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January 22, 2013 / Bradley

World’s Latest Secret Santa Review: Aoi Bungaku

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I learned to loosen up in my attitudes towards anime this past year. When I started writing reviews, I was a Serious Man, who wanted to show the entire Internet how much of a Serious Thinker I was about cartoons, which in practice, meant furtively searching for every small bothersome flaw in a cartoon, writing them up and deducting points from a score using a completely arbitrary algorithm that made less sense the more I thought about it. “Oh, this anime is kinda funny, but its sci-fi made no sense! And why did this thing have this other thing that I’d seen before? Two stars!” But I learned to chill, in part because I came to accept that the most consistent and sane way to review anything is to measure it against its own expectations. Since a lot of anime is meant for children or otaku, you have to treat them differently than more ambitious anime made for a different audience.

Which brings me to Aoi Bungaku, which is squarely in the latter’s wheelhouse. Watching this reminded me of an obsession of mine when I was a kid: the Great Illustrated Classics series, a collection of short, illustrated adaptations of great works of literature for children. I loved those books, reading any of them that I could find, usually several times over. When I grew up, though, I’d revisit those stories by reading the original, and through authors like Dickens and Twain fell in love with the written word. That series of books helped make me a more cultured and intelligent person with a passion for literature, which was probably the intent of the publisher in the first place. In a similar vein, Aoi Bungaku is an anthology adapting well-regarded works from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, which was a dramatic transitional period for Japan. Writers like Ozamu Dezai, Natsume Soseki and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa wrote formative literature that questioned tradition and opened new frontiers in fiction. Novels like No Longer Human and Kokoro are revered in Japan, and taught to students as part of their cultural education. Like the Great Illustrated Classics, the goal of the series isn’t just to entertain, provoke, and explore some fundamental aspects of human nature, it’s also to educate and inspire Japanese- and possibly Western- viewers into reading the great literature their stories are based on. All of its stories were new to me, but it says a lot about how good the series is that I hunted down copies of some of the books shortly after finishing the series.

That said, because it’s a Serious Anime, I hold it to a much higher standard than other things that I watch and occasionally found it wanting. Some of this might be because the series peaked early. The first segment is based on No Longer Human, which the series’ host describes as a work of fiction that probably doubles as a confessional for its author. Osamu Dazai, like his protagonist, exchanged a privileged life as the son of a wealthy politician for the poverty of being an author in a time when even its most famous practitioners barely scraped by. Both were pretty men that women easily fell for, and both would easily return the favor. Both struggled with drug addiction and depression, and both were the survivors of a double suicide, a tragedy that would haunt them and a scandal that would cut them off from their families. Both seemed to spend their life gradually spiraling deeper into darker emotional spaces.

When anime critics ponder “what it means to be human,” they’re usually prompted by a work of science-fiction with androids, robots and other faux humans with free will and a mind alert enough to wonder if they are on par with their creators. No Longer Human also asks what it means to be a human being, but in the context of loneliness and how you fit into the rest of society. If nobody else recognizes you as a human and the complexities that come with it, and instead see you as a murderer, a tool, a bum, or a nuisance, how do you know that you’re not deluding yourself, that there isn’t some evil, alien core to you that makes you unworthy of living? This is where paranoia meets depression. The questions that Dazai’s protagonist might feel easy to answer from a comfortable chair in front of a computer, but that’s really not the point of the story. It’s about granting the character- and maybe even Dazai- what they felt was owed to them their entire life, was granted to every fictional character they ever wrote and was consistently denied to them: empathy. And empathy is the heart of all great fiction, isn’t it? It’s a thorough, bleak examination of a disturbed mind, written in a cold, clinical style, like describing a mutated frog pinned and splayed out on the dissection table.

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It’s a bit jarring that the next section is something of a dark comedy, a fairy tale that twists the cherry blossom tree from a symbol of beauty to something terrible. And describing it as a dark comedy feels a bit too generous, since it’s all over the place tonally and never handles the transition well. The safest description for Sakura no mori no mankai no shita is “strange.” Its oddness is also just part of the consequence of being an anthology, where transitions can be rough and stories will often be compared to whatever happened to come before it, and probably look lacking if stacked up against something great, even if it’s good in its own right. In its strangeness and occasional grotesqueness, it’s a fine story, but it never seems to gel that with its moments of comedy. It comes off as a mixed story with no real point, and in a series based on great works literature, making sure there is a point to each entry is mighty important.

Kokoro is next. The book has sold more copies than any other Japanese novel, and is described in Wikipedia as:

“[a] work deals with the transition from the Japanese Meiji society to the modern era, by exploring the friendship between a young man and an older man he calls “Sensei” (or teacher). It continues the theme of isolation developed in [the author] Soseki’s immediately preceding works, here in the context of interwoven strands of egoism and guilt, as opposed to shame. Other important themes in the novel include the changing times (particularly the modernization of Japan in the Meiji era), the changing roles and ideals of women, and intergenerational change in values, the role of family, the importance of the self versus the group, the cost of weakness, and identity.”

which makes it sound like it’s packed cover-to-cover with profundity, and it’s probably impossible to convey all that in less than hour. So the adaptation focuses on a kind of Roshomon-esque ambiguity, by removing the novel’s frame story and focusing on one part, when the Sensei was in college and renting a room in a house with a mother and her pretty daughter. He befriends a student-monk in need of a place to stay, and the monk moves in. Sensei gradually senses that something is happening between the monk and the daughter, but whether it’s romance, rape or something else is never clear to him.

This brings me to another aspect of “Kokoro” and Aoi Bungaku in general: not only does it look great, but its visual design, with character designs by several famous Shounen Jump authors often adds another layer of enjoyment to the series, and not just because it consistently looks great. The sad, slinky pretty boy look of No Longer Human‘s main character fits the story, and the elaborate fantasy visuals created for Hell Screen and The Spider’s Thread add a second layer of enjoyment. The monk is best example of this: designed as a huge, hulking, hairy figure with elfen ears, slanted eyes and giant feet, he looks like he doesn’t belong anywhere but in his own head. That gives his character an additional layer of ambiguity, isolating him from everyone else.

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And I wish it had dwelled in that ambiguity. Its adaptation of Kokoro is a two-parter, and in the second half it revisits the same story but from the point of view of the monk. It’s an interesting concept, but doesn’t add anything to the story, and in fact muddies it a bit. The ambiguity of the monk’s motives are what makes the story intense- when the point of view is flipped, and the monk is made an unambiguously good man in a world that doesn’t understand and living with a family that’s hostile to his existence, it takes away a lot of what made the first story interesting, leaving a fairly generic forbidden love story with some artistic flourishes. And the complexity of the monk’s relationship, hinged on guilt, egoism and jealousy in the first half, just boils down to jealousy the second time around. The idea of rewriting a famous story from the point of view of another character is an old one, and usually lends a new perspective to something familiar. Here, the opposite happens.

Run, Milos, Run is the next story, another Osamu Dezai adaptation. It dwells on a novel subject, waiting, but doesn’t quite justify its length with the kind of nuanced thoughtfulness that made Kokoro and No Longer Human such a pleasure. I wonder if some of its problems stem from the host telling the audience, reassuringly, that Run, Milos, Run would be a happier story than No Longer Human, since it came from a better time in Dezai’s life. The core tension, between an author and his friend who seemed to abandon him at a crucial time in his life, feels like it has to lead to reconciliation for its entire runtime. The series’ themes on waiting are also pretty explicitly laid out by the host as well, so an important realization by the main character feels pretty mundane when he finally reaches it after forty-plus minutes of emotional anguish. Let’s just move on to the next story, which actually a pair of adult fairy tales.

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was the intellectual father of the literary environment that every story Aoi Bungaku had adapted so far came from, so it feels appropriate that the series ends with two of his stories. But they feel a bit out of place- while his successors would write emotionally nuanced, complex works of art that even in Aoi Bungaku‘s occasionally uneven adaptations show a lot of thoughtfulness and humanity, Akutagawa’s specialty was adult fairy tales, and they can’t have that same nuance. They are still dark and sophisticated, but the genre demands some concessions to more traditional storytelling, with simpler characters and stories. That’s not to say that these fairy tales are inherently worse, just different.  This is more a problem with anthologies than anything else. The stories can’t help but feel like weaker material when compared to every episode before it, so the series ends on a bit of a muted note.

But “muted” in Aoi Bungaku still means it’s working on levels that anime rarely reaches. This is a strong, but uneven, series, and I could easily see some of the things I’ve pinpointed as weaknesses not bothering me as much the second time around, or even becoming strengths with a new viewpoint. These are adaptations that have an unusually deep well to draw on, so it seems natural that things that don’t make sense to me the first time around work better on the second. This series is an absolute “must watch” for anyone who takes anime seriously and thinks it should be taken seriously more often. Western anime fans too often overstate the profundity in anime, especially in comparison to what’s on TV at the moment in America, but this is one of the few cases where anime reaches the rarefied heights of being both good art and good entertainment.

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