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For the final installment of this month’s show for the Anime Watchers Club, we will discuss Aoi Bungaku’s adaptations of “Run, Melos!” by Osamu Dazai, and “The Spider’s Thread” and “Hell Screen” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. How do these stories compare to the first three tales of Blue Literature?

Run, Melos

“Is it more painful to wait, or to make someone wait?”

The short story this two-parter was based on was written in 1940 by Osamu Dazai (who went on to write No Longer Human, adapted in the first four episodes of Aoi Bungaku). The story was based on a 1798 German ballad by Friedrich Schiller, which in turn was based on ancient Greek tales collected by a Roman author. With this theme of evolving adaptation in mind, Aoi Bungaku interestingly takes Dazai’s story and makes it into a story within a story. In other words, it looks like all the material regarding the playwright and his friend in mid-20th century Japan is brand new. So we still have the story of Melos and his friend Selinuntius, but in this anime it serves as a metaphorical backdrop for the comparable story of the author Takada and the actor Joshima.

Layers of Stories

I found Run, Melos to be a bit more difficult to follow than the past stories of Aoi Bungaku, since it’s such a fragmented series of stories all mixed together. It’s not a simple frame story (where a character is recounting or remembering a story in some way), but rather a story about a man writing a story with a plot that happens to have parallels to events in his own life. I found it all very clever, and at times the anime was able to make good use of some excellent animation and music as well as unique shots and movement to create some really dramatic scenes.

The relationship between Takada and Joshima is the core of the story, and I felt I could relate to Takada quite a bit. There was one good friend of mine in college who was the sort of person who could do most anything, and do it really well. She could juggle schoolwork, two jobs, an active social life, a number of hobbies, and multiple personal projects… and do all of it quite well. A very fun, easy-to-like person, much like Joshima. On the other hand, I’ve always been someone to focus on just a few things (eg storytelling, in particular), and unfortunately success doesn’t come quickly for me. My recent life mirrors Takada’s in some ways. (Fortunately, there haven’t been any great misunderstandings or unhappy partings with my friend… so no drama at least.)

But what is it that separates Takada and Joshima? Perhaps the hint lies in the Greek story. In the play Takada writes, Melos is to be executed by a cruel king, but manages to work in a way to attend his sister’s wedding by having his friend take his place for three days. Though he has the option to let his friend die instead of him, he’s thoroughly determined to return in time and accept his execution. The situation brings up the (potentially) difficult question of whether or not you would be willing to die for someone. Is it better for you to suffer, or to be responsible for someone else’s suffering? Is it harder to do wrong for positive consequences, or to do right for negative ones? Is it more painful to wait, or to make someone wait?

Who is Melos?

Takada and Joshima were best friends, but despite their plans to further their work in Tokyo, Joshima purposely did not get on the train to join Takada (somewhat reminiscent of the train station incident in Kokoro). There must be a reason why, right? My guess is that Takada was relying on Joshima for everything, and Joshima wanted to help him learn to develop his creative skills without using Joshima as a crutch. Joshima perhaps also didn’t want Takada to get caught up in the difficulties with his family situation.

So Takada is left waiting for Joshima, much like Melos’ friend in the play. Throughout the story, Takada genuinely wonders if Melos would really keep his word and come back to Selinuntius in time. After all, didn’t Joshima fail to keep his promise? And yet Takada manages to find the will to finish his story upon “seeing” Joshima again at long last… I believe this sudden appearance by Joshima (at Takada’s most desperate hour) did not literally happen, since he fades into glowing lights after encouraging Takada to finish writing the play. (This also supports my belief that Joshima did not come with Takada in order to help Takada grow and succeed in his craft.)

In the end, the tables are turned when Takada learns Joshima is dying, and it’s Takada who plays the role of Melos, running to reach his friend in time. It was all quite powerful and touching, and I loved how Joshima’s wife passed on the pocket watch to Takada, symbolizing their friendship living on after death. The two were able to get together again one last time, just like in the play–but interestingly, the play’s ending is left incomplete. In Dazai’s story, the king is moved enough to allow both Melos and Selinuntius to live–but in Aoi Bungaku, this is never brought up as a possibility. We’re left to assume that Melos is likely executed, just as was planned in the bargain with the king.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter who is Melos and who is Selinuntius. The undying friendship between Takada and Joshima is what ultimately matters, just as both Melos and Selinuntius were willing to die for one another.

The Spider’s Thread

Aoi Bungaku ends with two short stories written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa–a name which sounded familiar to me because of Japan’s prize for literature named after him. (How do I know about the prize? From Nichijou, of course!) The Spider’s Thread is apparently a children’s story, and told much like a fable (reminding me a bit of Under Cherries). It certainly didn’t feel like a children’s story in this anime though. XP

It is a pretty simple story, so I can’t think of too much to comment on. Our wicked criminal is a murderer and a thief who doesn’t care one whit about anyone else in the world. On a whim, he doesn’t kill a random spider, and interestingly this is enough to give him a chance to escape from hell after he dies. Or at least, the spider was nice enough to try saving the protagonist in return for sparing its life. In the end, the spider’s lifeline thread breaks when the protagonist tries to keep everyone else from climbing up with him. Do the people represent the weight of all the sins he committed throughout his life, which was just way too much for the thread to hold? Or are the people simply representing the protagonist’s “fellow man,” and the fact he was still unwilling to assist them in any way was what made the magical thread break? I do wonder if it was ever possible for him to truly redeem himself after death.

The representation of hell was fairly interesting, and reminded me much of Hell Girl (Jigoku Shoujo). I’d be curious to hear about classic Japanese interpretation of the afterlife (and particularly hell) if anyone is more informed about that. From what I can tell, the original story by Akutagawa has some Buddhist elements that play a role in the tale.

Hell Screen

This is based off another story by Akutagawa, but the anime interestingly made it set in the same world as The Spider’s Thread. (The painter protagonist sees the executed killer at the end of episode 11, presumably drawing inspiration from the terrible incident.) It looks like the original story of Hell Screen plays out a bit differently from Aoi Bungaku’s rendition. In the original text, the protagonist is specifically asked to paint a vibrant scene of hell, and in order to do so he asks the king to commit heinous acts on his subjects for the protagonist to observe (so that the painting is perfectly realistic). When the protagonist needs to paint a woman in a burning carriage, his daughter is burned by the king.

In Aoi Bungaku, the protagonist starts out much less… messed up. It is the king that is utterly wicked, and the painter has simply despaired at just how corrupt the world in general has become. Life is suffering indeed, when the painter is repeatedly exposed to scenes of hellish torture. All in all, I found this story to be very depressing. The daughter was always loyal to her father, but her sacrifice only finalized the painter’s misery. Perhaps if the painter had thought more about her rather than his work, he would have recognized the madness of continuing this work for the king, and tried to find a way to escape that city? I suppose fleeing would have been difficult in those days (especially when tied to the king), but still…

I guess the question at the end of this story could be did he bring this hell upon himself, or was his fate simply a product of his setting and circumstances?

The Masterpieces are Blue

All throughout the series, our narrator and lead voice actor repeatedly mentions how the masterpieces of literature are “blue.” Are they blue because they’re (in general) rather depressing tragedies? Most great works of literature are generally not composed of cheery reading material. They deal with people who struggle through life. Though the ending of the book may be happy, it’s very rarely attained easily, or without sacrifice. I think Masato Sakai said it well in episode one: “Seeing the main characters worry, grieve, and act reminds us of ourselves. Furthermore, they remind us that our days are filled with pain and life.” There are many genres of fiction, and in the end I believe most every single one is intended to benefit readers and viewers in some way. Comedies, romances, mysteries, and adventures are all nice of course–but what about horror and tragedy? I believe that sad and distressing stories can enlighten us in a variety of ways. Some tales may be used as a warning, and help us decide how to avoid misfortune. Others can simply acknowledge a specific kind of pain that many people go through in life, giving us something to relate to, or to better understand. And sometimes, I think we simply need to see stories play out in ways we don’t expect, just to give us new things to think about.

Overall I thought Aoi Bungaku was an excellent anime series. It’s the sort of anime I would be glad to keep seeing more of these days. We don’t necessarily need more adaptations of classical literature all the time, but if we can continue to get stories that leave you with lots to ponder over, I think that would be great. There is definitely a place in the television medium for serious stories that delve into the human psyche, and present fascinating possibilities through difficult decisions, situations, and relationships for the protagonists. And the fact that series like Aoi Bungaku exists shows just how versatile the anime world is. If someone feels anime has become stagnant in recent years, it wouldn’t hurt to suggest something like this. This is definitely not the sort of anime I’d call pandering to the audience for the sake of cashing in, so kudos to Madhouse Studios for being willing to make an anime about classic literature in this day and age. I also appreciated the level of experimentation taken for each adaptation, which I felt made the anime a more entertaining experience.

That said, I felt some stories in Aoi Bungaku were better than others. I would probably rate each of them something like this:

  • No Longer Human – 5/5
  • Under Cherries in Full Bloom – 3/5
  • Kokoro – 5/5
  • Run, Melos – 4/5
  • The Spider’s Thread – 3/5
  • Hell Screen – 3.5/5

I’ll probably try reading most of these stories (if not all of them) in the coming months. Once I do, I might write up some more posts on Aoi Bungaku, comparing the original works to the adaptations. In the meantime though, please share your thoughts on episodes 9-12 of the anime here! It’d be great to hear what you thought of the series in general as well. A big thanks to everyone who has participated in our first series of Anime Watchers Club discussions!