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:
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