Warning: This article contains major spoilers.

There is no wrong way to adapt something, except in the sense that there are adaptations that work, and adaptations that don't. The ones that work complement everything about the original material that mattered, and allow us to see them in a new light. With Sōseki Natsume's Kokoroarguably one of the finest novels of the 20th century in any language — there was the Aoi Bungaku anime adaptation, as artful as it was also woefully incomplete.

But a story as well-known and widely loved as this was bound to see incarnations in other media, and sure enough it did — at least two live-action films (something for me to delve into later), and multiple manga versions. Of the latter, I've assembled four that are worth putting side by side — one that sabotages the book's aims; two that preserve those aims but without doing anything discernibly transformative with them; and a fourth that both effortlessly embodies the timelessness of the story and adds more by, paradoxically, taking things away.

What lies within

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Kokoro is not a complex story on the face of it, but in ways that only make it all the tougher to adapt properly; it's a story of depths, not surfaces. A young student — "Watashi", or "I", the narrator of the first half of the story — befriends a withdrawn, misanthropic older man while at college. This "Sensei", as the narrator refers to him, has suffered some great wound at the seat of his soul, one he cannot bring himself to talk about even with his beloved wife of years. Being close to this younger man allows him to open up, maybe because through him he's reminded of his younger and more vulnerable self.

The narrator, young and naïve as he is, pieces together a few things, both from Sensei and his attractive and devoted wife. The older man once had a friend, "K" (the Roman character is used in the original manuscript), who died suddenly and, in the words of Sensei's wife, "unnaturally". Something about K's death left Sensei an emotional cripple in the way the death of a loved one hollows a person out. The student is preparing to lose someone close to him as well — his own father, whose stout-hearted personality is finally being overtaken by his frail health. But something about Sensei's emotional needs, not all of them declared openly, tugs at the younger man in a way that his own father's ailing does not.

One day, when the student's father is very near death, a thick missive arrives from Sensei. It is a confession, one that takes up the entire second half or so of Natsume's novel. In it, Sensei finally speaks of the wound inside of him that never closed over — a wound that he sewed permanently open the better to punish himself, it seems. When Sensei was young, he endured betrayal at the hands of his own family, and became wary of human relationships. As a student, he roomed in the house of a mother and daughter, and struggled with both their solicitousness and his feelings of attraction for the young woman. He invited K, ever the tortured ascetic, to come live that much more comfortably with him, and K grudgingly said yes — only to confide in Sensei that he, too, had fallen for the young woman, did not know how to handle this emotional burden, and to ask the other man for his help.

This inspires Sensei to make the single terrible decision of his life — to use all that he knows about K's weaknesses to steal the girl away from him, to make K feel unworthy of her. It works, and it works at the cost of K killing himself. It works so well that everyone acquainted with the matter sees only K as someone too pure for the world, and Sensei as someone who could not be blamed for K's suffering. But it is not the truth, something that Sensei has concealed all this time from that young woman, now his wife. Only the student now knows what Sensei kept inside all this time — and now we, too, know along with him as well. The secret has become wisdom, the kind of wisdom that breaks hearts.

Natsume penned Kokoro in 1914, but aside from a few topical references — e.g., the ritual suicide of General Nogi — it has acquired a timelessness that makes it possible for Western and Japanese audiences alike to keep coming back to it. Some of that is Natsume's language — direct, unadorned, beautiful when it needs to be and the rest of the time unpretentious and accessible. Some of it, I think, is in how Natsume universalizes the story in subtle ways: no one in the story is mentioned by name, only role or pseudonym ("Sensei", "K", etc.). But at bottom the biggest reason is the story, one that lends itself to both period and modern retellings.

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A melodramatic opening for a story ill-suited to explicit melodrama.

Melodrama for the masses

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The kindest thing that can be said about the version of Kokoro produced for the voluminous Manga de Dokuha ("Reading Through Manga") series is that it's a Classics Illustrated edition of the story. That has generally been the idea with the Manga de Dokuha productions, an ongoing series of manga adaptations of classical literature from both Japan and the world at large. At the very least it's amusing to see everything from The Great Gatsby to 1984 adapted as manga, but rarely do any of the productions rise above competence. They exist mostly to introduce a modern audience to the concept of a book, but there's rarely any sense that they attempt to capture the spirit behind it. They're visual Cliffs Notes. I confess I have a soft spot for novelties like this, but not so soft that I ignore their faults.

Such a bland approach would be bad enough for a story with this much inner fire, but the Manga de Dokuha version of Kokoro makes an additional mistake. It tries to turn Natsume's story into feverish melodrama, and what's sad is how easy it is to do that if you're not paying attention to what the story is really about — that is, if you focus on the suffering in the story alone and ignore the transcendences that stem from them.

The Manga de Dokua version opens with a nightmare flashback — the younger Sensei discovering K's body, only to walk past him with his arm around his bride-to-be, both trailing footprints of blood. It's a striking image, and it's not hard to see why the creators of the comic wanted to zing us with it up front — it's great foreshadowing, and visual foreshadowing at that, a way for the manga to show us the story as much as tell it. This is a fine idea, but it's the execution that lacks: the way they've chosen to show us the story leans all the more towards melodrama. Ham-handed, overbaked melodrama at that — exaggerated Dutch angles, pop-eyed and overly cartoonish expressions, and a bad tendency to literalize. In the original story, the use of the name "K" is an authorial device; when we see Sensei at K's tombstone for the first time, the actual letter "K" is etched into it.

Other errors in judgment abound. One of the key themes in the story is the initial distance between Sensei and the narrator and his wife, and how that distance is bridged over time. Sensei is an older man from another time, in more ways than one. The Manga de Dokuha adaptation conveys none of this; Sensei and his wife barely seem older than the narrator himself, with most of the distinction between Sensei's younger and older self coming down to his hairstyle and his John Lennon granny glasses. It's depressing to think this might well have been the way Natsume's novel was introduced to at least some in a current generation of readers.

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Sensei, elder, with his wife; younger, with K.

Restraint and taste

The worldly success of Manga de Dokuha could be measured two ways: one, by how many volumes have been produced under the banner (something like 100 and climbing, last I counted); two, by how many imitators it's spawned. With the latter, I count at least two other projects in the same vein from competing publishers: the "Meicha o Manga de!" series from Gakken Publishing, and the "Manga Bungo" series from Shueisha. Both seem to have been conceived in roughly the same vein as Manga de Dokuha; the first few releases in each series even adapt many of the exact same titles — Osamu Dazai's No Longer Human, for instance, and of course Kokoro. Neither version attempts to do anything terribly radical with Natsume's story, but in a way that winds up also being their saving graces: they also don't drop the ball on their feet and break their toes.

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Of these two, I came across the Gakken version first, with art by shōjō manga-ka Yuki Takahashi. As conservative and unadventurous an adaptation as it is, it is also tasteful and restrained, and it has some art choices that complement the material in an understated way. In the Manga de Dokua version, the narrator was rendered from the same feisty template as a shōnen manga's teenage hero. Here, he's more a "young adult" type — he's got the thick-necked body of a grownup, but the callow, gentle, faintly bewildered look of someone who hasn't really been tested by life yet. It's a better fit for the observant, reticent character Natsume depicted.

Even more fitting, though, is the look used for Sensei and his wife. In the first half of the story, the contrasts between them and the narrator couldn't be sharper. Sensei is mustachioed, with eyes distant behind his glasses — he looks physically and spiritually the elder. The Manga de Dokuha version made him into a comical wraith, not a battered creature still capable of dreaming that his experiences could be passed on to those who still had a future. In that version, Sensei's wife was also all wrong; in both past and present, she had the same girlish, spry look that seemed too close to the narrator's own world. She felt like a sister, not an older woman from Sensei's world. In the Gakken version, though, she looks the part — beautiful, but at first with a touch of austerity — and later, as the barriers between her and the narrator fall away, sad in a way that has real gravity. And when we see her younger incarnation, it feels like a younger incarnation — the same person, just before years and experiences lowered her into the crucible.

When it comes to adapting the story itself, the Gakken version doesn't try to tinker with a good thing. It reproduces the beats of the original story with striking fidelity, even down to many little touches that can be traced back to Natsume. When the narrator first meets Sensei at a public beach, it's by way of a striking-looking Westerner; when the narrator graduates and receives his diploma, he rolls it into a telescope and peers out at the world through it. Moreover, the adaptation doesn't try to oversell or overstate the drama. The original story built up a startling amount of suspense in its run-up to its conclusion, and the adaptation does justice to that suspense all the way up to the very last frame. It's the narrator's tear-stained face, staring at something that has only been judiciously hinted at across the last couple of pages. We never see it, but that allows what has gone unseen to remain unseen, more potent in our minds than it might have been if splashed across the page.

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"Love is a sin," says Sensei; his wife isn't much help explaining why.

An emphasis on accessibility

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For the Manga Bungo/Shueisha project, the publisher there also tapped a shōjō manga-ka, Nagi Yoshizaki, for its version of Kokoro. This version has the distinction of having been published outside of Japan, along with the manga adaptation of Natsume's I Am A Cat, in a Spanish-language edition for Quaterni. I'm slightly more enamored of the Gakken version, but the Shueisha project has many of its own positive qualities: it's conservative in its design and storytelling, but those qualities are used to let the innate strengths of the material shine through.

The most immediately visible difference is the art style. Takahashi's work was dreamy and slightly dark; sometimes literally so, as the entire second half of the story uses the flashback-signifying device of bordering the pages in black. Yoshizaki's work, though, has a lighter and more accessible look — I hesitated to say friendlier, even if the point of an adaptation like this is to give people an unintimidating introduction to material that might be intimidating because of its stature. But friendly is not a bad word for what we see here: clean lines, simple character designs, and a judicious balance of white space, screen tones, and black fills.

The choice of art style, for me, is less the issue than whether that particular style has been put in the proper service for the story. I worried at first that wouldn't be the case, especially since certain aspects of Yoshizaki's look for the story hearkened back to the bad old Manga de Dokuha version. The narrator character looks that much more boyish; Sensei has the same glasses-and-low-hanging-locks look. But it wasn't the specific design choices in the previous version that were the problem; it was the way those designs were executed melodramatically, for lack of a better descriptor. Yoshizaki goes for subtler things, like the conflicted look on Sensei's face, relief and terror intermingled, when he reads K's suicide note and realizes his friend hasn't implicated him in this act.

If the Shueisha version has a fault, it's in that it's a little too low-key for its own good. The ending has a few adventurous visuals — K's blood on the mats, reaching up to seize Sensei by the ankle, like a sanguineous T-1000 — but it doesn't have the same breathless, rushing sense of finality conveyed by the Gakken version. But it also doesn't try to overdo the things that don't need it. In a crucial scene in the book, the younger Sensei seizes K by the scruff of the neck and taunts him: "What if I threw you [off this cliff] into the sea?" K's reply: "I wouldn't mind. Go ahead." In both Sheisha and Gakken, it's underplayed; we're allowed to draw the conclusions we need, to feel entirely on our own the unease we ought to feel. Maybe, as an overall strategy for a story like this, it's better to under-do it than over-do it — if only as a way not to promise anything you can't deliver.

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Sensei, at K's grave.

Reinventing and rediscovering

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The one element common to all three versions so far — Manga de Dokuha, Gakken, and Shueisha — is how they more or less stick with the original storyline in its original setting. Nariko Enomoto's manga adaptation of Kokoro is to that story what Usamaru Furuya's version of No Longer Human is to its own story: it takes the original, moves it into the present day, keeps the most crucial elements of the original, and selectively discards what it must in the same of efficiency. At first I balked at this; wasn't the central flaw in the Aoi Bungaku anime the fact that it threw out a good half of the story, the half that gave it context to begin with? But the changes in Enomoto's version are not just about relocalization. They're about isolating Sensei even more thoroughly in his misery, making his act of reaching out seem all the more desperate.

A sense of isolation also hangs over the student character from the opening, as he came to Tokyo to study in defiance of his parent's wishes but has only found emptiness and unfulfillment. When he sees a hollowed-out, scarecrow-like figure emerge from a house across the way (it wasn't clear anyone even lived there), he follows the other man to the cemetery and tries to be friendly with him. In one of the first major breaks from the original story's design, the student now has a name — Natsuno, with the "Natsu" written with the same first character as "Natsume", a nice way to tie the character back to its origins. But Sensei remains only Sensei, or "S" as he is referred to in the flashback to his younger years. ("S" for "Sōseki", perhaps?)

The other major change to the story is also obvious soon enough: Sensei has no wife. When Natsuno comes by Sensei's house to share some oranges sent from home (it's not like he can eat them all by himself), we see the older man living with nothing but his reams of books, not even a telephone. For anyone walking in who knows the story, her absence is slightly ominous — not just because this means Sensei has one less source of comfort in the latter half of his life, but because her own fate is in doubt as well.

As per the original story, Natsuno's father falls ill and he is summoned home, only to discover that spending time with his family — yes, even time that might be marked because of his father's illness — isn't as interesting to him as being with Sensei. Here, though, Enomoto makes explicit what Natsume hinted at, by having father excoriate son for wanting to return to Tokyo; the better, Natsuno reasons to himself, to comfort someone who clearly needs it. The painful confrontation Natsuno has with his father is followed up by an equally painful attempt to learn the truth of Sensei's private agony. Without Sensei's wife in the story, Natsuno has to go all the more directly to the man for his answers. But as before, the full measure of those answers don't come until Natsuno is forced to return to his comatose father's bedside, and Sensei sends him the "testament" that takes up the latter two-thirds of Enomoto's version.

Flashback. Even as a younger man, Sensei, or "S", still has a slightly haunted look in his eyes. His burly, ascetic friend K, though, comes off as a stoic — the last man you'd expect to take his own life after suffering a broken heart. If we didn't know the rest of the story, we could assume Enomoto was setting us up for it being the other way around. Here, again, things unfold as a student of the original story would expect: S is pressured into a relationship with a female relative, but realizes the whole thing is a cynical setup and backs out. He moves in with a widower and her daughter Shizuko, and finds himself the object of Shizuko's attention and affection, but doesn't know how to reciprocate properly. When K overworks himself, S brings him to the attention of Shizuko and her mother, and soon K is also part of the household.

What S is not prepared for is how his acts of kindness are unleashing jealous feelings in him. When Shizuko mends a rip in K's pants, when S comes home one day to find K and Shizuko laughing together in his room, he can't help but feel like he's being one-upped. And when K fumblingly confesses his love for Shizuko to his friend, he realizes he has just been afforded the chance to take his revenge on the other man, to take Shizuko for himself as part of his revenge so that he can have the satisfaction, however fleeting, of such a conquest. That conquest of a woman is not really in S's nature only makes it all the more ironic: whatever feelings S has for Shizuko are secondary to his need to take her from K.

The conclusion is as tragic as it is in the original story, but with an added level of grimness. After K's suicide, S realizes everything he has with Shizuko is tainted. She is, after all, a human being and not the spoils of a struggle. "Let's break this off," he tells her, and with that we see how S ended up all the more alone up to the present moment. Alone save for Natsuno, that is, to whom he has now at last passed on both his agony and his understanding — even if it breaks Natsuno's heart, too.

Hearts of darkness

Enomoto's choice to omit Shizuko entirely from the latter half of Sensei's life was a gamble, but I think it is one that paid off despite the other costs it imposes. Sensei's wife is the only female character of any significance in the story, so to have her go missing from a good half of it also means we get no sense of her development. She's made all the more into an object, a thing in memory, rather than a person that inspired Sensei to his act of foolish selfishness. It also means Natsuno has one less adult figure to interact with; the story is pared down all the more to his contest of will over Sensei's suffering. And because that struggle is the heart of the story, the loss feels less problematic than it ought to. Under it all, this is still the same story about a man who gives the most secret and shameful part of himself to another.

Retellings like this often adorn the action with select bits from the original, but the trick is to make them part of the new whole, not just callbacks. When Natsuno first meets Sensei in the cemetery, there's an exchange taken directly from the book, where Sensei explains that a certain gravestone's kanji are to be read like the Western name "Andrei." "Andrei?" the student laughs. "Like 'Andre the Giant'?" Sensei's curt reply to this jocularity: "You have never thought seriously of the reality of death, have you?" The joke is Enomoto's invention, but the lines around it and the insight derived from it are Natsume's, and they work.

My friend Scott Dellahunt writes regularly about adaptations, and one of the conclusions we've both come to is that an adaptation is also an interpretation. How much interpretation takes place, though, is entirely up to the adapter. The "Classics Illustrated" adaptations of Kokoro are mostly content to stage the action in its original time and place, and only to comment on it to the extent that the way a director of an earnest but unadventurous stage production would shape the same material. When the adaptations linger on the moment when Sensei threatens to throw K into the sea, it's only because it's a suitably dramatic moment to linger on, and not because doing so serves us with any greater insight into the story. The other, more genteel versions serve up the story and let it stand on its own legs, but the Enomoto version strips away that much more to show us a greater heart of darkness.

Postscript: Hark! A Vagrant has its own (hilarious) take on Natsume's story.

Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.