The series consists of adaptations of six modern classics of Japanese literature: Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human (Ep. 1-4) & Run, Melos! (Ep. 9-10), Natsume Soseki's Kokoro (Ep. 7-8), Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Hell Screen (Ep. 12) & The Spider's Thread (Ep. 11), and Ango Sakaguchi's In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom (Ep. 5-6).
Now, here is something a little bit different. Live-action television and cinema is endlessly adapting old novels (especially if Jane Austen wrote them) but it is not something that is too common with modern animé. For all the complaints thrown out about the lack of original content (meaning non-sourced content though the lack of a lot things being new and original is certainly a valid and oft-voiced complaint), it is very rare for animé to adapt material that is even twenty or more years old let alone material that is over sixty at least. It is odd really, when you look at the results in Aoi Bungaku because animé seems to be an excellent medium for bringing to life the atmosphere and feeling of these period pieces far more easily, effectively and cheaply than live-action adaptations can. It also allows the adaptors to weave in the same sort of imagination and magic that the old masters did through the power of their words with the power of their visuals. In this respect, animation easily trumps live-action in all but the films of the most proficient moviemakers. If you don't believe me, just watch Aoi Bungaku. Then you'll see.
Blue Literature (as its name directly translates) refers to stories and books that are on the sombre and reflective side and Aoi Bungaku certainly doesn't stray from that. Even at its silliest (and that is the 'In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom' segment without a doubt), do not expect to find any evidence of optimism having been anywhere near these stories. The show's opener (No Longer Human) sets that tone perfectly: realistically depicted character designs, a colour palette nowhere near the brighter end of the spectrum and a subdued vocal performance all come together to make a sober experience. Throw in its reflections on guilt, suicide, regret and alienation (probably pretty topical in its post-war day) and you have four episodes that certainly won't bring a smile to your face - at least not in a happy way. In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom, however, is an entirely different kettle of fish. The colour palette, for one thing, switches from strict Calvinist funeral to full-on Pentecostal wedding with eye-blinking surprise, like stepping out a tunnel into a rainforest, and the atmosphere also changes with it. The interesting thing is that the severity of the subject matter does not. While No Longer Human approached its subject matter with the same sobriety that reflects its theme's gravitas, "In the Forest" approaches its themes with a vicious humour that would make Masaaki Yuasa blush. A musical number is set to the scene of the main character brutally slaughtering defenceless women and musical similarities to the music of Sweeney Todd are more than deliberate I suspect. To be honest, in terms of content, this may be the most horrifying of any of the segments though I'm not sure whether that is because of its cute and perky exterior or whether that vibrant tone is shielding us from the stories worst horrors.
Stark differences (such as those between In the Forest and No Longer Human) are both the joy and the most glaring flaw of the series. Differences in production, direction, approaches and designs are present in each story and, not surprisingly, this leads to a certain inequality between the qualities of each segment. Tonal differences like those mentioned above make the segments even more of a mixed bag even if you leave aside the different atmospheres created by the very different styles of visuals. That said it really is a positive thing in the end. The desire the various makers often show to not rest on the laurels of their celebrated source material and actually try to find interesting and dynamic ways to present itself is what gives this series a valid reason for existence. Whether this is through serious cosmetic changes (such as the framing story set around Run, Melos!) or mere shifts away from intended presentation - they all show a desire to innovate. Sadly, the least innovative segment is also the longest. "No Longer Human", with the greatest respect to the makers who did a great job bringing a difficult text to life, was the most down-to-earth and probably the least interesting story in terms of style and delivery. Again, it is not that it bad in any way, I very much enjoyed the content given; it merely fell into the problem of being a functional delivery rather than a particularly magical one.
In the end, though, the reason you will want to watch Aoi Bungaku is that the stories it adapts are incredible. Every story is reflective and beautiful, poignant and devastating. Kokoro in particular is a stunning meditation on class, perspective, selfishness and love and is quite possibly the best two episodes of pretty much any animé I have ever watched. These were damn good books and they have found a new televisual life in the hands of Madhouse. Even with small missteps, far too pointless and tedious to cover here in full, and even with fluctuations in quality from segment to segment (nothing shown after Kokoro lived up to that story's power) Aoi Bungaku is still a must-see - simply for the life and vibrancy that the show depicts its stunning source material. If you like your entertainment intelligent, thoughtful, thought provoking and, most of all, dark then why have you not seen this already?
Aoi Bungaku is not perfect but pretty much every niggle vanishes before its visual flair, powerful stories and its thought provoking nature. Take two stars away if you hate your animé dark, thoughtful and heavy. Actually, you should probably stay away from this if that is the case. — Aiden Foote
Recommended Audience: This is for adults only. It is dark, heavy and has nary a whiff of optimism from start to finish. Even its lighter hearted sections stand punctuated with pitch-black humour and callous subtext. Violence is also present in many of the stories.
Version(s) Viewed: Pre-release Fansub
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Aoi Bungaku © 2009 Aoi Bungaku Production Committee
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