Sunday, May 27, 2007

Shakespeare Illustrated: From 19th-Century England to 22nd-Century Tokyo

Another Kismet moment: Killing time in the bookstore today, I came across one of those ideas that is both surprising and inevitable: Manga Shakespeare. Needless to say, I snapped up copies of both volumes, Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Then, after having already finished the R&J volume, I am checking in at The Valve and discover a link to this site.

Let's talk about the Manga Shakespeare first. One one level, this is just an update of the old Classics Illustrated comic books from the '50s. However, it has the potential, at least in theory, to be something much better. When the Classics Illustrated books were published, no one, including the people producing them, considered comic books a legitimate art form. Classics Illustrated was a form of atonement for their usual corrupting of young minds. Today, of course, the "graphic novel" has taken on respectability, and the rise of Japanese manga was largely responsible for this.

Manga Shakespeare is not true manga in a strict sense. The line is produced by a British press and illustrated by English artists working in the manga style. Both volumes take what could be called the "Luhrman approach", using Shakespeare's original text (albeit heavily edited to fit in the word balloons) but setting the story in a hip, modern context. The R&J volume, in fact, should probaby pay some type of royalty to Luhrman. Set in modern Japan, it takes much of its updates straight from Luhrman's film: the Capulets and Montagues are rival crime families (since it is set in Tokyo, they are yakuza), Escalus is a police captain, and Paris is a successful business man. According to the Dramatis Personae, Romeo is also a rock star and Juliet is Sibuya girl, but we see no evidence of this in the actual story.

Manga Hamlet, meanwhile, owes a debt to The Matrix, as it is set in 2107 in a cyberworld created after the environmental destruction of earth. Again, this is all told in the extra-textual prologue and Dramatis Personae and does not have any bearing on the story. In the end, both volumes are not masterpieces of either Manga or Shakespearean adaptation, but they do find a connection between manga's frequent tales of youthful alienation and Shakespeare's moody young protagonists. Having exhausted the two stories that most lend themselves to the Manga form, it will be interesting to see where they go from here. Though this seems to be a PG-version of Manga intended to be an educational tool for teenagers, it would be interesting to see what a true Manga artist could do with something like Titus Andronicus.

After reading these books, it was great to come across the Shakespeare Illustrated website and ponder where they fit in the long history of illustrating Shakespeare. Perusing the images after having recently reread a large selection of the plays, one is struck once again by how much of what we know as "Shakespeare" is not in Shakespeare. Theatre is an inherently visual medium, and Shakespeare left so much of that visual information up to our imaginations that the work of artists and directors in shaping what we know of the plays has been such an integral part of keeping the works alive as living things. That is why I am always excited by projects like Manga Shakespeare, even when they are not masterpieces. They are all a part of the great tradition and cultural conversation.


Richard Burt said...

There are quite a few Japanese comic book adaptations of many Shakespeare plays. A Japanese scholar and I have catalogued them in my edited book, Shakespeares After Shakespeare: An Encyclopedia of the Bard in Mass Media and Popular Culture 2 vol. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006).

rantover said...

Thought that you might like to see ours -
No manga, but full colour graphic versions of the plays with full original text.
Or, for the younger reader either Plain text or Quick text versions.
Set in period with pages on the great man himself and the history surrounding each book.
Feedback always appreciated!