Seems like I’ve been in an anime-rewatching mood as of late. Most likely a result of putting myself through so much mediocrity this season that How To Train Your Dragon 2 almost looks appealing to me – until I remember how it threw away every interesting direction it could have gone for stupid cliche after stupid cliche, at which point it joins the ranks of the anime I’m watching. After two years of trying, I finally managed to actually finish Mononoke aka the only Kenji Nakamura anime that most people can say is good with a straight face and now I’m going to bash the dude like usua…nah, I’m not going to do that to the guy.
Nor am I going to review Mononoke itself. Believe me, I tried writing about the show, but it always kept coming back to that artstyle which is messy, beautiful on a visual level, and kills the ghost story atmosphere I want to feel when watching a supernatural horror show, which made my appreciation of the show’s various stories regarding the relationship between the deceased and the living to be a mixed bag overall despite all of them being interesting to analyze on an abstract level. So let’s not talk about it anymore other than me saying that I think the show is okay and move on to an arc-based elitist bait anime that’s more my speed due to the fact that despite changing art styles, it never goes to one that makes me question whether or not I’m supposed to take something seriously.
Now unlike Mononoke, Aoi Bungaku hasn’t exactly been very relevant in anime-watching circles these days, which is understandable given that there’s not much to really “fanboy” over what’s essentially an anime anthology series done by several directors of which we only recognize the names of Tetsuro Araki and arguably Ryosuke Nakamura. In fact, I’m going to assume that most of you never even heard of the show, so let me lay it down.
Back when Madhouse was at its peak, one of their more ambitious projects was to adapt six classic short stories from Japanese literature with a different director attached to each story, minus the last two which were done by the same director because he chose to adapt the two shortest stories of the bunch and only needed one episode for each one. The only connecting thread between these stories is the opening narration done by some Japanese guy trying to evoke Rod Sterling and failing massively at it, and the fact that each adapted story is a depressing look at humanity’s dark side and not for anyone who gets their kicks out of watching The Brady Bunch.
And when I say they’re different from each other beyond those qualities I just mentioned, I do mean different. Different authors (barring No Longer Human and Run Melos which were written by the same guy), different characters, different styles, and differing levels of quality as well, and that’s kind of a negative mark against this anime, unfortunately. I have to side with the popular fan opinion that No Longer Human is the worst of the bunch, and that stance isn’t helped by the fact that it’s the first story and it takes up 1/3 of the show’s runtime, which is probably part of the reason why it looks so bad compared to the other stories to begin with. That said, No Longer Human isn’t bad or that boring. It’s just not very engaging for the simple fact that it’s portrayal of suicidal tendencies across time is just that: a portrayal. They don’t use it for anything ground-breaking or epic at all, especially when you compare it to the other stories. It’s like Millennium Actress with a less interesting gimmick.
Familiarity with the original stories isn’t a requirement obviously, but like with most adaptations, it’s fun to see what gets changed for the better or for the worse depending on how attached you are to what you were first exposed to. This particularly comes to a head in regards to Run Melos, which only follows the original story about 25% of the time and the remaining 75% is devoted to the writer and how his personal life is reflected in his own fiction. It’s a great use of narrative juxtaposition that complements both stories and their ultimately hopeful message regarding trust and the struggles humanity will go through to fulfill that trust. Although the fact that the director re-used the same artstyle and soundtrack from Mouryou no Hako was a little distracting.
Not that some of the adaptations couldn’t have used more loyalty to their source material. The second story, Sakura no Mori no Whatever, tries to pass off “anime humor” as a contrast to the characters’ darker nature and it’s simply awful. And I guess that’s Aoi Bungaku’s main fault. Aside from the differing quality in arcs, it saved all its best stories that actually examine its subject material in a mature manner for the end. The stories that are more phoned-in take up the entire first half unfortunately, so it can take a while to really “click” with some people. I honestly think the Hell Screen story should have been moved to the beginning of the anime since not only would it have left a much better first impression (holy hell does the final painting get me pumped up), it would have been nice for both the introductory and the concluding episodes to be directed by the same guy as some sort of show-capping nod. Not to mention, it’s not even as great a story as The Spider’s Thread – although I should admit that enjoyment of that one comes from how much bloody on-screen violence you’re able to stomach in general. Fortunately, I’m a sick human being that can relish in that sort of carnage, but the awareness that I’m in a minority on that stance is larger than Godzilla wearing high heels.
I hate to use the term “it gets better, I swear” to describe an anime, but regardless of my personal opinions regarding whether one story lives up to another, every single one of Aoi Bungaku’s arcs deserves to be seen at least once, so the “it gets better” argument is more a side-bonus than something the show depends on. And it definitely doesn’t need to, because the overall product is smart, risk-taking, accessible enough, and well worth a watch if you’re looking for something beyond mecha, moe, and everything else that makes anime “anime”, or if you’re just a horrible human being in general. Wouldn’t go so far as to call the show a personal favorite of mine, but the last three stories are definitely up there and they’re stand-alone enough to the point that I can ignore the lesser aspects if I so desire.
Well, everything except for Japanese Rod Sterling that is. I’m sure he’s a nice man in reality, but his “they’re called evergreen because they’re masterpieces” catchphrase makes me want to reach into my screen and staple his mouth shut.