it away in disgust as though it were a repulsive, hairy caterpillar, muttering, “What an odious child!”

Truly, the more I gaze at the boy’s grinning face the more an inexplicable, disturbing sense of unease grows in me. Look there—it’s not a smile. There isn’t a trace of a smile on his face. The proof is in his hands, balled into tight fists. People don’t smile with hands clenched in fists. It’s a monkey. A monkey’s grin. The face has simply been twisted into an ugly mass of wrinkles. The expression is so strange, so oddly deformed that I cannot help but recoil in revulsion. I’m tempted to call the figure “Wrinkle Boy.” Never in my life have I seen a child with such a peculiar expression.

The second photo also reveals a face that has undergone a surprising transformation. He is a student now. It isn’t clear if the picture is from high school or university, but either way he is a startlingly beautiful youth. Yet, oddly, this photo also lacks the feel of a living, breathing person. Dressed in his school uniform, a handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket, he is relaxed, legs crossed as he leans back in a rattan chair, and, here too, he is smiling. This time it is not the grin of a wrinkled monkey but a finely crafted smile. Still, somehow, it differs from the smile of a human being. It lacks something. The quiet sobriety of life, perhaps, or the weight of blood. It lacks substance, possessing instead the lightness not of a bird, but of a feather. He is but a blank sheet of paper, smiling. From top to bottom everything feels contrived. This is not mere affectation—that falls far short of the mark. Nor is it just frivolity, flamboyance, or an attempt to appear charming. Clearly, he is not simply trying to appear fashionable. Yet, as I look at the photo more closely I experience a vague disquiet, as if I were reading a ghost story. Never in my life have I seen such a peculiar, beautiful young man.

The last photo is the most disturbing. I cannot guess his age. His hair is streaked here and there with gray. He sits in the corner of a filthy room (behind him the wall crumbles in three places), warming his hands over a small charcoal brazier. This time he is not smiling. His face is empty of all expression. It is as though he were already dead, even as he sits there with hands held over the brazier. An ominous, inauspicious photo. And that is not the only disturbing element of the picture. He sits so close to the camera that I can make out each element of his face in detail. He possesses an unremarkable brow, with unremarkable wrinkles. Unremarkable eyebrows, unremarkable eyes, unremarkable nose and chin. I give an exasperated sigh. His face isn’t simply absent of expression, it fails to leave any impression at all. Nothing stands out. I gaze at the picture and then close my eyes. It’s gone. I can see the walls and the small charcoal brazier but the face—the “protagonist” of the room—has vanished like mist in the sunlight, and, try though I might, I cannot bring it back. It is an unpaintable face, impossible even to caricature. Then, I open my eyes. I don’t even feel the fleeting joy of recognition. There is no, “Ah, that’s what he looked like!” To be perfectly blunt, I cannot remember what he looks like even as I stare at the photo with eyes wide open. There is only disgust, irritation, and the almost overpowering impulse to look away.

Even the face of someone slipping into death holds some kind of expression, leaves some kind of mark. But this, maybe this is what it would be like if the head of a carthorse were sewn onto a human body. In any case, a vague sense of revulsion shivers up my spine. Never in my life have I seen a man with such a peculiar face.


A Shameful Life: Ningen Shikkaku by Osamu Dazai, translated by Mark Gibeau is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.



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