Manga Most Strange

Reverse Trap Hamlet
I’ve used this before, but the internet needs more reverse trap Hamlet.

I have an unsubstantiated theory that any boys who encounter Hamlet during their adolescence will become slightly obsessed with the play. It is very easy to read Hamlet as a misanthropic, withdrawn and rather ’emo’ teenager, and – though this would seem very alien to the original audience, who lacked the concept – it’s no surprise that 21st century teenagers identify with him.

You can probably detect the voice of personal experience here, though I no longer identify with Hamlet in quite that way. For a start, although his age is much-disputed, there is textual evidence for a rather older Hamlet. And withdrawn teenagers are, for the most part, boring. But the obsession itself is harder to escape; to this day, productions of the play have me reaching for my wallet with the same irrational fervour that others use for figurines. (‘Ooh, look! A 1:8 Ophelia, “distracted, playing on a lute, and her hair down, singing“!’)

And so it is that we come to Self Made Hero’s ‘Manga Shakespeare’ version of Hamlet. It’s a strange (though hardly the strangest) concept. Curiosity drove me to buy it. But is it manga? Is it Hamlet? And what’s it actually like?

If you’re rushing off to find scanlations, don’t bother, because this is not a Japanese initiative. ‘Not Japanese?’, I hear you ask. Well, yes. It’s drawn (left-to-right) by Emma Vieceli and the text was adapted by Richard Appignanesi.

But it looks like manga – unlike Cliffs Notes’s effort, which apparently looks pretty occidental – though what can you expect from a company which has been a ball-and-chain on individual thought for fifty years? – and I think that’s enough for me. Just my preferred definition of poetry is ‘text where the author, not the publisher, decided where the lines end’, so with manga I go by appearances. Wikipedia tells me [!] that ‘manga’ merely denotes ‘comics’ in Japan, and certainly, judging by Vieceli’s own account of her time spent promoting this in Japan, the Japanese themselves aren’t necessarily concerned with its origins.

To my surprise, the text is Shakespeare’s own, although it’s a cut version with sound effects and the occasional one-sentence caption to introduce a scene. There’s also the addition of emphasis in the lettering, which leads to some interesting choices:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. Sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, enterprises lose the name of action.

But then, Shakespeare’s text on its own isn’t really much fun; it needs to be brought to life by someone.

Merely reading the text of a play is akin to holding a conversation with a skeleton. Living people are more entertaining than bones and Hamlet is much more fun when performed or, for that matter, drawn. Cutting the text is also not, per se, a problem, as Hamlet – with three available texts and well over four hours worth of dialogue – ought to be cut in performance for the audience’s sake. And the Manga Shakespeare textual consultant (de Somogyi) is something like a proper scholar, with experience editing Shakespeare for proper texts, and indeed he probably has proper letters after his name and all.

Still, this much excision is pushing it. Unlike a play in performance, you can pause a comic, put it down and do something else, like spending time with those loved ones who see you once a month when you come out of your hikikomori refuge. I suspect that this volume is aimed at fourteen-year-olds who appreciate manga but certainly don’t appreciate the Swan of Avon.

Actually, judging by the promise on the back cover that this is ‘a cutting-edge adaption that will intrigue and grip its readers’ it might be for the parents, teachers and librarians concerned about said fourteen-year-olds. And it’s true that not every teenager has the stamina for large chunks of anything in one innings. I’d like to think, however, that Hamlet is more Test match than Twenty20, and so I’m going to have to dock points for over-zealous pruning.

I’m no judge of the visual – only five of my posts, including this one, are in the ‘review’ category – but I enjoyed reading this. That’s significant: Shakespeare’s text is very good, but I wouldn’t read a cut version for pleasure, so the fact that I did enjoy this suggests that the art succeeds in adding something. There’s a lot more white space on the page than I’m used to. This lends an apt tenuousness or instability to the scenes of intrigue and in particular to the Ghost, but can sometimes look like simple wastage. The character designs could also be accused of being a bit workaday: Claudius is bald (ergo Machiavellian), Polonius is monocle’d (ergo pompous), and so on. In general, though, it was nice to look at, which is about the most incisive visual assessment I can offer.

Settings for Shakespeare adaptions need to add something (see the ’95 film adaption of Richard III for a great choice of setting) and this manga’s choice of a cyber-Denmark has potential but isn’t exploited. A great deal more could have been done with electronic surveillance – the play is full of people watching other people – but the opportunity was lost. Still, cyber-Denmark is probably preferable to the option of manga-styled characters in Jaco-bethan clothing, which would have seemed odd at best, and Kurosawa already took the corrupt company option in The Bad Sleep Well.

The interactions between manga tropes and the text were perhaps what I enjoyed most. Hamlet’s ‘Lady, shall I lie in your lap?’ exchange with Ophelia is a new (or old?) spin on the lap pillow which seems to be a standard move in manga’s mating game (though, sadly, the scurrilous ‘country matters’ were cut). Similarly, sprays of flowers and petals appear behind Ophelia, in what looks like a standard technique from the shoujo toolbox. Standard, that is, until we reach her madness and death, at which point the flowers become Serious Business.

These interactions aren’t the product of the art, or the setting, but of the idea itself, the idea of Hamlet in manga form. But the form will always be a limitation too: like a movie adaption, a comic book is never going to be as visceral an experience as watching a live performance. Vieceli’s Hamlet is quite good, and I enjoyed it despite not being much of a manga reader, and despite the truncation of the text, but it could never be as carnal, as bloody and as unnatural as I like the play.

17 responses to “Manga Most Strange

  1. LOL @ at the Ophelia joke! That was so great.

    So we’ve got newer adaptations/permutations of old works, but then there’s also the piracy of history – isn’t the Lion King based off Hamlet? Is Hamlet based off something? I don’t know, not a historian/literary critic.

    While different mediums have their limitations and fortes, this was a good way to illustrate how things seemingly odd can turn out quite well, perhaps.

    And I remember seeing some cyber version of Romeo and Juliet by some play company, not anime. And I heard the anime with the same title sucked.

  2. but it could never be as carnal, as bloody and as unnatural as I like the play

    This is from THE guy who eats plays for breakfast, delights in antediluvian literature, and rages over grammar errors.


    hahahaha :P

  3. @ lelangir: I liked Romeo X Juliet! :(

    Hamlet manga, hmm? Sounds interes- actually, I should really avoid mangas @_@

  4. For some reason, I’ve always preferred reading the script to a play over actually seeing it. Maybe it’s because the quality of the language is brought to the surface when you read it (and that is Shakespeares strongest point), or I might have had too bad experiences with theater in the past.

    @lelangir: while older litterature really isn’t my forte, I think that Hamlet was based off an older story by Saxos Grammaticus (don’t pin me in the name for Haruhi’s sake), which may or may not have been based on actual history. Shakespeare actually seldomly created original tales; what he did was dust off older ones, added some smashing use of words and sentences and a bunch of convoluting sideplots.

    @The Animanachronism: Have one awesome win cookie for digging out that Hamletinator trailer. He’s indeed anything but fair!

  5. Hrm… interesting. Granted, I’ve never actually seen Hamlet, but I do have to agree that seeing Shakespeare is a different experience than reading it.

    Although I did have an unhealthy obsession with Henry V and Julius Caesar.

  6. A play without actors is not a play. Having seen some Shakespearean work in text and at the hands of some wonderful actors, the difference is night and day.

    Same can be said, as said here, about putting pictures and framing them, matching with lines cut and paste.

    But that’s just my 2c.

  7. @ Lelangir: Not sure about The Lion King – I’ve never seen it – but Hamlet gets ripped off frequently. And the play itself is definitely based on earlier works (more on this below in my reply to Kaiserpingvin). But yeah – I was all set to hate this, and it was actually pretty decent.

    Coincidentally I recently came across JPMeyer’s argument that the recent anime adaption of Romeo & Juliet failed. Though I didn’t watch it: I’m not as obsessed with R&J, because Lurve Is For Girlz, or something.

    @ Michael: True, I suppose having me read this in the first place is placing the bar for success quite high.

    @ Nagato: Why’s that?

    @ Kaiserpingvin: Reading the text is great for getting one’s fingers into the guts of the language, but I find I have to see it performed to really enjoy it. Have I finally met a more textual person than myself?

    Yeah, Hamlet is based on the legend of Amleth, preserved by Saxo Grammaticus in the Gesta Danorum. The story seems to have been known to the Elizabethans some time before Shakespeare wrote his version, and it’s widely believed that there was a previous play on the subject (known to scholars as the Ur-Hamlet), now lost.

    Shakespeare certainly changed a lot of details, and Hamlet’s character in his play is very different to Amleth’s in Saxo’s account (who happily sets about avenging his father as soon as he can).

    And the Hamletinator is brilliant. I reckon a number of Shakespeare plays would be shorter if they were Arnie films – to return to Romeo & Juliet as an example, if Arnie was Romeo he’d simply gun down all the Capulets, ending the feud.

    @ iniksbane: I guess both Henry V and Julius Caesar deal with the reporting/rhetorical reshaping of historical events? I seem to remember you mentioning that you have studied Roman history, so I can see the Julius Caesar connection.

    And see Hamlet! (If it’s a good production.)

    @ Omo: I much prefer my plays in the (actor’s) flesh rather than as images, but I simply can’t imagine really enjoying Shakespeare more on the page than on the stage (or in manga form – anything’s better to me than raw text). Which is not to say that the text isn’t worth studying . . . I suppose study isn’t always going to be fun.

  8. re. the cuts. Is this the kind of thing that could be conveniently read in a single sitting? In “graphic novels” I’ve read, ease of approach has always been a factor – the ability to power through the whole thing. As I recall from my schooldays (slight Hamlet obsession), reading play scripts often required an “interval”. I can imagine that cuts could (whilst losing valuable content) help keep the momentum up, keep it visceral – closer to the performance experience.

    As a curio, a couple of years back I saw a (live) Hamlet re-located into the current day Middle East – oil, regime change, Shahs etc.

  9. I think part of it is the historical aspects of both plays. And the other part is the political aspects. As trite as it is the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech from Julius Caesar is one of the single best pieces of fictional speech making that I’ve ever read. Followed by the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech in Henry V.

    And I definitely plan on it. Do you know if the movies are any good?

  10. Whenever I read mangas, I finish 8 hours later and it’s 6am in the morning. :(

  11. Ho. It was rather hard to follow this post since I am a bloke lacking in culture, man that was some esoteric stuff to me.

    I never had much exposure to Shakespeare and Macbeth was the only one that I had a bit of an affair with. Reading Macbeth was like a sneak preview with such compelling allure and mystic. If reading about play appeals to me so much, then I can imagine the thrill that watching a play can give.

    I say read then watch!

  12. @ Coburn: Fair enough, but I think there’s a point where the cost to the story outweighs the benefits of being able to be read at one sitting. Though since I knew the story already I can’t speak for someone who’s first contact with Hamlet would be this manga. Anyway, the one-volume compilation of Ghost in the Shell that I have can be read in one sitting and is thicker than this.

    Hamlet‘s politics relocate very well. I know there was a spate of performances in former Soviet-bloc countries after the Fall of the Wall.

    @ iniksbane: Antony’s funeral oration is a brililant scene. It’s a strange combination of oily (if effective) rhetoric and – possibly – genuine grief.

    Hamlet movies are a mixed bag. I’d avoid the 1990 Zeffirelli/Mel Gibson version; the 1996 Kenneth Branagh version is good but excessively long (see what I said about the necessity of cutting the play in the post); Almereyda’s 2000 versoin (starring Ethan Hawke) travels a bit too far into Teenage Hamlet territory, but is actually not bad in places, and really plays the electronic surveillance angle; the 1948 Olivier version puts a very heavy spin on the text but is a bit of a classic. My personal favourite is the BCC Shakespeare version with Jacobi as Hamlet and Patrick Stewart as Claudius (1980), but it’s very obviously a filmed play, and it’s not widely available (I only found a copy once).

    @ Nagato: Ah, I see what you mean. I admire your self-discipline in avoiding them, then.

    @ The Sojourner: Sorry! I tend to get a bit carried away sometimes.

    Macbeth is a strangely gripping play – not a nice story, but somehow a hard one to stop thinking about. There’s a Kurosawa adaption set in feudal Japan, called Throne of Blood which is around on DVD, if you’re interested.

    I always find reading the play beforehand helps most with the comedies, so that I understand the jokes.

  13. I always liked “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” because I’m a fan of Faeries. Neil Gaiman did a “sort of” adaptation of the story for his “The Sandman” series of comics, and it’s the only comic ever to win a World Fantasy Award.

    However, Disney’s incarnations of Faeries make Oberon cry magical glamour tears. And don’t get me started on The Lion King: if anything it ripped off Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion”…

  14. I must agree with newgeekphilosopher on the topic of Disney. While I agree with large parts of American culture on at least on an aesthetic plane, I just can’t come to like their children-directed culture, of which Disney is the flagship. They rip off more than even Shakespeare did, but worse.

    @The Animanachronism: More textual? Moi? Very possible, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. I would need to at least see a good production of a good play before anything definite would be said (something by Chekhov, maybe?).

  15. @ newgeekphilosopher: Shakespeare has something for everyone, I suppose. I read that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of his most widely-performed plays, because its comedy has aged well.

    I should get into Neil Gaiman one of these days, ‘cos everyone seems to rate him very highly.

    @ Kaiserpingvin: I’ve never really gotten on with Disney, but I haven’t actually seen much of their output. I didn’t watch many films as a child (still don’t, to be honest).

  16. Thanks for the sterling review of Manga Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Personally i found it to be the weakest text in comparison to the others in the series, The tempest is very visually striking while Richard III’s Character work is superb (Though what else do you expect of Adam (BC: Grand mal and Dirty pair) Warrens Son)
    Even the Shojo elements of Romeo and Juliet blend better with the rest of the story. The Look of Hamlet was like you said very empty as if the page was to big for the idea itself.

    Majority of reviews so far in my experiance on the bloggosphere dismissal of a Funny little oditty, But the Balance of the manga’s reallyy is on a case by case basis like any staging of a shakespearian play, The Editing of Richard III’s textloses nuance but its pace increaces while the romance of romeo and juliet is paced like a romance should increased focus on the romance, Sadly that shortens the peripherals characters involvement but the Text is obviously influenced by the Baz Luhrman Romeo and juliet so it becomes a third person view of a story, Extenuous details get lost at this distance of extrapolation.

    • I think the comparison to a particular production/staging of the play is a good way to look at it. I originally only read the Hamlet, because I’m mildly obsessed with the play, but it sounds like it’d be worth my while to look into some of the others if that was the weakest one. (I can imagine that The Tempest would be visually striking. Its plot lends itself to special effects!)

      Luhrnman’s R+J has had a not-entirely positive influence on subsequent productions, hasn’t it? I like it, but in a sense I’d rather it had been less successful and less definitive.


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