It’s like the powers-that-be in the world of Japanese publishing know what I want before I have even seized upon those nebulous desires myself. Even as I was remarking that I would love to see Moriizumi’s work in a beautiful slim hardback of some kind, that very book actually existed in the world, unbeknownst to me! I am truly the luckiest of readers. And yet I avoided this good fortune of mine. I would see this lovely edition in the shops, but be put off by its size (closer to magazine than book, awkward for stuffing into shoulder bags). “I don’t want to have to drag that home,” I would say to myself. “I’ll pick it up later.” Until finally, in my last days in Tokyo at the end of the year, I came across it once more. With my flight only days away, I knew there was no more “later”.
And it wasn’t just the size I was struggling with. The idea of adaptations of “classic” works was somewhat off-putting to me. I will always prefer original works over adaptations, and a volume of adaptations of stories by old white dudes (plus one old Japanese dude who occupies the same place of privilege in his society as the white dudes do in theirs) was especially uninteresting. My patience for stories by and for people occupying the most privileged ranks of their societies is threadbare. I have read and loved many of those manly authors (we all know how dear to my heart D.H Lawrence is), but I have been forcefed those stories for my entire life. Given a choice, I would much rather hear stories from other perspectives. Like Nigerian-American sci-fi fantasy!
But the manga that Moriizumi makes is so incredible and fresh and beautiful, and the book itself so beautifully bound and designed, that I opened my heart to his manly adaptations and forgave him for not selecting at least one lady writer of similarly “classic” status. He notes in the afterword that each of these stories holds up so well upon re-reading, even in this modern age, and he supposes that that is why they ended up being classics. The ideas they bring to bear are still relevant (in perhaps new ways) throughout the years. The authors have created something of a universality in their themes. Which I get, and yes, this is absolutely true of so many classic works that I have read and loved. But, you know, lady author classics are also a thing. And that is something I would have liked to have seen here.
And now that I have indulged in a mini-rant about hearing all kinds of voices because difference is interesting and great and let’s all enjoy how we are different, I will say that I love the way Moriizumi has put these stories into manga form. Almost as if he were anticipating my grumbling about the very manly nature of the stories he selected, his adaptation of “The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe spends very little time on the mystery of the letter and most of its time on its contents. And since there is basically no information about the contents of the letter in the original story, Moriizumi draws for us the tale of two women having an illicit affair. As the detective tells the story of the letter lost and found, the images show us the women together, the writing of the letter and the tears shed over it, the author weeping in a carriage after delivering it to her lover. It ends up being this beautiful depiction of two women trapped by time and circumstance, rather than a dull little mystery over a missing letter.
Dostoevsky’s “The Crocodile” feels similarly fresh, now set in modern Tokyo, the shop with the crocodile where the man is eaten now a glass high-rise. And although the titular “The Castle” seems to be still in Kafka’s time, a time when men wore hats, the relationships between the characters feel more modern, more equal. Moriizumi brings an artistic modernity to it as well when he breaks free of the panels the story is confined to so that he can occasionally set a character up and out of the time they are in. I would frame the pages of the narrator looking up at the castle, they are so beautiful.
Only “Sensei and I” from Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro stays strictly in its own time. The young narrator goes to the beach for the purpose of running into Sensei, leading to a wonderful beach scene, and then works hard to keep Sensei in his life in a very stalker-ish way that totally reminded me of Kate Beaton’s take on Kokoro. (I will never be able to read Kokoro again without thinking of these comics.)
Just like in Mimi wa Wasurenai, I have no idea how Moriizumi is even making these beautiful images. Once again, I am convinced that some of them have to be woodblock prints. And once again, his play with light and shadow is breathtaking, and I want to see pages and pages of these images. I don’t even need a story attached to them. The page in “The Crocodile” where the perspective is through the floor and the reader is looking up at the man in the crocodile preaching his weird philosophy is seriously incredible and a secret lesson in making manga.
The translator in me also can’t help but note that these stories are essentially translations of the original works. Which of course begs the thought: Did Moriizumi read these in their original languages? Was he working from translations into Japanese? Or was he (as the lettering in English in “The Crocodile” suggests) working from the English translations? Either way, except for the Soseki excerpt, these manga adaptations end up being translations of translations. And as anyone who has ever played a game of telephone knows, the end result of a translation of a translation is often more interesting than the original.