Review: Aoi Bungaku Series

[Synopsis]: Aoi Bungaku is a collection of six classical Japanese works of literature that investigate various themes within the human condition, often presenting the darker side of humanity in doing so. The featured stories in order are No Longer Human (Osamu Dazai); In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom (Ango Sakaguchi); Kokoro (Natsume Soseki); Run, Melos! (Osamu Daizai); The Spider’s Thread; and Hell Screen (both by Ryunosuke Akutagawa). Each new story and chapter is prefaced by Sakai, Masato in a brief live-action introduction.

[Characters]:

Due to the manner in which Aoi Bungaku unfolds it is hard to talk at great length about the cast of each individual story and their main characters while doing them each justice and so I will keep mainly to the most important elements of the show’s characters in order to remain concise. The first thing I should note and perhaps the most important character element present in each of the classical stories featured is that the stories offer great character psychology – this is not to claim that each story develops a complicated and thorough set of characters in the breadth of only 2-3 episodes but rather that the way in which the stories present their lead characters and the way those characters behave is very engaging due to their attributed psyches. Rather than relying on certain personality traits or means of character development to make its characters interesting, the strength of Aoi Bungaku’s characters resides in how they think and behave. This worked well alongside the dramatic subject matter of the stories and hardly a single character was left wanting for attributes or greater definition.

One point of intrigue I found was in the casting of Sakai Masato as both the prefacing ‘navigator’ at the beginning of each episode as well as the vast majority of the main characters across all of the stories. I enjoyed his performance in each chapter of the show but moreover I found it interesting that he was cast in such a way as it gave the show a feeling of being read to an audience with the narrator voicing the central character. Though Sakai’s role as the main character wavers at times in the latter segments of the show I feel that the tone of a reader addressing an audience goes hand in hand with the classical nature of these stories and with the show’s live action preface. One downside to this otherwise positive casting decision was that in some stories more than others Sakai’s voice fell short of matching the design of his character and felt awkward at times though I found that I got used to this as the episodes progressed.

In the same way that Aoi Bungaku offers a diverse selection of works within the same interest it has a varying cast of leads, each with their own form of intrigue alongside their respective engaging mindsets and psychologies. Ooba Youzou, the protagonist of the first story, No Longer Human, is introspective, reclusive, and wretched while Shigemaru, the protagonist of the subsequent story, is boisterous and lively. This diversity kept things interesting but also made the characters more appealing as the show only has so much time during which it can acquaint the viewer with them. Aoi Bungaku does well by its characters and while the thematic entirety of its featured stories may not feel translated in whole, each cast member is compelling in their own right and a source of entertainment all throughout.

[Art/Animation]:

The nature of Aoi Bungaku’s six-story format allows for a great amount of diversity in setting, atmosphere, and animation and while the overall method visual method of storytelling is more or less the same across all of the selections there are notable differences such as occasional changes in character design and in animation quality. What I enjoyed most about the show in respect to its art was its incredible variance of colors from one story to the next. No Longer Human is dark and drained of color and often drawn in the winter aesthetic to suit its downtrodden and miserable setting and characters whereas Kokoro, the third classic featured, is first drawn in the aesthetic of summer and from the first episode features far more vibrant colors than the stories that proceed it. Likewise, the color palette of the final story featured, Hell Screen, was explosively colorful to match the story’s subject matter of painting and art.

I think special attention should be paid to the fourth adaptation, Run, Melos!, because of its exceptional animation and art quality. I found this story to be the most visually appealing even though its fellows were by no means lacking – it presented dramatic character motion both on and off its stage in wonderful parallel.

[Story]:

Much like the show I will preface this section with my thoughts on the presence of an introductory host in the form of Sakai Masato. As I was unfamiliar with the classic literature of Aoi Bungaku beforehand with the exception of Hell Screen, I found the inclusion of the live-action preamble to be highly beneficial as it not only prepared me as a viewer for the tone of the narrative to come but also provided interesting context through information about the authors of each story and when each story was written. The information about each author provided becomes increasingly important as each new chapter unfolds and one can very directly see the manner in which the past and personality of the author effects their story because of the show’s straightforward presentation in this area.

The first story featured and one of two examples of Osamu Dazai’s works within the show is No Longer Human. It is the longest of the adaptations at 4-episodes while the others are between 1 and 2 episodes and I think it was a great choice to lead with for multiple reasons. Firstly, its subject matter is possibly the most outright depressing – A dejected youth deprived of meaning and purpose in his life, a continuous cycle of abuse, and a series of unfortunate developments made this story the hardest to get through despite the dark and twisted content of the stories that followed it. It is the most methodical of all of the included narratives and by leading with it the show allows for its other stories to play out closer together without pausing for 4 episodes midway through and disrupting the subsequently shifting tones present in the other classics. No Longer Human also does a great job of establishing the overarching tone of the stories in Aoki Bungaku due to its highly contemplative and thematic nature alongside its capacity for interpretation.

In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom is the story that immediately proceeds No Longer Human and the change in tone and subject matter is quite drastic. Gone is the dreary palette with which No Longer Human is delivered and in its place we establish a vibrant setting full of falling cherry blossoms and a vibrant green forestry. The visuals are not the only immense difference between the two narratives as the new story is quick to relieve the tension and misery of its predecessor by being upbeat and charismatic with comedic elements. While I think the idea of shifting to a much more cheerful tone (at least initially) is a good one I must admit that this adaptation was the most problematic of the ones featured due to its unique attributes and attempts at humor. The story itself concerns a larger-than-life mountain bandit and a beautiful woman from the city whom he encounters and by itself is quite interesting. One of the primary reasons I felt this selection fell short was because of its use of things such as earbuds and cellphones as anachronistic gags – nowhere else in the whole of Aoi Bungaku is there an instance of this style of humor much less comedy in general and as the show continues on past this narrative is becomes painfully awkward by juxtaposition. The comedy enacted is forgettable and cliche and while it presents a reprieve from the themes of No Longer Human, it ends up compromising itself.

With the first two stories out of the way I feel that the show truly hits its stride with the following two additions of Kokoro and Run, Melos! Both stories concern the theme of love and friendship however develop in highly dramatic and sorrowful fashion. Kokoro details the relationship between a young man living with a widow and her daughter and his friend whom he invites to live with him. Run, Melos! is a retelling of an old Greek fable wherein an playwright attempts to adapt the ancient Greek tale but must tackle his past to do so as the drama of his life unfolds both in his writing and in his mind. The primary reason I would attribute to these two adaptations being the strongest out of those in Aoi Bungaku is due to their thematic elements. While all of the classics in the show have a great many themes at work these two stories were the most compelling in this regard. Kokoro deals with the complexity of love and self-importance versus shame while Run, Melos! similarly tackles the theme of friendship and postulates: “Is it more painful to be the person who waits? Or to be the person who makes others wait?”. Additionally, some interesting work is being done in the second half of Kokoro’s adaptation as it offers an alternative perspective of the same story however the content of the second episode has no relation to the source material and I think does quite well for itself. At face-value Run, Melos! is possibly the most straightforward of the selected narratives however I think after given appropriate thought it offers some of the more thought-provoking developments and exchanges.

The conclusive two stories, The Spider’s Thread and Hell Screen are written by the same author and lightly reference each other. While they are not as strong as the two stories that proceed them and their respective lengths are only 1 episode long they are equally interesting as the other stories and allow Aoi Bungaku to finish strong. The Spider’s Thread recounts the actions and fate of Kandata, a vicious criminal who’s lone good deed in all of his life was to spare the life of a spider while Hell Screen tells the story of the most skilled painter in the land, Yoshihide, after he is commissioned to fill the King’s future mausoleum with depictions of the country. The Spider’s Thread is a short and simplistic story with straightforward morals whereas Hell Screen is both tragic and visually stunning.

[Music]:

Throughout the whole of the show there would occasionally be recurring music in different stories but each narrative was able to make unique use of the soundtrack each time and there were plenty of new songs accompanying each adaptation as well. The main theme of Kokoro, played immediately upon its introduction, was brilliant in conveying the bright atmosphere of the setting and its thematic interest in love while the soundtrack used during No Longer Human did well in paralleling the bleak and dismal events of the plot as it unfolded. The music was memorable and was used continuously to great effect.

[Final Thoughts and Rating]: 

While I found some of the stories more interesting than others I think Aoi Bungaku offered a great selection of classic literature and each of those chosen were ultimately interesting despite whatever faults they may have had. As to whether or not one should familiarize themselves with the original works before watching the show, I think that the preamble proceeding each chapter does a good job of laying the groundwork for understanding the subsequent story to the point where one should by no means feel obligated to read up beforehand however I can only imagine one’s enjoyment would be  heightened having studied these texts beforehand. While all of the stories save perhaps Run, Melos! deal with the darkness of human nature they do so in diverse and unique ways within the context of each other.

The stories have a decent amount of room for interpretation and while some of these open-ended resolutions and convoluted developments may leave some people frustrated and wanting I found them to be one of the things that kept me interested as the show progressed.

Rating: 8

I gave Aoi Bungaku a 8 because of its great selection of stories, their explicit thematic and psychological focuses, the wonderful music that accompanied them, and the dynamic aesthetic in which each of them were visually delivered. The beginning of the show felt a bit slow due to No Longer Human’s methodical approach and the overall execution of In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom was a bit questionable due to its awkward attempts at comedy and self-contained anachronistic presences however the good far outweighed the bad in this case and the midsection of the show is delivered phenomenally.

[Recommendations]:

I would recommend Aoi Bungaku quite obviously to anyone interested in classical literature as the source material for these adaptations really shines through in their presentation. Anyone interesting in interpretative work would do well to look into this show as the endings of each story are quite thought provoking. I would recommend that anyone interested in the show at least begin watching the second story before deciding whether or not it is worth their time as No Longer Human is especially dreary by comparison and while the subject matter does not get all that much happier as the show progresses the stories become more straightforward and are more visually exciting.

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