In a trendy Tokyo night spot, two teenagers meet, kiss and fall in love. But each is a member of a rival Yakuza mafia family. What’s a young rock star to do when he’s threatened with death if he visits his new love?

If the plot sounds weak, be careful, for you tread on hallowed ground. This is the work of William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet, the most famous love story ever told, has just been transplanted out of Renaissance Italy and into a Japanese comic book.

Manga Shakespeare is a new enterprise by publishing company SelfMadeHero. While the abridged text is lifted straight from Shakespeare’s play, the visuals are those of manga, Japanese-style cartoons.

It is only one example of a growing trend for recreating classic works in graphic form. SelfMadeHero releases manga Hamlet next week. Richard III and The Tempest are coming out in the autumn, along with other classics such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Kidnapped, the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, has also been cast into graphic form (a Scots translation, Kidnappit, is the first ever Scots language graphic novel).

Classics have always been reinterpreted for new audiences, new genres and new times. The stories of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet existed in various forms before Shakespeare wrote his dramas, and the works have since been made into operas and ballets. Even as “straight” plays they’ve been performed in every conceivable time, place and dress. One of the most popular adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, was set in modern-day “Verona beach” and was populated by warring gangs wearing Hawaiian shirts and carrying guns. The text was Shakespeare’s but the setting certainly wasn’t. And even the Shakespeare scholars approved. But how well does classic fiction work in graphic novel form?

Unlike children’s comic books, graphic novels and manga use literary techniques to tell a story. Rather than recount every move, they allow action to take place off screen; it might take five squares of a comic strip to show a man walking down the street, while manga and graphic novels usher the man straight into a house, allowing the reader’s imagination to get him there.

Graphic adaptations aren’t new. The popular Classics Illustrated in the 1940s and 1950s numbered all of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Kidnapped among its titles. More recently, the Graphic Shakespeare series and Comic Book Shakespeare released comic versions of various plays. In both these later series, the text was modernised, simplified and, arguably, ruined, while the visual elements were minimal.

The new manga Shakespeare and Kidnapped are better and more rigorous than any previous example. They uphold two important principles: they retain the original language, albeit abridged, and they are long enough to allow the story to be told (The Classics Illustrated Romeo and Juliet was 44 pages, the manga version is 200). Even graphic Hamlet, which is such a long play that every director cuts it (except Kenneth Branagh), is about a third of the original length.

The form is also truly inventive. The books all shun a regulated grid of comic book squares, and offer varying shapes and sizes of picture for emphasis. When David Balfour sets out for his uncle’s house in Kidnapped, his image looms over the other three frames on the page; the ghost of Hamlet’s father is allowed to filter across two pages, dominating the spread even though he is drawn in shadowy strokes.

The experience of reading these works is very different to that of regular prose. The text is all in capital letters, but the eye becomes accustomed to that. Kidnapped survives without chapter headings, but Shakespeare suffers from not being divided into acts: the flow is sometimes too fast, without space for action between the words.

In many ways, however, manga and Shakespearean tragedy are perfectly suited. The Japanese form makes explicit some of the bard’s abiding concerns: passionate love leads to violence, men defend their honour, families are defied and social mores corrupted. Shakespeare’s plays are full of sex and violence. The old-fashioned, formal stage productions sometimes forget this.

The British illustrators have given the Shakespearean characters a manga makeover. Juliet becomes a dark-haired beauty (in most graphic adaptations she is blonde), wide-eyed, long-limbed and big-breasted (at 13). She sports a manga-infused wardrobe of miniskirts, knee-high schoolgirl socks, shorts with stockings, and the occasional kimono for Japanese effect.

The effeminate appearance of many male manga heroes also matches Shakespeare’s prose. Romeo “thy tears are womanish” Montague pushes back his long blond hair as he weeps at his banishment to Mantua (or in this case, Kyoto). Hamlet, in his “unmanly grief” and moody angst, lashes out from beneath long lashes and blond spikey hair, though he wears an “inky cloak” in line with the play’s insistence on his dark personality.

Like all good adaptations, the manga books add new comic elements and twists to the old plays. Hamlet confers with Horatio via a video screen; when he utters his “to be or not to be” speech a retractable blade comes shooting from his wrist. By contrast, Romeo and Juliet’s downfall is modern communication systems: a server failure blocks an e-mail telling Romeo of Juliet’s faked death, while Romeo can’t call anyone from his caravan exile as his mobile phone has no reception. And nothing can change some of the crowning moments in these classic tales: in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Kidnapped, the characters all speak as and after they die - why would a graphic novelist defy such a plot device?

The new contexts aren’t consistent, however. We are told on the first page that Hamlet is set in 2107, when “global climate change has devastated the earth”. We see the cyberworld: all the characters have some kind of implanted computer chip and wear fabulous manga costumes, part-Elizabethan, part-Star Trek. But none of the visual cues point to any kind of climate-change distressed world - or is this the “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark”?

The niggles in Romeo and Juliet are smaller: she speaks from her balcony into a massive garden that surely couldn’t exist in the pricey and densely populated Shibuya district of Tokyo where it is set, while the lovers look up to stars that are barely visible in that neon-obsessed city. And when Juliet goes to see the Catholic Friar Laurence to seek his help, she finds him in Japanese dress in a Buddhist monastery. Other comic elements work better, such as Romeo’s race back from Kyoto on his motorbike, and the “Police Line - Do Not Cross” at the play’s tragic ending.

But a graphic novel can not convey all the nuances and possible interpretations of a Shakespeare work. One of the joys of these plays is that, alongside the impetuous, passionate lead characters blinded by love or revenge, the wider cast joke, foil and, above all, add depth and humour. Think about Romeo and Juliet: a couple meet once, kiss, and are so overcome with love (lust by any other name?), that they are prepared to defy their family and if necessary kill themselves. The great story of the star-crossed lovers is not built on this bare plot alone. When you read the original text or watch the play you are swept up almost despite the absurdity of it - and it’s the other characters who maintain this balance. In the text of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo’s friend Mercutio, for example, is there specifically to ridicule the whole idea of love poetry, and love as anything other than sex. In the graphic novel his part is minimal (though he does have great dreadlocks).

Hamlet, too, is a play about more than revenge and power. But no graphic novel would make good reading if it took as elaborate a course as Shakespeare did to ponder the nature of truth, indecision, action and death.

At other times the visuals do set off Shakespeare’s suggestive prose. For example, the drawings reinforce the hint of incestuous desire between the ravishing Ophelia and her brother Laertes, while Hamlet crouches inappropriately over his mother’s prone body: “Go not to mine uncle’s bed…assume a virtue if you have it not.”

A degree of irony and emotion are certainly lost in the graphic adaptations. This is not so much the fault of the adapters, however, but a limit of the form. Of necessity, these versions focus on the central characters more than the original text does - a graphic novel simply can’t hold as many people as a play, particularly when they so often speak in asides or hide behind tapestries. And the typical black-and-white manga drawings, though beautiful, make it harder to distinguish between personalities than a colour version would. If you haven’t read the plays before - and teenagers are part of the target audience for these stories - then these books may be hard to follow.

Kidnapped, by contrast, is a much easier work to recast. It is 1751, and David Balfour has hit a patch of bad luck: his uncle steals his inheritance, kidnaps him and sends him off on a ship bound for America. It’s a classic boy’s own adventure story, narrated by one person in a linear form. Stevenson’s novel itself is quite childlike - the book title alone gives away half the story, while chapter headings such as “I Come to My Journey’s End” emphasise the literal nature of this tale.

Some moments are managed brilliantly, such as David’s shock when he first reaches his uncle’s home. We see him from the back in the shadow of a crumbling house so monumental that it blocks out the sun: “Was this the palace I had been coming to? Was it within these walls that I was to seek new friends and begin great fortunes?”

The visual characterisation is distinctly unsubtle: we see evil at first glance. Captain Hoseason, for example, glares out of the page from beneath a rounded brow that comes down over his deep-set eyes and hooked nose. But the book is swift with this information too; we pre-empt the original by only a few paragraphs.

There are, inevitably, soap-opera style flaws to the graphic element. The kidnapped, shipwrecked and on-the-run David Balfour looks as clean-shaven and kempt at his journey’s end as he did at the beginning. But this we can forgive. Although it lacks the rich density of Stevenson’s language and storytelling, Kidnapped is precisely the kind of excellent adaptation that should help to keep the story alive. And since the graphic version is aimed partly at a school audience, some readers may later take up the novel itself.

So should we be reading and recommending these graphic adaptations? When it comes to classic works, only some subjects work well in this genre. Robert Louis Stevenson passes the test, at least for this novel. As for Shakespeare, on the surface the manga versions are more obviously “fun” than the texts teenagers might read in school - they are visually appealing, intelligently adapted and demonstrate that Shakespeare is a writer for every age. A cartoon version of Shakespeare is in some ways truer to the original than reading the text alone; the visual element was always supposed to be part of the experience. Ultimately, however, nothing beats seeing these plays performed.

These new graphic novels are definitely entertaining - and the Bard, lest we forget, was unabashedly in the entertainment business. This is not literal Shakespeare, and these books are unlikely to open up new interpretations or nuances of the plays. Not all Shakespeare scholars will approve - but sometimes, methinks, they protest too much.

by William Shakespeare, adapted by Richard Appignanesi, illustrated by Sonia Leong
SelfMadeHero ₤6.99, 200 pages
FT bookshopprice: ₤5.59

by William Shakespeare, adapted by Richard Appignanesi, illustrated by Emma Vieceli
SelfMadeHero ₤6.99, 200 pages
FT bookshop price: ₤5.59

by Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Alan Grant, illustrated by Cam Kennedy
Waverley Books ₤8.99, 64 pages
FT bookshop price: ₤7.19

Get alerts on Denmark when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments have not been enabled for this article.