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