William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, etc are just some of the most widely acclaimed English language authors. Literature is an essential part of a country’s culture, and Japan is also known for its diverse literary heritage. While most people know the anime titles Death Note, Bleach, and The Prince of Tennis, they would probably just scratch their heads if asked about Osamu Dazai, Natsume Soseki,and Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Japanese manga, anime and games are more popular than literature, but literature is often the basis for a lot of pop culture. Fortunately, through an anime, viewers can now become familiar with the works of these renowned Japanese writers. It’s a double win!
Released by MADHOUSE Inc. in 2009, Aoi Bungaku is an anime series that features short stories adapted from Japanese literature. It has an interesting art style with character designs created by famous manga artists Takeshi Obata (Death Note), Tite Kubo (Bleach), and Takeshi Konomi (The Prince of Tennis).
Here are the Japanese literary classics and authors introduced in the anime series:
Published in 1948, “No Longer Human” chronicles the life of its main character, Oba Yozo, a struggling young man from a wealthy family who puts on a smile on his face to hide his feeling of detachment from the society. The somber and psychological story, which includes the element of suicide, convinces many readers that this work reveals the author’s mental state at the time of writing.
After several attempts, Osamu Dazai took his own life in 1948, right after this book got published.
Sakaguchi Ango, born Sakaguchi Heigo, grew up in the middle of the war, influencing his point of view. He also wrote the essay “Discourse on Decadence.”
While most people admire the cherry blossoms for its beauty, Sakaguchi Ango feared them after witnessing people being burned to death under a cherry tree. Released in 1947, his short story “In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom (Sakura no Mori no Mankai no Shita)” centers on Shigemaru, a forest bandit whose life changes after rescuing a mysterious woman from the city.
Born Natsume Kinnosuke, Natsume Soseki is often regarded as the greatest novellist in modern Japanese history.
Originally titled “Kokoro: Sensei’s Testament (Kokoro: Sensei no Isho),” “Kokoro” was serialized in 1914 in the newspaper Asahi Shimbun. The story is about the friendship between a man from Tokyo and a monk who had just recently cut ties with his temple.
Narrated in two different points of view, Episode 7 shows how Sensei tries to help the monk by asking him to live with him at a house he shares with a widow and her daughter. Soon, he starts to regret it. Episode 8 reveals how K (the monk) truly feels about Sensei and the widow’s daughter.
Osamu Dazai’s famous short story “Run, Melos!” is based on the German ballad “The Pledge” by poet Friedrich Schiller. Published in 1940, years before the release of “No Longer Human,” his writing style was obviously more lighthearted.
In this episode, a playwright struggles to complete his play script as he gets reminded of the time when his own friend betrayed him.
The coveted literary award Akutagawa Prize is named after Akutagawa Ryunosuke, the “Father of the Japanese short story.” He is considered a young genius who produced some of the most popular Taisho-era fairy tales.
“The Spider’s Thread” is a 1918 short story that was first published in a Japanese children’s literary magazine called “Akai Tori.” It is the story of Kandata, a notorious bandit who doesn’t hesitate to kill people but one day spares the life of a spider. When he gets sent to hell, the spider tries to return the favor by giving him a thread that could help him ascend to heaven. Unfortunately, the other sinners won’t let him go that easily.
“Hell Screen,” another 1918 short story from Akutagawa, is about Yoshihide, the most talented artist in the country. The Emperor wants him to decorate an extravagant mausoleum that will symbolize his rule even after his death. However, Yoshihide finds it difficult to draw an exquisite picture as he witnesses the citizens’ suffering from hunger, sickness, and tyranny.
Yoshihide created “his greatest work” reflecting these harsh realities, but he received a harsher punishment that took away his daughter’s life.
Watching anime and reading classics are two different things, but since language evolves and structures change, many people might find the latter as a daunting task. Anime’s worldwide appeal and its ability to deliver stories with great visuals can totally help introduce some of the country’s most famous writers and reignite people’s interest in classic stories.
Have you read any of the stories mentioned in this article? Which classic novel would you like to be adapted into anime?
Aoi Bungaku Website *Japanese only