Can television and film match the artistic greatness of novels or poetry? Or is there something lost-in-translation from page to screen? This is the main issue whenever an adaptation is at hand. Aoi Bungaku is no exception to these age-long questions, but does it succeed in this respect?
As with most modern adaptations, Aoi Bungaku has large shoes to fill. The series adapts six stories from classical Japanese literature. Among these works include Osamu Dazai’s magnum opus, "No Longer Human", and Natsume Soseki’s "Kokoro" (Japan’s best-selling novel). Other masterpieces include "The Spider’s Thread", "Hell Screen" (Ryunosuke Akutagawa), "Run, Melos!" (Dazai), and "In the Woods Beneath the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom" (Ango Sakaguchi). Although each story arc is standalone, together they create a mood of intensity, drama, and horror. Each element crafts an atmosphere of pure psychological terror that visually exceeds its predecessors. Images of eerie specters, bloody cherry trees and a tortuous Hell all work in favor of the anime adaptation. But are the stories themselves solid?
"No Longer Human", Dazai’s dramatic character study, follows the downward spiral of Yozo, a cynical youth seeking some shred of humanity. Disturbingly dark, the adaptation tends to beat us over the head with Yozo’s crushing alienation and slipping sanity. Of course, the tale of a troubled sociopath will not end lightly, but the plot gets trapped in its own pathos and fails to elaborate on the reasons behind Yozo’s psychological decline. As a result, rather than relate to his trials, we are only left to mourn, sorrow, and pity the melodrama of Yozo’s situation. This along with a sluggish pace makes "No Longer Human" a rather lackluster arc.
On the other hand, the adaptation of Soseki’s "Kokoro" is one of the strongest arcs in the series. Each episode reveals two men’s unique perspective on a life-changing event, creating a discrepancy in narration. Whose side of the story is true? Who is the man to blame? This detachment from objective truth blurs the line between fact and fiction, forcing us to interpret our own grim conclusion. "Kokoro"’s parallel narratives are masterfully crafted, and the psychological dance between K and Sensei is harrowing.
Dazai’s "Run, Melos!", modeled on a Greek tragedy that measures the extent of friendship, is perhaps the series’ most enjoyable arc. If "Run, Melos!" merely delved into these themes, then it would be mediocre at best. However, it is how the arc plays out that makes it remarkable. Takada is a troubled playwright who struggles with his friend’s betrayal through the process of writing "Run, Melos!". This creates a frame story—a "play within a play" in which the action of the players mirror the emotional state of their author. Although this is not new (e.g. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Kon’s Millennium Actress), "Run, Melos!" executes the mise en abyme technique with such mastery and confidence, the whole affair feels new and refreshing. Incredible pacing accompanies the action as roles between characters reverse, overlap, and sometimes merge. Never have I seen such complex yet coherent storytelling in a mere two episode arc. Although at times melodramatic (it is Greek tragedy), "Run, Melos!" never feels forced or overt. Perhaps the only thing missing from this arc is the presence of a strong horror element—an aspect that runs amok throughout the rest of the series.
The other three arcs, "Spider’s Thread", "Hell Screen", and "In the Woods" are less striking than the previous three. In particular, "Hell Screen" and "Spider’s Thread" seemed minor afterthoughts compared to the intricacy of "Kokoro" or "Run, Melos". Despite the weakness of these arcs, each story manages to carry its own weight in conveying the emotional intensity of the series.
So what’s the verdict? Whether or not Aoi Bungaku faithfully adapts these works of fiction doesn’t matter—as long as the execution is right, even literature purists can feel forgiveness. Madhouse takes great liberties in altering the classical narratives without losing their effectiveness. Aoi Bungaku remains faithful to the universal themes of the novels, yet stands on its own as a worthy adaptation.
Madhouse has pooled the talent of five directors to translate these classics onscreen. The clash between various art styles may seem off-putting at first, but production values are top-notch throughout. From the soft yet moody lighting of "No Longer Human", to the abstract, surreal art of "Hell Screen", each story delivers a unique and fresh visual experience.
Masato Sakai deserves major credit for voice acting several characters from each arc. His subtle nuance and inflections in tone draw out the darkest aspects of his characters. Yozo’s twisted cadence, Sensei’s calm rationality, and Melos’ dramatic soliloquies are all perfectly captured by their seiyuu. In fact, each voice is so distinct, I can barely distinguish that this is all from the same actor. Frankly, I’m surprised Sakai has had so few prominent roles.
Alas, Aoi Bungaku’s characters are not as good as their creators. In "No Longer Human", Yozo lacks the depth he had in Dazai’s original novel. After being constantly reminded of his pain and misery, I stopped pitying Yozo and started to ignore his anguish out of annoyance. His pining for sympathy with lines like "I’m ashamed to be alive" and "I’m not even human" remind me of goth kids drowned in self-pity. Over the entire span of the arc, Yozo manages to accomplish three things: get drunk, have sex, and become dangerously depressed—lather, rinse, repeat. Yozo’s lack of growth makes him irredeemable and the arc in general utterly tedious.
On the other hand, "Kokoro"’s interplay between K and Sensei is riveting, and character progressions are equally strong. As perceptions shift from Sensei to K, stereotypes slowly break down, bringing each man’s personality into full light. This unraveling effectively builds upon the intrigue of the two men; through mounting tension and deceptive narration, "Kokoro" reveals the distance between human hearts.
In "Run, Melos!", the dynamic interplay between Melos and Selinuntius mirror Takada and Joshima’s friendship, adding intriguing layers to their characterization. The characters in "Run, Melos!" are never static, but seamlessly flow from one role to the next. In other words, Takada’s characters are constantly changing – embodying his inner conflict; as a result, what he creates can possibly destroy him. Watching Takada’s struggles "play" out, both literally and figuratively, is indescribable.
Sadly, "Spider’s Thread" and "Hell Screen", both one episode long, lack sufficient character development. Kandata and Yoshihide are one-note personas that symbolize an aspect of humanity rather than fully fleshed characters. They along with Shigemaru ("In the Woods") serve to simply convey the selfishness of the human ego.
Amongst a mass of mediocre anime, Aoi Bungaku is a bold series exposing the flaws of human nature. Universal and horrifyingly dark, this adaptation successfully appeals to a modern audience while remaining faithful to its literary roots. Fans of mature, psychological horror are sure to appreciate this haunting look into the human psyche. Although some arcs may be weaker than others, altogether they create a memorable experience.
Finally, if I were to rank each arc in order, from most satisfying to least:
Madhouse is a studio that has received my respect based not only on its ability to dish out effectively entertaining gore (Ninja Scroll) but also because it has a high quality standard and used to have a prominent cooperation with genius Satoshi Kon. Lately I've discovered that it's a studio which also bothers to lend its creativity to less mainstream projects as well, with daring visual treats like Kaiba. I just finished Aoi Bungaku, a show based on six stories gathered from classic Japanese literature and I absolutely loved it. A studio that boldly applies a comparably huge budget to a project without otaku culture appeal deserves all the praise in the world.
The quality does not reach its peak in the visual section, but in its narration. The reason behind my personal affection for compilations is that you get to enjoy several different stories where normally you'd get one. It just might turn into a risky ride if the creator is unable to craft something with such a minimal amount of time at hand, but there are instances where each story is able to mesmerize you without overstaying its welcome. This is such a case.
All the six chapters may differ fundamentally in quality, but they are all equipped with above average stories that usually choose to explore the darker aspects of humanity. A matter of importance, though, is that the last two episodes are heavily rushed in order to reach some sort of conclusion with only 1 episode each. Otherwise, each story takes its reasonable time to develop and ends up being a truly pleasant and well scripted watch.
Compared to contemporary opponents, Aoi Bungaku radiates a visual brilliance and a clean front that's hard to compete with. It's obvious that its budget is a fair share higher than the standard one and it really pays off in frame after frame of awesomeness. Everything from character designs to backgrounds and movement is close to top notch and in the 11th episode we're even allowed to behold a surrealistically twisted version of hell that improves upon an otherwise mediocre plot.
In all honesty, the soundtrack didn't grasp my attention too much. I noticed certain extremely effective scores during key moments in the plot but generally I was so mesmerized by the writing and storytelling that I fixed my concentration on that instead. What I did notice though is that the voice acting remained more than solid throughout the show. It's obvious that many characters are voiced by the same actor but it doesn't really matter as he does a great job in his portrayal of different personalities.
The anime is driven by its compelling storylines and splendid artistic approach, and that is more than enough to compensate for the almost inevitable fate of any compilation; character development cannot be featured a lot. Over the course of the 12 episodes many interesting characters come and go. However, in a few episodes later they need to leave the stage for new roles to rise and the time they get isn't enough for them to stand out as truly memorable.
The 11th episode is a chaotic mess in which a sociopath is introduced; his evil actions exposed, and finally his execution portrayed. We don't get any reason whatsoever for his psychopathic tendencies to begin with. This applies to several other characters that, despite being comprised of good cores, just aren't capable of going from good to spectacular.
I feel like I've failed to emphasize it enough, but I truly loved this anime. In fact, it's been a while that I saw something as good as this, and I'm not surprised to see it come from Madhouse. Each story is good in its own way, even if the last two fail to reach the quality of their predecessors. In a time where Moe and Ecchi seem to be the dominating forces in the industry, it's always nice to encounter anime like this one; inspired, psychological and dark. It also features a story titled "Run Melos!" that hovers dangerously close over what I'd call a masterpiece.
From the order of Best to worst:
1. Run Melos!
2. No Longer Human
4. Hell's Screen
5. In the Woods Beneath the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom
6. The Spider's Thread
Aoi Bungaku, or Blue Literature, is a compilation consisting of 6 short adaptions of classic Japanese literature. Every story is different in its own right, but there definitely is a recurring theme in each of these stories: dark tales, or horror if you must. Most of the adaptions do require a bit of thinking. While there’s nothing nearly incomprehensible like in some mindf*ck series, most stories do have their own meaning.
Production value wise, this show is gorgeous. At this point in time, you won’t get much better graphics than this from TV productions (OVA’s and movies are another story). They use a wide scale of different art styles, giving each story a unique touch. The sound was good; most of the OST did a good job at producing a certain mood for the appropriate scene. The majority of the music isn’t something I’d play stand-alone though.
Don’t be expecting simple entertainment value from this show as seen in so many other shows recently, they do aim for a more mature audience. While it might not be for everyone, I would especially urge you to pick it up if you’re a fan of short stories and love to see a wide variety of different art styles. In my opinion, Aoi Bungaku easily ranks amongst the top anime from the year 2009.
(Note: I have no idea what to call the separated stories in this series so I am calling them "arches" even if I know that isn't the most proper word to describe them.)
Story: Aoi Bungaku Series is a compilation of multiple horror stories into one anime. Thus, it is difficult to rate the story as a whole. The first four episodes, which are all part of the same arche, are a 10 by themselves. If all of the episodes had been that good this rating would be higher. However, the second story arche was completely rediculous, in my opinion. The entire style changed to become more silly. The rest of the stories were well done but did not measure up to the first four episodes. However, the rest of them were ultimately high quality, except for a couple of arches which I felt were too short.
Animation: In a word, "Excellent." There were some truely facinating scenes that sometimes came off as trippy but always intriguing.
Sound: I really enjoyed the themes. I thought they were all very telling about the show. The voice actors did an excellent job. None of them stood out to me as being really awful.
Characters: Some of the characters were stronger than others. Yozo is a deep and facinating character. He is a truely disturbed person and (as the audience) I was always questioning wether his problems were supernatural or psychological, which I found intriguing. Shigemaru came off as a bit rediculous and underdeveloped (then again, this was the only arche I truely disliked.) K and Sensei were two very excellent characters. This arche is told from both there perspectives and this made it easier to empathize with both of them. Takada was an intriguing character, but I was left thinking he could have been developed more. Kandata was such an interesting character to watch. I think he would have been my favorite character in the show if his arche wasn't so short! I feel like they wasted a great character with him. Yoshihide was an interesting character, but I don't feel like some of his actions are explained well enough and I was left a little confused.
It is an intriguing show. I definately recommend watching it if your in the mood for something very psychological and quite bizarre
For a long time now, the psychology genre has been dominated by the likes of Elfen Lied, Higurashi, Monster and Neon Genesis Evangelion. All these anime looked at psychology as the mindset of a murderer or the troubled past of the protagonist, and there were also shows like Death Note, which focused on the mental abilities of two geniuses. This has been the way anime have defined the psychology genre for years.
But, as always, along comes a player that changes the way the game is played.Aoi Bungaku Series thrusts you into the shows of the protagonists and synchronizes their brain to yours. It gives you a spectacularly detailed insight into their thoughts and feelings, all while following an intense storyline.
The show is the anime adaptation of several literary masterpieces in Japan (much like Ayakashi Classic Japanese Horror), some of them dating back to the late 1920s. ABS portrays six such immortal classics, each of them highlighting the complex and fickle nature of the human mind. Except for the first arc, each arc lasts only two episodes. Writing an in-depth analysis of each of the stories would be giving away too much and might ruin the experience. If you want absolutely no spoilers, then I recommend you do not read the MAL synopsis either, as it contains nearly half the story. Here’s a quick breakdown of the basic elements of each of the stories, while keeping the spoilers to a bare minimum:
(NOTE: Each arc is a completely different story, are in no way interrelated and can even be viewed as a standalone anime. That’s the primary reason why I’m reviewing each arc separately.)
No Longer Human – This classic, written by Dazai Osamu, focuses on a psychotic and troubled mind – that of a congressman’s son. Set in 1929, this dark and gloomy arc was the longest, lasting four episodes, which proves to be more than enough time to let the viewer unravel the protagonist’s twisted perceptions of society and how he bears the pressure of being crushed under the weight of his own ego. Drenched with sadness and pregnant with hope, each of those four episodes is memorable to say the least. After watching this arc, you understand why No Longer Human was the defining work of the author and the most read literary piece in Japan.
Under Cherries in Full Bloom – Probably the most bizarre two episodes of an anime I’ve ever seen in my life. Ango Sakaguchi, the author, tries to tell a tale of how people need to speak their minds in order to live a peaceful life. However, his idealistic approach on decadence falls short in this anime adaptation, because of unnecessary humor, inappropriate chibi animations and dreadfully boring jazzy songs. The sudden light-heartedness and lackadaisical pacing feels like a fish out of water after watching the melancholy and sorrowful No Longer Human.
Kokoro – Natsume Soseki is considered the Charles Dickens of Japan for good reason. I felt like I was drifting along in a sea filled with the characters’ emotions. When I talked about this anime being the game changer, I was mainly referring to this arc. It weaves a bittersweet story of love, lust, trust, jealousy and friendship.
Run, Melos! – “Is it more painful to wait, or to make someone wait?” The most straightforward story of the lot. The storyline is very basic and is about a playwright’s life, as he spends his life waiting for his childhood friend to come and meet him. Once again, this was written by Dazai Osamu and is the retelling of a Greek legend, the overall theme of the arc being unwavering friendship. As I said, it’s a very simple story and it can get a tad predictable, but since it lasts for only forty minutes, it’s an enjoyable ride.
The Spider’s Thread – What starts off as a brutal Assassin’s Creed anime, ends up as a crude moral story that is far too short to convey any real message. While the basic idea of Ryunosuke Akutagawa was to entertain children with this novel, the anime adaptation is aimed at a much more mature audience because of its gore and profanity. A good story, but 20 minutes proves to be too short to convey the author’s ideals.
Hell Screen –Penned by the same author as Spider’s Thread, Hell Screen succeeds exactly where The Spider’s Thread fails – it gets its point through in a single episode. This arc is about an artist and his struggle to paint his masterpiece, much like O.Henry’s “The Last Leaf”.
The animation in this show is one of the best I’ve ever seen, if not the best. The show features some of the highest production values to date. It’s also one of the very few anime that managed to use CGI well. The generous use of the morose red in the first arc, No Longer Human, was what contributed to the eerie atmosphere of the anime.
The soundtrack is great. While the instrumental pieces were fitting, the series doesn’t have an OP and the ED was not very good.
As far as content warning goes, this show is rated R17 for a reason. Not only does it feature a large amount of blood, gore, sex and profanity, but it also contains strong messages about the society, which younger audiences will neither understand nor appreciate.
The subbing by Masterpiece was perfect and provided T/L notes wherever necessary.
But when it’s all said and done, Aoi Bungaku Series is not a show that will ever have universal appeal. Due to its complex nature and dark atmosphere, this show will most probably never see the light of the day.
[ THE WRAP-UP ]
Aoi Bungaku Series is one of the darkest and most complex anime out there. Not only does it show ‘psychology’ in an entirely new light, but it also provides an artful insight into Imperial Japan. Excellent animation and a strong soundtrack make sure that this anime is technically sound. Being an adaptation of six different novels, each arc is bound to have a different impact on the viewer, but maintain an overall consistency in the intensity of the storyline. Aoi Bungaku Series is definitely not for everyone and is made for a limited audience. If you don’t like the first couple of episodes, then I don’t think you’re going to like the rest of the series either. Those looking for happy endings or lighthearted storylines are not going to be impressed with this one. However, if you’re in the mood for a dark, depressing anime about the world’s cruelty and a gripping psychological anime, then Aoi Bungaku Series might fit the bill. Individual story ratings given below:
No Longer Human – 9/10
Under the Cherry Blossoms – 7/10
Kokoro – 10/10
Run, Melos! – 8/10
The Spider’s Thread – 8/10
Hell Screen – 9/10
I welcome feedback and I'm open to discussion. This review (content and pictures) are taken from my original post at my blog. Thank you for your time ^^