Hell Screen: Aoi Bungaku 12

So it’s off to google a few pages to get ready for the final Aoi Bungaku episode, Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Hell Screen.” I shouldn’t have to do this, I suppose. I could simply take what the anime gives me and work with that, but it’s more interesting to see how it embellishes the original. On the other hand I’m not reading the actual text, so I’m bound to miss out on something.

In the anime Yoshihide, the Emperor’s favorite painter, is given a new commision, the paint the interior of the Emperor’s massive tomb. But first he and his daughter Mitsuki witness first hand some of the cruelties found in the kingdom. Apparently the original suggests that Yoshihide is dedicated to depicting the awful things as closely as he can, but in the anime (and maybe in the original, again, I haven’t read it), the character is appalled by what he sees. Yet he paints it anyway. Such is the pain of being a dedicated artist.

The Emperor (the same guy as in “The Spider’s Thread”) is cruel, vicious, and vain, but with a great sense of style. When he sees the painting it’s his turn to be appalled. Oddly enough, he doesn’t have Yoshihide’s head right away. Maybe he still wants Yoshihide to finish the job. Meanwhile, Yoshihide is already aware that he’s already signed his death warrant and is simply waiting for the death blow. This gives him tremendous power; he knows he will die anyway, so he is free to paint it how he sees it.

But he can’t; his artistic instincts won’t be satisfied unless he sees something else horrific: Someone being burned alive (which he’s seen before, so I don’t know why he needs to see it again, but anyway …). In the service of art even Yoshihide can turn to immorality. The wacky Emperor agrees, and it’s little surprise that the victim is his daughter Mitsuki. The scene is cruel, yet beautiful to watch. And it doesn’t quite work out the way the Emperor planned.

Immolation isn't usually this pretty.

After all, Mitsuki also expected to die, so she dies willingly, so that her father can take her death and use it in his work. In her death she becomes a sort of beautiful angel. The tortured artist Yoshihide seems redeemed by her sacrifice. It’s a lovely moment. … Oh, and the flames catch on to the Imperial Canopy, so the Emperor dies. That was a lovely moment, too. It wasn’t in any plot synopsis I read, but good riddance. Perhaps the evil Emperor getting away unscathed isn’t something modern-day television viewers could stomach, but it’s a satisfying touch.

Yoshihide dead on the floor of his last masterpiece.

This episode lives up the the artistic and animation standards set by the previous ones. The immolation scene and the final images of the finished tomb are astonishing. They give off a near 3-D effect. And they certainly dignify Yoshihide and Mitsuki’s deaths.

Amazing stuff, this series. I’m sorry to see it end, on the other hand, it requires a lot more thought and study than most other shows. It’s worn me out. So I guess it’s time I watch the netflixed, live-action Cutie Honey.

The Spider’s Thread: Aoi Bungaku 11

Aoi Bungako 11 is the story “The Spider’s Thread” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, supposedly a tale for children. From a translation or maybe a synopsis I found online I expected some Buddha, and lovely colors, and a story about a bandit trying to get out of hell via a spider’s web. Well, I got the colors all right, and the web. But Aoi Bungako likes to embellish, so we get numerous scenes at the beginning showing how the bandit, Kandata, earned his way to hell before he is caught and executed.

Not an anti-hero, just a psychopath.

We get a lot of this, roughly half the show, and the story’s events haven’t even started yet. It’s extremely violent and gory, definitely not for children. Though, as in every episode of this show, it’s great to look at. They even throw in a big parade that reminded me of something Satoshi Kon would do. Through it all, the lights and colors are dazzling.

In the story, Buddha sees that Kandata had performed one act of kindness in his life, not killing a spider. So he lowers a web to hell, but as Kandata climbs so do all the other tortured souls. He tries to kick them off, the web breaks, and down he goes. This version chooses to see it all from Kandata’s point of view, and the hell he gets is both beautiful and terrifying.

I was tempted to use many more screenshots to get my point across, partly because I have very little else to say about this episode. Their handling of the story is straightforward, the only real change they make is in the point of view. What makes it remarkable is the sheer style. Every other story this series has told shares this sense of wild imagination. This particular story is, so far the simplest.

Run, Melos: Aoi Bungaku 9-10

Writing about the stories shown in Aoi Bungaku is always difficult. For your average anime show no one knows the story until it is broadcast. But with these stories the Japanese viewer will be familiar with them, they are based on established literary masterpieces, yet I have not read a single one of them. Normally, as a westerner, I expect not to catch all the nuances of a Japanese show anyway, but now I’m put at an even greater disadvantage. What’s more, these aren’t straightforward interpretations of the texts. They are imaginative retellings, and I can’t tell the original from the interpretation. This is partly why I didn’t write at all about the last story. But I’ll give “Run, Melos” a try.

The anime takes an interesting turn. Rather than being an inspirational story about a man rushing back to prevent his friend from being executed, we get a playwright who is contracted to write a stage version of it. Takada is reluctant at first, then falls into despair when the legend dredges up painful memories.

15 years ago Takada and his friend Yoshina were to run away to Tokyo to do theatre together, but Yoshina doesn’t make the train. Takada sees him standing by the tracks as the train passes. In other words, Yoshina breaks a promise. While the play Takada writes is all about enduring pain and near death because of such a promise. The evil Roman guy who will execute Melos’ friend does not believe in altruism, rather that humans’ hearts are black and corrupt, quick to betray. Which is just what happened to Takada. And he must face his own painful memory, and a decision of what to do when he suddenly learns Yoshina is now dying. Meanwhile, his manager is waiting for the manuscript. “Is it worse to wait or to be kept waiting?”

What makes the Aoi Bungaku version so effective, besides the glorious animation and artwork, is how it mixes the play and Takada’s personal story together. On one hand we have Takada’s play being performed, and it frankly doesn’t seem more than a rehash of the original story, everyone gesticulating wooden lines in Greek garb. But all of a sudden characters change. Takada himself appears as a Greek chorus figure, plucking a lyre, narrating. The stage effects and lighting are revealed to us, as if to say, “This is only a play, a lie. The truth lies elsewhere.” At another point he’s watching from the audience as Melos takes the form of Yoshina. The evil Roman guy appears on the train with him. Melos’ fight with the bandits occurs on Takada’s desk while he furiously writes. Fireflies turn into stage lights. I could go on and on.

Not only is this amazing to watch, but it allows us to visit the situation from many different angles, or maybe it’s Takada who does so. The overall effect is to emphasize the desperation that Melos felt, trying to reach his friend, and Takada’s despair over a friend who failed him.

The original story ends happily, with Melos returning to save his friend. Takada’s ends not with happiness, but with a sense of closure over an event he had thought he had overcome long ago.

Another lovely story in the Aoi Bungaku series. Highly recommended.

In the Woods Beneath the Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom (Aoi Bungaku 5-6)

The story is told in two episodes, and it’s about as far as you can get from the “No Longer Human” story. For one thing, it’s a lot less murky. Our hero Shigemaru, doing the usual bandit things, abducts a woman whom he immediately falls in love with. He’s her immediate sap and when she tells him to kill his other wives (maybe the first male in anime history who actually possesses a harem), he barely objects. Meanwhile, the new wife sings a little song.

Nothing like a nice song during the carnage.

As you can see from the above image, this story is heavy on the style. Song and dance numbers during a murder is only one of the jolts they toss at you. Shigemaru, off hunting with his bow, listens to an Ipod. Townspeople whip out cell phones. They lapse into deformed mode like this is really a high school comedy. Much of it is in the opening scenes, so for the first few minutes I didn’t know what on earth this show is trying to do.

Like “No Longer Human” I had never heard of Ango Sakaguchi’s story before, and could only rely on Introduction Man and a few googles to fill me in, which means I have roughly the same knowledge of the original as a middle-schooler writing a book report. But it’s fair to say that according to Sakaguchi (and his character Shigemaru), cherry blossoms aren’t quite the lovely things Japanese society makes them out to be. The show suggests their malevolence even as it shows their beauty.

Not only blood-red, but budding in a sickening lavender light, or petals whipping around like snowflakes in a storm, and it’s suggested that they drove Shigemaru mad long ago, and the final act was his return to his madness. Maybe. Another running theme, that of country life vs. city life and the disconnect the latter can bring, seems to belie that idea, especially in the way they show the new wife, a cosmopolitan woman who often sings when the cruelest things surround her and the whole thing looks like a music video. I am not going to begin to suggest an answer, because I do not have one, not at this moment. All I’ll say is that it’s one of the most amazing two eps I’ve seen in a long time, well done in every respect, and it makes me wonder if I can find a copy of the original somewhere.

Let’s see, what can I possibly watch after that … I know!

Catching up with Aoi Bungaku, 3-4

It’s been a while since I looked at Aoi Bungaku, finally viewing the conclusion of the “No Longer Human” story tonight. In ep3, Youzou has settled down with a woman and her child, and then everything goes wrong. In ep4, he settles down with yet another woman, and then … well you get the idea. At least they don’t die this time.

There are a number of things that keep interfering with his life: He doesn’t consider himself to be a human being, of course. Society is no help; the world is going toward the hell of WWII. As his friend Horiko says: “No one will be human,” and we see the soldiers marching everywhere to prove it. And there is his reputation of being a killer, even though she wanted death.

The colors are always so grey and muted that when a red parasol shows up ...

Through it all he tries to adapt. He accepts the fact that society thinks him as a clown, he even accepts that he isn’t human. This is painful to watch, because Youzou is fully human. Yes, he’s frail, weak, sometimes deceitful and cruel, but he is completely human. It’s just that too much has happened to him. He tries hard and finds solice in the little girl who calls him Dad, and the eyes of the woman after that, who we discover has been deceiving him for “noble” reasons, or did she? He simply can’t shake off all the pressures within and without. Near the end two women he’s known stand up for him and for his kindness, and they’re sort of right. But women have always liked him like that, another thing that, because of what happens to him, he simply cannot comprehend.

There’s tons I’m not getting in this story because it’s rooted so deeply in Japanese culture and is considered a literary classic that many people over there will recognize. With only four half-hour episodes to work with I’m sure it was whittled down and sliced up. But we do get a live-action guy at the start, talking briefly about writer Osamu Dazai’s life. Apparently this novel is autobiographical, and he sounds like he was a decent guy who was fucked up by life a little too much to function normally. This makes the story, what I can understand of it, more affecting.

Phew! After all that I need a change of pace … Let’s see … Ah!

Hi guys! Missed you!

Aoi Bagaku 2, Kampfer 4

Aoi Bungaku 2 (The No Longer Human story) continues on it’s cheerful path, as our hero finds himself the subject of attention from his father, who wants to keep him out of sight, and a local newspaper, who wants to write about this scandalous man. He’s got one friend, really, but doesn’t want his help, and a woman tries to befriend him. But while we try to figure out what’s going to happen to this man next, he himself doesn’t seem to care. He believes he’s not human but in reality a monster. Much of the ep shows him trying to deal with this “true” image he hallucinates in various ways, including painting its portrait.

aoibungaku2

It’s not surprising he feels he doesn’t fit in, because in this cynical world he lives in things are getting steadily worse. He’s mostly surrounded by people who dislike him. The stock market crash hits. We get an inkling of what Japan will become in the 1930s. His world as we see it is dark and blurry, claustrophobic. The tragedy is that though he considers himself a monster, in reality he seems to be a passive fellow, simply not fit for the society of the time. Everything comes at him and he has no choice but to float along with it, because he cannot withdraw. He tried that last episode. Didn’t work.

I don’t know how long this story will last as they have some other stories to tell. We’ll get a conclusion soon. I feel relieved for the guy.

Watching anything after Aoi Bugaku will mean a bit of a shock, so I might as well look at Kampfer 4 next. Another show I’m so close to dropping but can’t just find it in me yet. This time it’s the old cultural festival routine, and Shizuku signs Natsuru up for the beauty contest. So we get lots of jokes about choosing underwear, of course, but then there’s a not-bad karaoke scene with a confrontation between Akane and Sakura, aided by the ever-devious Shizuku.

kampfer4
Shizuku cooly sips her drink while everything around her falls apart

I’m liking Shizuku; there’s no situation bad enough she can’t manipulate to make worse, all, I guess, for her own sick pleasure. No one else in this show is a match for her. And since everyone else is such a batch of cliches I find myself rooting for her.

Some Kampfer, Nyan Koi and Introducing Aoi Bungaku

Quite a contrast this time around …

Aoi Bungaku is apparently four stories, and we start with the cheerful “No Longer Human,” where we follow the misadventures of a young man, “unable to comprehend the way humans work.” He has cynically joined the resistance, is about to be cut off from his allowance, is on the run from the law, and meets up with an equally depressed Mayumi. The conclusion of this ep is ambiguous, but I suspect we’re going to get a lot more angst in the future. The art is splendid and they do a good job of getting us into the mind of the “hero,” not that it’s a mind I’d really like to visit. The moodiness is a bit overwhelming; I perversely kept imagining him lifting his head and shouting “I’m in despair!” but when the alternatives are shows like the following I’ll take what I can get.

No battling in Kampfer 3. Instead Natsuru comes to the girls’ side, and it seems that everyone there is a lesbian. To further complicate matters Shizuku spreads a rumor that Natsuru is in love with … Natsuru, which pisses off Sakura, the girl he/she actually likes. Once again this show hands out one or two amusing scenes (for me it was the “Talk with Natsuru for 30 seconds” bit) and a whole lot of dull. Maybe some fighting will improve things.

I almost didn’t watch Nyan Koi 3 (especially after watching Aoi Bungaku). I can’t watch every show each season, but I try until I’m about to click on one and think “I don’t really want to watch this anymore.” In other words, my viewing’s attrition comes from boredom. Would this be the first casualty of the season? Well, I watched it, and now I’m sort of sorry I did because I liked this episode. The lost mail girl isn’t much of a character, but her combination of innocence and tease kept me amused. And for once it wasn’t a life-or-death situation with the cats. I mean, he helps several of them but they weren’t the main story. And it looks like the character list will expand next week. I hope they keep to this formula for a while of concentrating on the humans and not so much the cats.