September 13, 2007

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Manga Shakespeare: Hamlet, illustrated by Emma Vieceli (2007, Amulet Books, 195 pages)
Manga Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, illustrated by Sonia Leong (2007, Amulet Books, 195 pages))
Reviewed by Katherine Welsh news@hippopress.com

Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet are the first two installments in a new series of manga (Japanese-style graphic novel) adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet is set in 2107, in some sort of post-apocalyptic “cyberworld,” and Romeo and Juliet has been transported to modern Tokyo: the Capulets and Montagues are rival gangs. The text is faithful to the original, if much abbreviated. Speeches are cut down to a few lines and then spread out among several panels of illustration; this disjointedness all but erases the beauty of the language. The art, which in manga should have equal importance with the text, is pretty standard. It isn’t bad, but it’s nothing special. (The two books have different illustrators and therefore slightly different styles, but the same mediocre quality.)

I sincerely doubt that it’s a coincidence that the first two plays chosen for this series are among those most often assigned in high school and college classes. The publishers are clearly hoping that students will buy their books to read along with or instead of the actual assigned plays; the marketing copy on the back of each book proclaims it “much more fun than a study guide!” They may be more fun, for some, but they’re certainly not as useful. The shortened, disjointed text makes the plots hard to follow, and at times it can be very difficult to figure out which character is which. (The main characters are introduced before the story, but some of them look quite similar and are difficult to distinguish.) And even if readers can manage to get the gist of the plot — well, that’s not really the point of Shakespeare, is it? The writing (all of it, not just fragments of lines) is what matters, and these books make it very hard to appreciate the language.

Trying to spark interest in Shakespeare among young people is, of course, a noble goal. But this series misses the mark: real manga readers will instantly recognize the books as fake. The most obvious structural flaw is that they read left to right, like standard English books, rather than right to left, like manga and other Japanese books. This fact alone will be enough to turn off much of the targeted audience. The “updated” settings — a futuristic Denmark for Hamlet, contemporary Tokyo for Romeo and Juliet — are undoubtedly thought to be easier for teenagers to relate to, but in actuality they are more distracting than anything else. In Hamlet, the setting has virtually no impact other than a few futuristic elements in illustrations. Since these are few and far between, they pulled me out of the story and made me think “Oh, right, this is supposed to be in the future” every time they came up. And Romeo and Juliet is rife with anachronisms: most notably, the Capulets and Montagues still use swords. (At least, I assume that this is an anachronism; I’m certainly no expert on Japanese organized crime.) When Romeo is banished, he still flees to Mantua — now a district of Kyoto, according to the map he carries. It’s just silly.

The creators of these books might have realized that they made the plots rather hard to follow, because each book ends with a one-page plot summary and a one-page biography of Shakespeare. Even these, though, are problematic. The plot summaries state theory as unqualified fact: Hamlet, for example, “pretends madness.” Well, sure, according to many scholars, but there have been centuries of debate about that very issue. There is no hint of any of this. Similarly, any dispute of Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays is dismissed as “preposterous” and “weird.” Now that I think of it, “preposterous” is a pretty good word to describe these books in general. Don’t bother. Read the real thing, or don’t, but please don’t read this series and think you’re reading Shakespeare. DKatherine Welsh