[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
An early scene in No Longer Human—a biopic revolving around the life and death of author Osamu Dazai (who penned the eponymous book shortly before committing suicide in 1948)—features the alcoholic, philandering protagonist attempting to seduce his latest “muse.” The lighting is warm and gentle, with deep shadows and soft focus that lend the visuals an intimate, romantic atmosphere. Then, mid-kiss, Dazai suddenly offers to purchase his lover’s diary for ten thousand yen. Realizing that the rendezvous was a pretext for a business transaction—a negotiation for “research material”—the mistress abruptly breaks away and turns on the overhead bulb, bathing the room in a harsh, fluorescent glow that flattens the image and fundamentally alters the tone of the interaction.
It’s a brilliant introduction to a captivatingly repugnant character, establishing the flaws and moral ambiguities that drive the film’s conflict. Dazai is an artistic vampire, using, abusing, and manipulating women to fuel his “inspiration”—and, more often than not, utterly consuming them in the process. The novelist, however, finds no satisfaction in the fruits of his cruel labor (critical and commercial success, naturally), insisting that his readers have misinterpreted the intended meaning of his work. In order to produce a genuine magnum opus and achieve true immortality (even as tuberculosis gradually kills him cough by bloody cough), he reasons, he must dissect himself for once, making a gloriously repulsive spectacle of his own cold, empty, toxic existence.
While the movie’s central theme—a meditation on how easily vanity and ambition can pervert the joy of creativity into a destructive force (a premise also briefly explored in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch)—is unrelentingly bleak, director Mika Ninagawa (who previously helmed the mesmerizingly beautiful Sakuran) brings a playful energy to the narrative, crafting kaleidoscopic collages of color and music that immerse the viewer in her antihero’s fractured psyche. Indeed, because her perspective on the subject matter is inherently feminine, she frequently delves into outright dark comedy, undercutting the drama by exposing Dazai’s angst for what it is: a façade.
And that irreverent refusal to glorify the “tortured genius” archetype makes No Longer Human a subversive masterpiece.