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:
Aoi Bungaku Series is by definition pretentious. There is nothing that panders more to literary snob than modern renditions of classic tales. Any tale that is considered a classic can be detached from the setting and redone in a completely different interpretation and still hold up; Heart of Darkness was remade as the classic Apocalypse Now, The Odyssey was remade as Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, and everything Shakespeare ever did is still being recycled. So the big question here is the execution, did they take the stories and make them approachable by our standards. And the answer to that question is not quite.
Don't get me wrong. The stories are excellent, and the writing is definitely good. But the transition to anime format just didn't work very well. It isn't that the artwork is bad. Madhouse are a powerhouse, and the animation is definitely top notch. Somehow, there is a disconnect between the writing and the art, and while there is a sense of detachment that gives power to the stories the series is based on, it does not quite work as it should.
Still, this is a compilation of great stories that are well written with good artwork. Saying this show is bad is definitely out of line. What is painful is that it could have been better. The idea is right, each story gets two episodes (except the first which gets four, and the last to with a single one each), and each explores a distinct facet of literature. In many ways, the choice is extremely tasteful, and equivalent to choosing shorter stories by Hemmingway, Shaw, Wilde, and so on. But the problem is that the underlying themes of all the stories are quite similar (excluding the second to last two episodes).
It is a testament to the source material on which the writing is based that the themes remain universally relevant. There is definite artistic value to the series, as disjointed as it feels at times. It is very interesting at times, and is definitely a good take on episodic storytelling. These are not happy stories, but the excellence of them manages to move. Aoi Bungaku Series is definitely memorable, despite all faults.
Writing (Story and Characters):
Character-driven drama is the name of the game with Aoi Bungaku Series, and the stories chosen reflect the darker side of that rather well. The short explanations given prior to each episode help give context to what is seen, and while it does come off as a bit pretentious and conservative (in that it doesn't allow the stories to stand on their own), the writing does have good taste. And yet, it is not flawless. The choice of stories is a bit monotone, and the thematic occupation with ultimately self-centered and incomplete protagonists feels somewhat narcissistic.
Not so much one story as six different ones, Aoi Bungaku Series takes an episodic approach where each arc is not related to the next except partially by theme. While it is easy to feel that the transition in media was not perfect, and that plenty has been lost in translation, there is a lot of depth to the stories. They are character driven, and the characters are each deeply flawed. The theme of a man's struggle against the world pervades every nook and cranny, and does get a bit tired... but there is no way to say anything that the stories are less than excellent.
What is perhaps the problem with the series is the characters. The choice of similar themes leads to characters that both don't have much time to develop and go through similar arcs. This is not to say that the characterization is bad by any means, just that the format did them no favors. Maybe it is arrogant to say, but the attempt at a classical approach backfires when anime has become so stylized in the past couple of decades, and the main victims are the characters. The female characters in particular (excluding the first arc) are insultingly shallow. Still, there is a neat focus on the male lead that makes this not as big a problem as it could have been.
While extremely hard to judge as I do not know Japanese, Aoi Bungaku Series has good writing that fails to live up to its potential. The stories themselves are great, and the lead characters have enough depth to them, but it feels like a more patient development like in the first arc or a more intense one like in the last would have served the format better.
Art (Animation and Sound):
Aoi Bungaku Series has extremely strong art. The problem is how the artwork fits with the writing... and the answer to that is not really, for the most part. There are exceptions (parts of the first arc, the second to last one) where the artwork is a great fit, but it feels that the series needed a different approach for different stories and failed to give it. What can be said is that from a technical standpoint, this is one of the strongest performances one can expect.
Madhouse once again prove that from a technical standpoint they are the single strongest animation house out there. The backgrounds are detailed and gorgeous, the palette choices are a modern update to a classic style in order to fit with the settings, and the character designs are sharp if a bit within the sienen cliche. Movement for the most part is fluid and interesting (only a couple of slip-ups where it is noticeable that it isn't), and there are some clever uses of artistic license (though rather rare).
While Aoi Bungaku Series is technical perfection in video, in audio it could have used a bit more work. The voice acting doesn't (for the most part) go over the top, but at times felt a bit too understated. Because there are so many stories told, the soundtrack is not always a good fit, and creates false parallels between arcs where there should be none. Still, overall the audio work is great stuff all around.
I really wish that the artwork had been less cohesive in Aoi Bungaku Series. While it does make the series easier to follow, it detracts from the writing despite the technical excellence. This is one of the rare cases where the art is great, the writing is great, but their match imperfect. While this dissonance sometimes matches up well with the theme, it still isn't how it could have been; and with taking literary classics, the feeling is that the writing deserved better.
The series is high quality through and through. Aoi Bungaku Series perhaps lacks a bit from a character perspective, but that is the greatest weakpoint other than the imperfect connection between writing and the audio/video side of things. With all that said, it is a good series and should be highly recommended to people looking for character-driven stories.
Aoi Bungaku Series - A Secret Santa 2014 Review
Aoi Bungaku Series is a collection of adaptions of classical Japanese literature from the early- to mid- 1900s. Each episode is started off with a brief talk about the author and his history, as well as a hint of what will come. I feel like it would be hard to review it without first separating the different stories a bit, as they are quite different from eachother, so without further ado:
No Longer Human
Dark, quite possibly the darkest of all the stories, descriptive of depression and mental illness as well as social problems and the feelings of being an outcast and not understanding others. Very serious mood and animation.
In the woods under the cherrytree in full bloom
Humoristic, but with a dark twist, covering how one should be honest with themselves but also perhaps not always be too accomodating to the request of others. Comical and exagerrated animation.
A short story of love, betrayal(?) and told twice from two different perspectives, the rich man who has it all, and the poor ascetic who he decides to take in. Expressive animation with some interesting use of palettes.
A very immersive story about a writer who gets a job that strikes a bit too close to home and makes him remember the unfulfilled promise with his best friend.
The opening line of "Is it painful to be the one who waits, or is it more painful to be the one who makes others wait" perfectly captures the theme of this story. Animation is expressive and lively.
The Spiders Thread & Hell Screen
Two short stories interconnected in a very nice way (makes me want to check if the original stories share the same connection or if its a change they did for the adaption, they are by the same author though) about sins, punishment and perhaps also salvation. Animation is bright and colorful, yet beautifully contrasted by some interspersed bleak scenes.
All in all I really liked the series, my favorite parts where probably No Longer Human and Run Melos!, who coinicidentally also have the same author, the series did make me want to check out more japanese literature too, since I realized I haven't actually read anything of it earlier.
+ The Animation really fits each separate part
+ Very good storytelling and stories
+ Makes you want to read more books :D
-Lack of uniformity between stories makes it seem less like a series and more as a couple of short series bundled together.
- The order of stories could have been made more uniform by putting both No Longer Human and Run Melos! together in the start, and then perhaps In the Woods Under the Cherrytrees in Full Blossom after that, as a contrast more close to the middle imo.
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.
From the creators of Death Note, Madhouse Inc. presents you with an a morbid adaptation of morbid classical Japanese texts. If you don't expect any saccharine, energetic, high-pitched intro songs, and you don't expect any happy endings you may enjoy this. It is very tragic and a little gory at times. They aren't the best stories I've ever heard of, but they were written by classical Japanese authors, so it has a bit more cultural insight than the average Japanese animation.
I loved the host of the show. Before each episode he does a brief introduction with a little bit of background information. And his creepiness matches the creepiness of the series quite well.
The animation quality is amazing and highly original. There is a particularly memorable parade scene in the beginning of the 11th episode: The Spider's Thread (Kumo no Ito) by Ryuunosuke Akutagawa. It has extremely colorful creatures and/or humans dressed festively with all of the impact of a Miyazaki film. The main character(Kandata) in The Spider's Thread is very memorable. The voice acting for his character was excellent and the craziness conveyed was very convincing.
It's not epic on the scale of a Miyazaki film, but for a shorter series with(I'm sure) an incredibly smaller budget, it is superb. I really like the character design. It's one of the more realistic, anatomically correct body designs; which I always can appreciate in contrast to some of the more deformed, chibi, no-nosed, big-eyed characters I've seen in other shows.