May 5, 2020
Animated Classics of Japanese Literature is a series I started watching in February and finished around three months later. The ~34 episodes (Wikipedia, MyAnimeList, and Anime Classics Zettai each tally the episodes in different ways, weirdly) showcase a veritable smörgåsbord of Japanese culture, adapting works by 19th and 20th century Japanese authors into 1-3 episodes of anime. The opportunity to easily sample an anthology of Japanese writing in anime form was what hooked me on the series.
The show has a laudable goal, but at the end of the day, it just isn’t very good. Which, I suppose, was predictable. Adapting a masterpiece of literature
into a 23-minute episode is no easy feat, and they tried to do it thirty-plus times. Only a handful of stories are given more than one episode to be told. And the animation is just plain bad. The series aired in 1986, just before big animation breakouts like Akira, Bubblegum Crisis, and the Studio Ghibli Renaissance. It’s passable when characters are talking to each other, but whenever there’s any kind of movement (such as, oh, a ping-pong match) you can practically count the frames. While there are a lot of neat artistic details, it’s going to be jarring for anyone who’s watched anything more recent than The Rose of Versailles. (Though the animators do deserve kudos for having to create completely new content practically every episode.)
In this one’s humble opinion, the series was at its worst trying to showcase the Really Serious works, which probably don’t lend themselves well to adaptation to begin with, let alone this adaptation. But what it did adapt well were the supernatural and mystery stories. Rampo Edogawa’s three Akechi Kogorō detective stories and the two “Incident in the Bedroom Suburb” stories by Jirō Akagawa were both well-crafted vignettes perfectly suited to the episodic format. (Akagawa’s stories were my personal favorite of the entire series, spinning enjoyable mysteries out of slice-of-life observations of ~1950s Japanese life.) The supernatural stories, such as “Hoichi the Earless” and "The Priest of Mt. Kōya", are also easily translated into short-form anime.
On the whole, though, it’s the odd series where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. There is no real narrative or thematic structure to the series, nothing to build a foundation of appreciation upon. Watching these episodes as stand-alones might’ve favorably inclined me to them, but watched sequentially they have the feel of a vanity project, trying to tell every story and consequentially telling none of them well.
The producers do, however, deserve some serious credit for not Disneyfying or bowdlerizing any of the stories. The episodes often have bittersweet (or downright depressing) endings. There are few fairy tale moments where issues of class and social propriety are overlooked (all through "The Martyr" I was counting my blessings that I wasn’t born in an underground Christian sect in Tokugawa-era Nagasaki, to cite one example), and the series does not shy away from depicting the hardships of poverty, discrimination, and the fundamental unfairness of the universe. Miyazaki movies these are not, and they are better for it.
What did you think of this review?