"This is the saddest story I have ever heard," Ford Madox Ford wrote in the opening lines of The Good Soldier. He could have been speaking of Kokoro, Sōseki (Bōtchan) Natsume's masterwork that has become the single best-selling novel in Japanese history. Most sad stories are merely maudlin; Kokoro is sad because it is unsparing and unsentimental in its examination of self-deception and hypocrisy. A hundred-plus years after Natsume wrote it, it feels dated only in its topical details of time and place, in the same way Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human also remains immediate.
As with Dazai's work, Natsume's novel became one of the projects in the Aoi Bungaku series of animated adaptations of classic Japanese literature, and had its structure heavily reworked in the adaptation. Maybe reworked is the wrong word; truncated would be better. The central problem with the Aoi Bungaku version of Kokoro is that it's only half the story — and not just in terms of the plot, but the telling.
Every man has some reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone, but only to his friends. He has others which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But finally there are still others which a man is even afraid to tell himself, and every decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away. That is, one can even say that the more decent he is, the greater the number of such things in his mind.
-- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground
The best place to start might well be the title. Kokoro translates most commonly as "heart", but to a native Japanese speaker that one word carries with it connotations like "inner truth" or "the things we keep to ourselves". At one point I sketched out a screenplay adaptation of the book that set it in the modern-day West, and the title I chose was The Heart Of The Matter -- a phrase that seemed to reflect how much of the book is about the things we are afraid to tell even ourselves, and how great the number of such things the most decent of us keep in mind.
Most novels in the first person tend to focus on one character. Natsume's story divides itself between two first persons, the young student whose reminiscence opens the novel, and the professor whose friendship, and ultimately his trust, he gains. We only know the former as "I" (Watashi) and the latter as "Sensei"; likewise, we only know Sensei's wife by her role, and we only know Sensei's friend from his younger years only by the initial "K". Anonymizing devices like these, when used badly, cause us to end up paying more attention to the device than to its effects. Here, it works because it has an emotional function: instead of making the characters feel generic, it removes all distractions from them, and forces us to see them without labels.
They deserve the attention. The student meets Sensei at the seaside — a deceptively lightweight opening — and soon learn to speak with each other of things other than what one finds in classrooms or books. It's nourishment for the younger man's soul, who is just old enough to know that he needs company like this in his life, and just callow enough not to fully understand what it might lead to.
Something grave and sad always hangs about the older man. Perhaps it is something the younger man's presence can undo — an axe for the frozen sea within, as Kafka once put it. But Sensei's frozen sea is not a matter of mere age; it's the product of disillusionment and disappointment, something the younger man comes to realize as he listens to Sensei hinting at past failures. "Do you know that love is a sin?" Sensei tells the younger man, as if daring him to love without regret and thus prove him wrong.
Sensei is married, and most onlookers would think it a happy partnership. The student grows close enough to both of them to know better. It's not that the devotion of Sensei's wife is in question; it's that she seems to despair of the hole her husband has not so much fallen into but dug for himself. She confides in this young man that she feels to blame for not having been able to liberate Sensei from his misery, but there is only so much she can say on her own.
What Sensei has to say for himself to the young man takes up the entire second half of the book, in the form of a voluminous letter written to him. It is a last testament, one where Sensei spells out the sin that has ruled his life. When he was a boy, he was betrayed by his own family (in circumstances that are an unsubtle parallel to Natsume's own unhappy early years), and became embittered on the idea of human companionship. When he was himself a young student, he took up residence in the house of a war widow and her daughter, and through them experienced not only kindness but the first stirrings of romance.
His reawakened heart led him to extend charity to a friend, known only as "K" — a moody, spiritually restless young man, even harder to reach than Sensei himself had been. What he was not expecting was to find himself in competition with K for the widow's daughter. What he expected even less was for him to use his intimate understanding of K's weaknesses to destroy the other man's chances of finding happiness, to drive K to despair and then to taking his own life, to find that he had in fact won the young woman's heart but at the cost of his soul, and to bury all this inside himself for decades. All this time Sensei has, without knowing it, been waiting for the right one to hear it all, for the first and only time.
Stirring the air only
I believe that words uttered in passion contain a greater living truth than do words which express thoughts rationally conceived. It is blood that moves the body. Words are not meant to stir the air only: they are capable of moving greater things.
-- Natsume Natsume, Kokoro, from "Sensei's Testament"
Natsume's novel can be read all in an afternoon, but is so thoroughly informed by the author's experiences and the depths of his feeling that it reveals any number of other layers of meaning each time you come back to it. At twenty, you see very different things in it than you do at forty. Not just in the sense that a younger reader might feel more of a connection to the student narrator and that an older one might feel more for Sensei, but in how one's own life experience allows one to recognize that much more in all they have to reveal. (Both of them are confessing different sins of ignorance.) But the one thing that comes through again and again, across readings, is how the story is an act of communication, one committed across generations and even across the barrier between the living and the dead, one with words not meant to stir the air only.
With the Aoi Bungaku animated adaptation of Kokoro, this meaning has been swapped out for something else, as a by-product of a radical restructuring of the story. I say "radical" as a way of being kind, because the unkind way to say it is that the adaptation chops the book in two and throws out the first half altogether. What it does do, though, is attempt to use only the second half of the book in a novel way to discover certain truths about its characters. It seeks to demonstrate how Sensei's view of things is not reliable, that K is as much sinned against as sinning, and that the struggle they engage in over the widow's daughter's heart was as much about her trying to escape from unhappiness as it was about Sensei's self-destructive efforts to find it.
For anyone who's read the book, the animated Kokoro announces immediately that it's not following the original storyline. It begins with Sensei as a young man, already a guest in the widow's house, and with the words of his testament spoken directly to us as voice-over narration. The character design, by Takeshi Obata (Death Note) shows Sensei as bookishly handsome — mop-topped, with glasses, shirt buttoned all the way up, and Western-style lace-up boots. K, on the other hand, is tall, roguishly dark, wild of hair, squinty-eyed, and stubble-faced, with feet so big his toes curl over the edges of his wooden sandals. He's Old Japan through and through, and the contrast between the two young men is actually a solid nod to one of the book's secondary theme of how Japan has always been uneasy about what it gave up to enter the modern world.
All the action of the second half of the book ends up being compressed into a single half-hour episode, and again, for those familiar with the material this leaves what looks like little room to move forward. Then the second and final episode presents the same material — except from K's point of view, with his reactions and things that only he was privy to visible to us at last. What we saw as insularity and sullenness, we now see as shyness and awkwardness; where before we saw Sensei feeling bullied and ill at ease by K's stolid determination, we see now how Sensei triggered that by way of his own high-handedness. And it's hard to find fault with the craftsmanship applied to this "both sides now" approach; the tension that arises not once but twice across this storyline is impressive.
The missing half
But again, it's not the same storyline. The second half of the story was only part of Natsume's original plan. That included not only the nature of Sensei's sin, but how in time he found a way to own up to it, and how that in turn affected the maturation of another man. In other words, it was at least as much about the communication of a given truth as it was about that truth. In the anime version, the emphasis has shifted to the multifaceted nature of a given truth. It's not a bad story at all; in fact, it's a pretty good one. But it's not the story Natsume wrote; it's at most, well, half of it.
I'm not against mutating the form of a story for another medium if it makes for a more effective way to deliver it in that medium. I wasn't against the way Aoi Bungaku's version of Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human was restructured, even if that did come at the expense of us knowing crucial information about the character's childhood that shaped his personality. And, in truth, I rather admired the way this version of Kokoro attempted to bring a greater dimension to its material. It's just that it came at the expense of other, more crucial dimensions that were already present.
I could imagine any number of possible justifications for why the original framing device with the student and the elder Sensei was cut out. Runtime, for one — although if you have the time to run back over the same story twice from different angles, you certainly have time to explore the half that was deleted. Another might well be that the adapters were determined not to simply run through material that by now is perhaps tiresomely familiar to its target audience. That's possible, especially since Kokoro has been adapted any number of times into other media — multiple times as manga (something I plan to look into), at least twice as live-action (ditto), and so on. But there's always going to be an audience that experiences this material for the first time in any generation, and I'm iffy on the idea of providing them with a version of it that doesn't reflect the story's full design.
Losing the student from the story creates another problem: it deprives us of any sense that Sensei's suffering, or K's suffering for that matter, has a wider context. That context is supplied by the student, as he's not just a passive witness to all that goes on but an interpreter of it. More than that, he's a synthesizer of it; he takes in this material and, based on what he tells us, it transforms him after the fact. His contact with Sensei forms a significant phase in the youthful exploration of his life, as Beongcheon Yu noted in his monograph on Natsume for the Twayne's World Authors Series. "While serving as the author's point of view," Yu wrote, "the narrator also lives his own life. Largely through the sensei he comes to face life itself, eager to wrest from life whatever lesson it can offer." His experiences with Sensei, both in person and through his testament, are a process of maturation, not just a sad episode. Why leave all that stuff out?
If there is a single overriding reason for my disappointment, it's because so much else about the Aoi Bungaku Kokoro is of such high caliber. If it were of middling competence — e.g., like the rather bland Classics Illustrated adaptations of various Japanese literary classics that U.S. Manga Corps licensed back in the day — I would have been able to shrug it off. But talented people were involved here, and they created something that on its own terms is absolutely worth one's time. It's just that the minute you find out about where it came from, and what it lost along the way, it suddenly seems that much hollower at the heart.