Friday, December 4, 2009

Aoi Bungaku 07-08: The Heart of Things

EPISODE 07: Summer
More Screencaps from Aoi Bungaku 07

Sensei, a university student, lives with a landlady and her daughter. Sensei is close with the landlady's daughter, whom he calls "ojou-san." After some time, Sensei convinces his childhood friend, K, who is in dire straits, to come live with him. K, a monk-in-training, reluctantly agrees but soon after he settles in, Sensei begins to detect something strange developing between K and ojou-san. One day, after finding K and ojou-san walking home together, Sensei learns that ojou-san is afraid of K for some reason. In his jealousy, Sensei confronts K about it and his friend admits to being in love with ojou-san and that the two of them plan to elope. On that day, Sensei stays home sick with the cold. While taking care of him, the landlady reveals to him that K has proposed to take her daughter's hand in marriage. She says that she does not approve of it and lets Sensei know that she prefers him over his monk friend. Under the landlady's encouragement, Sensei proposes to marry ojou-san, thus preempting K's intentions. This prompts K to commit suicide and Sensei finds his body the next day. On a spring day after graduation, Sensei marries ojou-san but his guilt over K's suicide ruins his happiness forever.

EPISODE 08: Winter
More Screencaps from Aoi Bungaku 08

K moves in with Sensei and meets the landlady and ojou-san for the first time. K feels an almost instant attraction towards ojou-san but recoils at his feelings because of his monk's training. In his mind's eye, ojou-san appears to lead him on. As K struggles to contain his emotions, Sensei apparently picks up K's tension whenever ojou-san is around. This spurs K to try even harder to hide his true feelings. But one night, he strays from his path and sleeps with ojou-san while Sensei is in the next room. The next day, ojou-san secretly meets with K at a temple to urge him to run away with her. She reveals that her mother has agreed to a marriage proposal without her consent. K agrees to wait for her at the train station so the two of them could elope. But in the morning of that day, the landlady reveals to K that Sensei and ojou-san are engaged. Sensei's betrayal is augmented by the fact that ojou-san fails to appear at the train station that evening. K returns home intending to kill a sleeping Sensei. But before he could perform the deed, he steps on a warm water bottle, apparently placed there by ojou-san. The sight of the object causes K to break down and cry as he whispers "thank you" over and over. The next day, Sensei wakes up to find K's blood all over his body and K's lifeless form lying on the floor.


Okay, this should have come with a warning: Liberal Adaptation of a Classic. Because that's what this is.

First things first. Kokoro is a 1914 novel by Japan's Charles Dickens, Natsume Soseki. The novel is composed of three parts: Sensei and I (about the narrator's friendship with an aging intellectual), My Parents and I (the narrator goes home to bury his father) and Sensei and His Testament (Sensei's letter to the narrator, retelling his life as a young man). Kokoro is written in the first person point of view and for this reason, its narrative style is simple. But the simplicity is only surface-deep and beneath these words that a child could have written is great depth and wisdom that only comes with maturity.

was written during the peak of Natsume's writing career and deals primarily with the subject of loneliness. The word "kokoro" itself has no literal counterpart in the Western language. It means "heart" or "feeling" but that does not nearly describe what the word really means in the context of Japanese culture. The closest English word to it is "essence," or what makes a thing what it is.

In Kokoro, Natsume dissects the different levels of friendship, family relations and the various ways by which people attempt to escape their own fundamental loneliness. The "heart of things" is a person's feeling of isolation from those around them. This feeling in turn shapes how a person interacts, connects and communicates with the rest of the world. The dominant emotions are guilt and loneliness. These are represented in the third part of the novel through Sensei's character -- a sensitive man who never quite gets over the guilt over being the cause of a friend's suicide and the loneliness it brings him.

It is this part of the novel that Madhouse brings to light with this seventh and eighth installment of Aoi Bungaku. But Madhouse's Kokoro is decidedly different from the original, not only because it includes a never-before seen or written viewpoint (that of K), but also because it takes Sensei's story out of context and puts it in a different light by looking at it from two contrasting perspectives. The result is a confusing mix of what is real and what is merely perceived.

The first thing we need to realize about this two-episode story is that we are looking at things from the characters' point of view. Therefore, we must be wary because not everything is what they seem. In the first, we see everything as Sensei does and so it appears to us that ojou-san is helpless against K's raw musculinity while K seems to have no trouble throwing his weight around. Then in the second, ojou-san is portrayed as a manipulative tease and Sensei as conniving. There might be some truth to these character traits but they are probably exaggerated, colored as they are by the viewer's perceptions and own prejudices. The thing is, we don't really know what actually happened, only that as a consequence, K commits suicide and Sensei plunges into a lifetime of guilt. There's a bit of Rashomon in it, except that there is no crime involved here, just people whose lives intertwine to a point.

A more plausible explanation of what really happened is that the landlady might have pushed some pieces around. Her character's motivation is simple enough to follow: she naturally wants her daughter to marry a well-off man. That man, of course, is Sensei. The problem is that Sensei is slow to take action. K's sudden arrival in the scene presents the solution for if nothing else, the instinct for competition could prompt even the laziest man into action. Sensei and K are now doing most of the work and the landlady has little to do but drop some hints here and there with the end result of Sensei finally proposing to ojou-san, causing everything else to spiral down.

Apart from the storytelling structure, another difference between the novel and the anime adaptation of Kokoro is the characters' backgrounds. In the novel, Sensei comes from a well-to-do family but is cheated out of most of his fortune by his uncle. This betrayal by a family member shapes Sensei's general perception of people, explaining why he turns against his bestfriend K. To Sensei, K's admission of love for ojou-san is a form of betrayal since Sensei's trust in him is so absolute that he would allow his friend to live with him in the landlady's home. But this important character background is never mentioned in the anime. In its place, the anime shows Sensei's love for ojou-san as his sole motivation, thus the handicapped characterization. We don't really feel for anime Sensei the way we would have felt for the same character in the novel.

By contrast, and maybe because his background is never properfly fleshed out in the novel, K's characterization does not suffer from the same shortcoming. All we know about him is that he is a monk-in-training. From both the book and the anime, Sensei admires him for his ability to tune out worldly things. In the book, it is possible that Sensei even views him as his spiritual superior or at the very least, an intellectual equal. In the anime, we only get a hint of that from when Sensei convinces K to live with him by saying that he wants to learn his path. So to see K fleshed out finally, seeing his struggles as they happen (as opposed to Sensei's mere account of them), is enlightening.

The character who perhaps suffered the most from the anime's storytelling structure is ojou-san. In the novel, we also see her in two lights but compared to the anime, they are tame and infinitely more dignified versions of the character. Kokoro the novel portrays her first as a devoted and for the most part obedient wife to Sensei (based on the narrator's viewpoint) and then as a light-hearted, thoughtful girl (based on Sensei's account). The anime is a lot less generous: a simpering chit or a ruthless flirt. I think neither Sensei nor K really knows the real ojou-san and this lack of knowledge on their part is what dooms them in the end.

The BGM for these episodes of Aoi Bungaku is mostly piano solos. Great for creating mood, with just the right "haunting" quality. Miya Shigeyuki directs, storyboards, designs and animates this arc while Obata Takeshi (Death Note, Aoi Bungaku: No Longer Human arc) returns to lend his designer's hands and give us our first animated glimpse of the characters of Kokoro.

As I said, this isn't a piece by piece adaptation of the classic. The story, as well as the characters, may be essentially the same. The difference lies in the execution and that is where Kokoro the animation finds its way to being a classic by itself.