Aoi Bungaku’s Kokoro: An Indictment of Modernism

Kokoro, at its heart (no pun intended), is Soseki’s attempt to capture the loneliness of man, the isolation of our hearts from others. In this respect, I think the anime adaptation is somewhat successful despite being a wild departure from the original text. There are significant sections of the novel deliberately left out of the adaptation–whether this is due to having only two episodes to tell the story or for artistic liberties, I’ll leave that up to you. In other words, I won’t compare the anime to the novel as I had done with No Longer Human. I think the anime here is interesting in many respects and I would rather devote my effort to its deconstruction. In order to understand Kokoro, we must ask ourselves what makes man lonely? Drawing from the post’s title, I suggest that the answer to this question is modernism (by this, I mean the movement that preceded postmodernism).

Like Rashomon, Kokoro repeats itself: we are given the same story twice, but each time from the perspective of either Sensei or K. What truly happened in those fateful days isn’t entirely clear, the implication being that the truth lies somewhere in between and its up to the viewers to decode the events. At first, however, Kokoro can be a bit perplexing. Why, or instance, does Sensei’s and K’s viewpoints take place in entirely different seasons? If the first story is from Sensei’s perspective, why do we even see a conversation between K and Okusan? Why is there an apparent lack of music in Sensei’s story except for a few subtle tracks but an overabundance of (almost entirely inappropriate) music in K’s? Why does K look so otherworldly?–tall and dark but also elfish. All these questions nagged me until I saw one particular scene:

Up until this point, K was silently walking. All we really hear is the ambiance of the rainfall quietly pattering away at the world:

Music suddenly swells up out of nowhere and, likewise, Ojosan appears out of nowhere to clasp K’s hand. Her appearance, resembling a sun(flower), literally halts the rainfall. The world around them even takes on an entirely different palette: warm tones of orange and brown replace subdued hues. K’s cheeks even blush. This moment is fleeting, however, and the music soon cuts abruptly, leaving us with only ambiance again. Why? We soon see that when Sensei steps into the picture, the music halts. The feelings halt and, I suggest, even fantasies halt.

This same scene was in Sensei’s story as well and their comparison is what makes Kokoro so interesting. Sensei’s scene is in complete ambiance until K steps into the picture, in which the music suddenly starts. Recall that Sensei’s appearance is what ends the music in K’s story. The tense music continues to play in Sensei’s story until K pauses and mutters to Sensei, “Sorry:”

This is the only moment in either scene that is completely similar. Of course, both men take drastically different interpretations from just one moment. A few ideas to take away from how one scene unfolded from both stories.

I suggest that feelings accompany music. When K’s heart swelled with Ojosan’s appearance, the music swelled accordingly. When Sensei’s paranoia and suspicions preyed upon his mind, the music was fittingly ominous. As a result, the music in Kokoro signifies when the two men’s hearts are filled with emotions, good or bad. We can also derive from this the idea that scenes unaccompanied by music reflect the logical viewpoints of both Sensei and K. This, however, does not suggest that these music-less scenes are inherently true. While they are not influenced by the emotions of the two men, their context-less, disjointed nature instead captures the cold distance between humanity and the pure facts of the matter (more on this later).

K’s fantasy is a woman on a pedestal who can bring sunlight to his ascetic life of muted senses (literally portrayed as the cold winter season):

He sees Ojosan with the unrealistic expectation that she completes him–she is his music. Being in love is a direct contrast to everything K was before he met Ojosan. Recall that K is often found studying or reading. His appearance, as this otherworldly being (e.g. his ears) with blatantly over-masculine features (e.g. towering physique and rock hard abs to name just a couple), defies expectations. We expect a beast (of perhaps sexual energy) and Sensei’s point of view seemingly reinforces this assumption. K is, however, a rationalist at the start of the story just like Sensei. This can be seen in K’s initial dismissal of Ojosan and her mother:

This conversation, however, is accompanied by music, i.e. it is in part tinged with K’s emotions. He wants to come across as this ascetic immersed in his studies, but this is merely a facade. He really does not value ambition as much as he says he does. Otherwise, why would he intend to run off with Ojosan? There is no ambition in love. There is nothing to achieve in love but one or two people’s personal (perhaps selfish) goals. K’s story is thus a de-emphasis of rationality. After years of pretending to find meaning in knowledge, his whole world collapses due to subjectivity–because of a woman (often coded in society to represent mankind’s subjectivity) and the feelings she draws out of K.

Shortly before this, K literally crushes rationality:

His worldview is shattering around him. Recall K’s initial objective at the start of the story. It was to study religion. This, in itself, is an oxymoron in ways. After all, spirituality should come from self-reflection and personal faith. We cannot simply “study” religion–it isn’t something we can objectively approach like the sciences.

In a lot of ways, Kokoro reminds me of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Its indictment of modernism and its rationalistic worldview extends itself into Sensei’s story. Sensei’s traditional bookworm looks cannot be ignored and, if K’s winter aesthetic resembles the Sturm und Drang movement, I will suggest that Sensei’s “summer” palette, complete with bright, full colors, is really just a mockery of objectivity. The literary movement of rationalism was the idea that God could be found in truth. Furthermore, truth lies in the objective world. Well, here is Sensei’s objective world:

It’s a world with transcendent blue skies, rays of sunlight reflecting rays of godly judgment. The irony here, however, is that Sensei’s world of rationality contains only a limited range of truths. Our objectivity can only see things at the surface as they appear to our five senses and rational interpretation. For instance, Sensei was completely unable to see the changes occurring in his friend. Sensei was unable to understand K’s despair. I said at the start of this article that Kokoro is about the loneliness of the man. If a man is like Sensei, all wrapped up in the logical order of things, he is necessarily alone. This is evidenced constantly throughout Sensei’s story. Likewise, K was initially cold and brusque in demeanor until he immersed himself in a world of subjectivity through his relationships with Ojosan. In a short time, he was able to connect to her in ways (no dirty thoughts) that Sensei never could.

That isn’t to say that Sensei is without feelings. He has feelings but he mistakes them for rationality and thus cannot reflect upon them. This inability prevents him from understanding not only K and Ojosan but his own true feelings as well. Perhaps he does truly love Ojosan, but what comes across in Sensei’s actions are not true love but simply possessiveness. Since he does not understand his feelings of paranoia, Sensei thus could not understand the destructiveness of his own actions when he proposed for Ojosan’s hand in marriage.

Sensei often found Ojosan and K together. He, however, sees these moments as isolated events in his objective world. Since these events are removed from context, Sensei does not–in fact, cannot understand the relationship blossoming between K and Ojosan.

Sensei attempted to deduce a logical conclusion from the encounters, but his assumptions are flawed because rationalism is flawed. Our interpretations are inherently biased due to our varied upbringings, culture, etc. We should thus remind ourselves of the assumptions of modernism, i.e. the ideas of binaries, particularly between men and women. Sensei naturally assumed that Ojosan needed to be protected. Similarly, he naturally assumed K, a male with otherworldly features, was the transgressor and a traitor. This robs Ojosan of her agency as a willing participant in her relationship with K and this robs K of his innocence, the implication that men can never be the weaker of the two sexes in a male-female relationship.

Such assumptions resemble the flawed logic behind the concept of binaries: it is the idea that mankind can be categorized and deconstructed into objective components. The loneliness of man becomes apparent–in using his flawed logic to solve the mystery, Sensei fails to understand the two humans who were once his close friends. Ojosan becomes not so much an equal person with her own desires and prerogative but a misrepresented ideal: Japanese femininity that needed protection. K, on the other hand, turns from a vulnerable friend into the encroaching threat of the foreigner, the exotic and uncontrollable other that has not been properly refined by modernism:

It should be interesting to note that Soseki wrote Kokoro in 1914, during Japan’s widespread attempt to modernize and catch up with the Western world. Mondernism brought to Japan sweeping social changes. In the late 1800s, school health examinations became mandatory, suggesting an increased awareness and concern paid to the development of the nation’s youth. Gender roles, in particular, were being defined in order to maximize the potential of Japan’s future. The binary of the patriotic hero and the “good wife, wise mother” became further emphasized as the proper roles to ensure a healthy nation. As a result, what makes Kokoro so interesting is how it subtly plays with these gender expectations. Ojosan, on the surface, is the Japanese feminine ideal. She’s often very quiet and diminutive, but what we see behind closed doors is a woman yearning for liberation. She begs K to take her away from her repressive life where she is nothing more than a prize to be handed down from one patriarch to another (Okusan’s short-cropped hair is no coincidence…). Furthermore, she seeks sexual liberation–she’s the one that seduced K. K, on the other hand, is this tall manly beast with unkempt hair and dark, forbidden skin, but he’s like a virgin teen boy when confronted by Ojosan.

I wondered earlier in the post how Sensei’s story could contain a scene between K and Okusan, something Sensei could not have observed. Music accompanies the scene and thus I conclude that this moment was nothing more than Sensei’s guilt trying to connect the dots. K’s suicide soon after suggests that Sensei was striving to understand what led up to such a tragic ending. If I am right that music accompanies feelings, then Sensei’s ending is interesting in many ways. K’s death heralds into Sensei a new sense of the subjectivity, one that defies the objective world surrounding him:

In a moment that should be sublimely happy, Sensei and Ojosan both wear grim expressions. We should be careful, however, not to assume K has reached some new level of understanding far and beyond Sensei. Recall too that in K’s ending, the revelation of his death is unaccompanied by music. If Sensei gained a new sense of subjectivity through K’s death  as suggested by Sensei’s ending, the contrast in K’s ending suggests that he hardly understood his friend. K never suspected nor considered how his relationship with Ojosan would affect Sensei. As a result, the utter silence in K’s ending reflects the gulf between the two friends–if anything, he thought his death would only benefit Sensei. If one reads the novel, however, this is patently absurd.

27 thoughts on “Aoi Bungaku’s Kokoro: An Indictment of Modernism

  1. triheart

    I want to ask why K stopped killing Sensei when he saw that orangey bag? How com Ojosan didn’t leave with him but rather left that bag? So much unanswered qs =.=

    1. E Minor Post author

      The orange bag is actually a yutanpo. It’s basically a bed warmer for cold nights. I’m not sure what Madhouse intended so what follows is purely my speculation. Ojosan brings warmth to people’s life and this is literally portrayed through the yutanpo. Perhaps when K stepped on it on his way to murder Sensei, he realized that Ojosan also meant a lot to Sensei. Just like how Ojosan slipped a yutanpo into the covers for K during their night together, perhaps she did the same for Sensei. If K was to murder Sensei, he would only be stealing Sensei’s “warmth.” He probably feels lucky enough that she would even bless him by being in his life. Feeling content, he decides to take his own life.

      1. Heart

        The way I interpreted it was, Ojosan was sneaking the yutanpo-s in his bed because his room was colder. When K gave up waiting at the station and returned home I though the considered killing sensei because he thought Ojo and Sensei were really deceiving him. But the warm yutanpo reminded him or gave him the idea that she still loved him, and was still thinking of him despite not meeting him at the station.

        1. E Minor Post author

          I was under the impression he stepped into Sensei’s room before stepping onto the yutanpo, but I could be mistaken. If the yutanpo was his, then your interpretation might make more sense, but I still don’t think the events are meant to be interpreted literally.

        2. E Minor Post author

          The way the door frames are behind him gave me the suggestion that K had left his room and the yutanpo isn’t his. To be honest, however, my interpretation is tainted by having read the novel in which Ojosan truly does love Sensei in their marriage. Maybe she grew to love him, I don’t know, but I can’t imagine she was so ready to run away from K, even if he meant a lot to her. Madhouse changed a lot from No Longer Human, however, so it isn’t out of the question.

          Furthermore, if the yutanpo was really meant to remind K that Ojosan still cared for him, why would he commit suicide as a result of it? Why wouldn’t it strengthen his resolve to at least run away with her?

          1. Heart

            Yeah, the only reason I can pull out of my ass is that he committed suicide because he felt that Ojosan didn’t love him enough to run away with him; and was already handed off for marriage.

            Although I’m positive that the yutanpo was in K’s bed. The blanket print doesn’t match Sensei’s as well as Sensei is still covered by his blanket in the following shots. But yeah, it that one shot it does look like K is in Sensei’s room, oh well.

      2. Heart

        I was just looking over K’s ending again and noticed that he stabbed his neck instead of across the belly; seppuku style, as seen from Sensei’s point of view. Seppuku,”a form of capital punishment for samurai who have committed serious offenses, and for reasons that shamed them.”

        Makes sense to me. K was smiling a lot before he cut his neck and looked more human-like with less angled eyes.

  2. triheart

    Oh I see, thanks for the explanation it sounds good to me. Although why Ojosan said she said “Why didn’t you talk to me I was scared” while walking down the stairs with K. She seems kinda slack in a way and if she cares about Sensei she wouldn’t told K to escape with her =/

    1. E Minor Post author

      We can’t really take the events literally. These are recollections by two men. Considering the seasons don’t even match up, I find it unlikely Ojosan was accurately portrayed in either story. In that sense, I don’t think we ever really got to know the true Ojosan. Sensei saw her as something to be protected and K saw her as a caged bird that needed him to liberate her. The truth was probably somewhere in the middle. Did she really wanted to run away with K? Was she really mad at Sensei for leaving her alone? We’ll never know.

  3. Goddess

    is it ever mentioned in the book why Ojo-san did not meet K at the station as She instructed Him 2? or is the Reason meaningless in the face of the Action (or non-action, rather)?

    1. E Minor Post author

      The accounts of each men are not reliable is one of the things I meant to get across. It’s probably not likely that Ojosan cried in Sensei arms and it’s probably not likely that she wanted to run away with K. After all, seasons completely change depending on who’s telling the story. The narrative structure suggests that viewing these accounts as a logical sequence of events will only serve to confuse. Rather, we should try to pull out the “heart” of each story. I know that sounds vague, but I just woke up.

      One extra thing to keep in mind of is the music. Certain scenes are with music and certain scenes are without. I notice that a lot of scenes that overlap tend to be without music while scenes that didn’t overlap did. I personally think the scenes with music are supposed to be somewhat fantastical in nature.

  4. Flat

    I really liked your interpretation. Had I not seen the picture you posted, I would have assumed something totally different. I had just watched it, and I have reasons to believe it was winter. In the photo of Sensei’s wedding, sakura petals can be seen falling down. Sakura trees usually bloom in the spring. Originally, I had thought the yutanpo was symbolic, and that K realized that Ojosan actually loved Sensei too. I wish it was this way because it would have been easier to show that the reason why he was feeling cold was because of personal reasons and not the season. I’ve come to speculate that the reason why Ojosan chose not to leave was because she found out who she was getting married to and perhaps she changed her mind about how she felt about dealing with being repressed. It’s a very interesting story however and I will make sure to read the novel.

    1. E Minor Post author

      It’s a good novel and I will admit it colored how I interpreted the anime. I can’t imagine Ojosan being so unwilling to marry Sensei (and thus willing to run away with K) after reading the novel. As a result, I took the approach that Ojosan’s actions and motivations were never clear in the anime. I still feel that we never really get her side of the story, just the two men surrounding her.

  5. Panos

    Ok,here we are again.That story is far more difficult to follow than the previous two No Longer Human and In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom,although at first it gave me the idea that it was simpler.I will try to avoid comparing the two perspectives of sensei and K since i don’t believe that anyone can interpret what really happened(at least we poor souls who haven’t read the novel).I also tried to understand why Ojo didn’t go to the station(if we accept that the part about meeting in the second story hm,would take place) and the most rational explanation was1)Second thoughts 2)She was caught by her mother when she was about to sneak out.It’s obvious that her mother knew that sth was about to happen on that day when she saw K with a sack full of staff going to school.
    Now,about the symbolism that the characters interpret i can’t say that i have fully grasped their meaning, but i am in a good way.What makes it hard to grasp is my lack of japanese history and mostly your heading that i interpret as modernism=>loneliness.And i ask,weren’t women treated as tools prior to 1900?Weren’t the relations between men cold due to poverty,fatigue and hunger?Weren’t killings a natural phenomenon?I don’t know much about Japan so correct me if i am wrong.But,let’s talk about French Revolution,wasn’t that a movement that liberated the human mind and pointed the interests of humans towards art,music and literature?You will probably answer me that has nothing to do western modernization of Japan in which i will agree.So my point is (because you where a little categorical) that not necessarily modernism leads to loneliness,it depends on the movement and the feelings of people(which are mostly suppressed if the movement inflicts major changes to their lifestyles).
    A coin has two sides.Let’s talk about our generation where you can find as many superficial human relationships that meet the eye,a seclusion between ourselves which finds a breakthrough at anything,like the net.But isn’t that also a form of communication,if it didn’t exist i wouldn’t be able to talk with a guy where i don’t know where from, and give me this amazingly good explanation of the story.
    If you have time consider writing another paragraph about the passage between prior and after 1900 like you did in your analysis.Then,i believe your analysis will be complete.Thanks,you were pretty helpful at Kokoro as well as No longer human.

    1. E Minor Post author

      We are getting our terms mixed up. Modernism as an idea and “modernizing” as an action are two different concepts. What you are thinking of, i.e. modernizing, is technological and societal advancement. Modernism, as I’m using it, is a vague umbrella concept, encompassing a mode of thought that was most prominent from around 1850-1950ish. Its influence is still present in our culture but it has mostly been supplanted by postmodernism/structuralism/etc. One of modernism’s many familiar tenets is the idea that objective truth exists. Its separation from the subjective, “irrational” side of the human character is what inspired my thesis in the Kokoro post. Well, anyway, I can’t really go into detail about modernism as a movement in a blog comment. If you’re still interested in modernism, Wikipedia’s article is a good launching point. All I wish to say is that a breakthrough like the internet, as you put it, really has nothing to do with modernism but rather “modernization.”

  6. red

    I haven’t read the novel, but from some articles and papers I understand Kokoro is about the changing morality/attitudes in Japan–the transition from traditional customs to modern modes of life. When I read this it all made sense to me, how K’s suicide represented the death of a bygone era focused on traditionalism and spirituality (with his monk-like devotion). If Sensei represents modernism and egoism, then it is interesting to consider that these attitudes are slowly dominating society. I really enjoyed your analysis on rationality vs. subjectivity and you really hit on things I didn’t catch (the music).

    1. E Minor Post author

      It’s too bad Madhouse’s adaptation is really only half of the novel. There’s an interesting line from Sensei about some general (I think? — it’s been a while) that really captures the ideas you mentioned (i.e. transition from tradition to modernity).

      1. red

        General Nogi? I think…though I only know his name through this paper:

        maybe you mean this quote from the second paragraph? —
        Sensei writes that “I felt as though the spirit of the Meiji era had begun with the Emperor and had ended with him”

        It’s very interesting and it helped me better grasp the themes of the Kokoro arc, especially on K and Sensei.

        1. E Minor Post author

          If you haven’t read it, I suggest Karatani Kotin’s paper “Soseki’s Diversity.” Here’s a few interesting excerpts:

          What does Sensei mean here by the words “Meiji” and “Meiji spirit”? We must not think of Meiji simply as an historical era. Previously I spoke of K as an ascetic idealist.

          …K appears simply like the type of young seeker of truth from long ago. But it must be said that such an extreme type as K is characteristic of a certain period, one that differed from past and future periods in regard to both Buddhism and Christianity. For example, by the end of the second decade of the Meiji era, Kitamura Tokoku turned toward Christianity while Nishida Kitaro turned toward Zen Buddhism. Like K, both these men were extreme types (K also read the Bible).

          These men became confined with such absolute interiority because the possibilities that were present during the Meiji Restoration were by this time becoming closed off. On the other hand, their confinement can be attributed to the institutional establishment of the modern nation-state system. That is to say, defeated in their respective political battles, these men sought to express their opposition by rejecting the secular and privileging the spiritual, or interior. Yet Tokoku committed suicide and Nishida returned to the humiliation of becoming an imperial university nondegree student. Similarly, K’s suicide was not prompted by mere heartbreak or a friend’s betrayal, as Sensei later realized. For in his very attraction to the opposite sex, K perceived the collapse of such spiritual resistance.


          Thus what Soseki called the “spirit of Meiji” can be understood as the diverse “possibilities” excluded from the modern nation-state system that would be established during the third decade of Meiji.

          Last one:

          The title Kokoro is ironic, for there is no attempt to peer within the “heart.” Or rather, such peering yields nothing, for our actions derive not from the “heart” but from the relation with the other. Regardless of how one thinks about the heart, then there is a void that cannot be filled.

          Sorry for the text dump but I like the paper and thought you might be interested. If not, I had always wanted to follow up on Kokoro with these ideas either how.

  7. Anonymous

    I still don’t understand why K killed himself and why was he crying before he killed himself?

    So confused……….. :(

    1. Kyle Damostame Lastano

      in my own interpretations.. when k was about to kill sensei. he stepped onto that orange bag, then he reminisces the moments between him and ojou san…

      K probably realizes that ojou san might have changed his feelings for K.. that was probably his conclusion when ojou san didn’t came to the train station…

      for the question why he as crying… it was probably due to the love and the warmth ojou gave to him… it was an overwhelming emotion for him that someone showed love and kindness because all his life, he’s just reading books and focused on religion..

      his murderous intent to kill sensei vanished… in the end he probably lose his purpose to live, since he destroyed and sacrificed everything for ojou thus he commited suicide…

  8. Kyle Damostame Lastano

    the story came is from two different perspectives but situations are different.. on the first part K is vocal to his feeling to ojou.. he imposes his feelings and to the point he nearly raped her?? tell me if im wrong with this coz it was at the scene where he wants ojou to sew his undergarment…

    while in the 2nd part… ojou fell in love with K.. she was the forceful one this time and seduced K.. and K was more reserved and secretive with his feelings for her..

    these are stories from different perspective of different situation… a story from two different worlds..


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