My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I posted this review yesterday to Goodreads:
If the old cliché about the thousand-to-one word/picture ratio is true, then a comics adaptation of a novel will likely not be more detailed than its purely verbal source material even if it is longer. Yet the literary style of Osamu Dazai’s classic novel is so spare and dry, and horror maven Junji Ito’s drawing style so grotesquely profuse, that the manga becomes an expansion, a swelling, an inflammation of No Longer Human. Ito goes for the gross-out often enough to defy Dazai’s understated aesthetic, and too much of this book’s blood, vomit, and other excretions, not to mention its graphic sweat-soaked tongue-wagging sex scenes, seemed to be there only for shock value (though, if I may, Goodreads reviewers so reliably performed their shock that the effect was more satisfying than it otherwise might have been). The best part is the sequence most Ito’s own: the culminating love triangle among the novel’s anti-hero Oba, his ingenuous wife, and a pharmacist who decorates the room where she makes love to Oba with dried poisonous herbs. In this passage, Ito genuinely and inventively departs from the novel instead of just slathering on ghastly effluvia; with this venture into an erotic-gothic herbarium, Ito creates his own form of inhuman beauty.
A day after reading this manga and writing the above review, I watched Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, a Soviet-era Russian war drama that follows an adolescent boy’s tribulations during the Nazi occupation of Belarus. I hadn’t heard of the film before this year, and then I was suddenly running across a reference to it every week; my undoubted cinematic philistinism aside, the film seems to have gained online currency in recent years for its virtuosic extremity (this video is a good if spoiler-heavy introduction). According to Wikipedia, the Soviet censors were duly disturbed. They judged that the film exemplified “naturalism” and “the aesthetics of dirtiness.”
Besides objecting to the graphic violence, they might also have been voicing communist hostility to modernism, with its immersion in the subjectivity of characters and authors as opposed to a more holistic notation of social reality. Klimov focuses on his young protagonist’s emotional experience of war: the camera lingers on the boy’s expressive face during the most intense moments of the narrative, while the film’s other sights and sounds, to include other staring faces, are framed from his perspective, as when the soundtrack narrows to tinnitus after a bomb attack. Does this immersively proto-video-game subjectivism detract from the film’s anti-fascist commitment by portraying the psychological horror of war as such without regard to whether or not the war is just?
The film flirts with this universal pacifism through its narrative structure. For example, both the partisans and the Nazis, near the beginning and ending of the film respectively, take a rah-rah group photo (and the partisan cameraman wears a jokey fake Hitler mustache while he stages the shot), as if men’s methods for goading themselves to group violence cut across nationality and ideology. Moreover, these photo scenes work as Klimov’s own self-critique, for he too operates a camera to memorialize combat. But the Nazi atrocities committed in the film’s final quarter, and the vicious speeches the German officers give to justify their acts, leave no doubt about who was the villain and who the victim. At the film’s climax, the boy shoots at a portrait of Hitler again and again until he imagines the dictator as a baby, which causes him to lower his rifle. Here the film proves its fidelity to dialectics, and its fidelity to the Soviet state, as pacifism and anti-fascism arrive at their synthesis: the side that finds this ethical limit, that refuses to harm the defenseless and innocent, that will not even kill baby Hitler, is the side whose victory in the war will end all war.
When I was watching the film, though, I semi-seriously asked, “How different is this from Cannibal Holocaust?” (And I said this even before I learned that the Klimov and crew actually machine-gunned a cow.) In my brief assessment of the manga, I questioned Ito’s immature indulgence in matters the prose novel manages to treat with a more subtle clarity, even as I mocked the Goodreads reviewers who wrote with indignation of the mangaka’s graphic scenes of rape, murder, and body horror. I criticize both the outrageous immoralist and the outraged moralist because they need each other, imply each other, and feed on each other, not in a dialectic but in a closed circle of ethical and aesthetic incest. “Look at this and be shocked, you stupid prude!” “I can’t believe I looked at this, and now I’m shocked! Somebody should put a stop to it!” Neither side of this exchange is interesting or admirable (though it should always be remembered in the artist vs. moralist conflict that there are people who will say, “Somebody should put a stop to it!” when confronted with just about anything).
Maybe I’m imputing an aggression to these two works that isn’t there: maybe Ito and Klimov need extremity to convey in pictures their protagonists’ psychological states, to make the reader/viewer see the true horror of nihilism and war. Yet a review I don’t much care for—one that uses the sputtering “I-can’t-even” critical style to excess—does make a good point about Ito vs. Dazai when it contrasts the novelist’s description of the protagonist’s eerie feigned facial expression with the graphic novelist’s depiction of it:
One can almost immediately see that Dazai has the advantage in being able to describe the look on the boy’s face without having to show it. He can make us understand the effect of the image. In adapting this to a visual medium, the artist must instead make us see this effect. […] And we get a child posed in a monkey-ish way, but instead of a nauseating feeling one just see a stupid looking pose.
Ito is too literal a visualist of Dazai’s verbal vision—almost as literal as a camera, the way the best comics and films never are. Dazai’s novel gave me more reason to ruminate than did Ito’s manga; likewise, Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird, for all its notorious problems, offers us all the horrors and then some—and all the horrified questions—of Come and See, with much more besides, including a philosophy of individuation that we experience by growing with the protagonist. This happens in the inner theater of the mind, where we feel and think it at once and as the same thing; but the film remains always outside, a beckoning or threatening spectacle that never becomes one’s own, a permanent dissociation of sensibility. Klimov takes his title from Revelation 6:1:
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
Revelation, that vision of hate and vengeance, is shock cinema avant la lettre. St. John wishes us to be as outraged as he is, no doubt with good reason, as he prepares a spectacle-monument to a victory that promises to end war and history. The present John, no saint, prefers an art, in film or fiction or comics, that relinquishes its palpable design, whether ideological or merely sensational, on the audience[*]—an art that doesn’t issue commands or challenges, that cares altogether less what we feel and think.
[*] Readers of my fiction will wonder if I am being hypocritical here, especially those familiar with chapter six of Portraits and Ashes and chapter six of The Quarantine of St. Sebastian House (a reader of the latter reported, “That’s stamped into my brain probably forever”). I would reply to this imagined and possibly paranoid criticism that I wasn’t trying to shock or propagandize the reader in either case, though admittedly the events of both chapters are shocking and politically resonant. I was following the logic of each story where it led and exaggerating to dramatize certain human situations, not trying to make people sick and/or complete the dialectic of world history. Or maybe, as popular psychology has it, we criticize in others what we fear in ourselves.