These are masterpieces, says the narrator. Hence, they’re evergreen.
These words herald the start of each episode of this collection of classic tales. Aoi Bungaku (Blue Literature) is a 12-episode show, produced in 2009 by Madhouse. Six tales from classic Japanese literature are included in this adaptation, with the episodes breakdown as follows:
Episodes 1-4: No Longer Human (1948), by Dazai Osamu.
Eposides 5-6: In the Forest, under the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom (1947), by Sakaguchi Ango.
Episodes 7-8: Kokoro (1914), by Natsume Souseki.
Episodes 9-10: Run, Melos! (1940), by Dazai Osamu.
Episode 11: The Spider’s Thread (1918), by Akutagawa Ryuunosuke.
Episode 12: Hell Screen (1918), by Akutagawa Ryuunosuke.
Each story arc is produced and directed independently. Thus, their visuals, sounds, and atmosphere are different. I will go into each section in more detail below.
No Longer Human: Set in the late 1920’s, this story follows a young artist mired in a vicious cycle of depression and self-loathing as he tries to blend into human society.
This was a powerful story, although I feel I didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have, mainly because I didn’t quite understand the reason behind the protagonist’s depression. Although the audio and visuals were nothing to complain about and the main conflict was apparent; yet I couldn’t root for the protagonist. After all, it’s a tricky business to make the viewer sympathize with a character who can’t even respect himself.
In the Forest, under the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom: Cherry blossoms are treasured in Japanese culture. Yet, to our mountain-bandit protagonist, they bring nothing but trouble. One day, he sees a cherry tree in full bloom. The next day, he abducts a woman, becomes instantly enthralled, and begins to follow her every demand. Then the story takes a dark turn as she coerces him to do horrific things for her enjoyment.
While No Longer Human‘s art style was more realistic, this arc featured vibrant colours for a more cartoon-ish feeling. Unfortunately, this resulted in clashes between cartoon-ish humor and horrific violence. One moment would feature comedy from a clumsy moe girl with glasses, only to suddenly transition into a scene of cold-blooded murder. Some viewers will find this jarring.
Kokoro: This arc shows the importance of perspective. A student renting a room is in love with the landlady’s daughter. After he invites his friend to live together, he is appalled to learn that the friend – originally a stoic seeker of wisdom – has also fallen in love with her. What ensues is a tempest of unrequited love and misunderstandings, leading to a tragedy and a lingering bitter taste in everyone’s mouth. The tale is told twice: once from each man’s perspective to show the viewers how fickle our allegiances can be. Therefore, in one episode I was cheering for one man; while in the next episode I found myself rooting for the other.
Run, Melos!: This is perhaps the only optimistic piece from the entire series. It is a tale of a friend overcoming physical and emotional obstacles, in a race against time, to take his dear friend’s place on the gallows.
The adaptation added a framing device: in this adaptation, a writer is commissioned to adapt this tale for the stage. Yet, he unexpectedly finds that it parallels one of his previous friendships too closely for comfort. This re-writing was well executed as it added complexity to an otherwise simple tale and kept me guessing where the parallels lay.
I liked the animation in this arc. The story was heavily influenced by Greek tragedies while the visuals matched the influence with dramatic lighting.
The Spider’s Thread: This is based on a Buddhist tale: An unapologetic serial killer is sent to the underworld. However, because he once spared a spider‘s life, he is given a thread to climb out. As he climbs towards salvation, he notices everyone else climbing the thread after him. His next decision determines his fate….
Similar to the other tales, this showcased the darkest depths of human nature.
Hell Screen: An artist paints the depth of Hell. How far does he go to understand the fullest extent of human suffering?
Interestingly, the adaptation changed the artist’s original motive from painting Hell to painting Hell in protest of a tyrant. This was a welcome, as it added an extra dimension of the artist becoming so absorbed in his work that he forgets his original motive, and begins to actively seek human suffering.
I liked the depiction of Hell in the above two episodes. They were reminiscent of the witches’ labyrinths in Madoka Magica, aiming to unnerve the audience not through blood and gore, but through uncanniness.
Being adapted from classics, this show is definitely worth watching for the stories. Yet, some may ask, why not read the novels? Not having done so, I can’t give a good answer. Yet, the show’s animation and sound, while not perfect, does effectively back up the wonderful storytelling. Overall, if you’re looking for well-written stories that explore the darkness of human nature, Aoi Bungaku is definitely worth your time.