Persona 4, Volume 1

Persona 4, Volume 1Creator: Shuji Sogabe
U.S. publisher: Udon Entertainment
ISBN: 9781927925577
Released: February 2016
Original release: 2009

Shin Megami Tensei is a sprawling multi-media franchise that began as a series of video games in 1987 and has grown to include manga, anime, novels, merchandise, and more. One of the most popular series within Shin Megami Tensei is Persona, which has its own multitude of spin-offs and adaptations. Persona 4 was initially developed as a role-playing game for the PlayStation 2, but the story and characters have inspired multiple other games, novels, anime, and manga series. The first Persona 4 manga was created by Shuji Sogabe, who was also responsible for the earlier Persona 3 manga adaptation. Sogabe’s Persona 4 manga, currently ongoing, has been licensed in English by Udon Entertainment. After a slight delay, the first volume of the series, originally published in Japan in 2009, was released in early 2016. My personal experience with Shin Megami Tensei as a whole is somewhat limited and up until now my knowledge of Persona 4 had largely been earned vicariously through others.

Soji Seta has grown used to transferring from one school to another due to the demands of his parents’ careers, but when they are both sent overseas, Soji is sent to stay with his uncle and young cousin in the small rural town of Inaba. Because Soji has moved so often he doesn’t have many friends and tends to keep his distance from other people. And as a city boy he’s also a bit out-of-place in the countryside. Even so, he’s warmly welcomed by his classmates and is quickly included in their social circles. Only there’s something unsettling about Inaba and Soji finds himself suffering from disorientation and strange dreams. Soon after his arrival, a string of bizarre deaths begin to occur which somehow seem to be connected to a local urban legend. It is said that on rainy nights, staring into the reflection of a television screen will reveal the face of one’s true love. But the truth behind the rumor is even more peculiar. Suddenly, Soji and the others find themselves pulled into another world as they pursue the mysteries surrounding the murders.

Persona 4, Volume 1, page 151Soji would arguably be the main protagonist of the Persona 4 manga (he’s the player character in the original video game, among other things), but except for the initial chapter most of the first volume is actually told from the perspective of Yosuke Hanamura. Like Soji, Yosuke is a transfer student, having moved to Inaba from a large city six months earlier due to his parents’ work. Although his character is more complex than is initially implied, Yosuke tends to be an easygoing and somewhat clumsy goofball. This provides an interesting contrast to Soji’s colder, more reserved personality. Over the course of the first volume they begin to form a close friendship which will likely become one of Soji’s most important relationships. The connection will also be meaningful for Yosuke whose outwardly upbeat attitude hides feelings of discontent, inadequacy, and doubt. I’m looking forward to seeing how their bond evolves as it seems to be something that they both need.

Not having yet played any of the Persona 4 video games, I’m not in a position to comment on Sogabe’s manga as a derivative work, but at this point it does appear to be an adaptation that can largely stand on its own. Some elements of gameplay can still be detected, though for the most part they have been convincingly incorporated into the story itself. In addition to the plot and characters, I find the manga’s settings to be particularly intriguing. Sogabe’s stylish artwork and use of shadows and fog create an effectively disconcerting environment in both Inaba and the TV world. But one of the most fascinating and potential-laden aspects of Persona 4 is that while in that alternate reality, fragments of a person’s psyche can physically manifest to either great benefit or great harm. Persona 4, Volume 1 is the introduction to the series so there is a fair amount of setup, but the sense of mystery and danger has already been well-established. So far, I am intrigued by the Persona 4 manga and am curious to see how it continues to develop.

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, Omnibus 2

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, Omnibus 2Creator: Yak Haibara
U.S. publisher: Udon Entertainment
ISBN: 9781926778594
Released: February 2013
Original release: 2008-2009

Yak Haibara’s four-volume manga series Sengoku Basara 2 is an adaptation of the video game known by the same name. The manga was released in English by Udon Entertainment in two omnibus volumes under the title Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends. The second omnibus, collecting the third and fourth volumes of Haibara’s Sengoku Basara 2 released in Japan in 2008 and 2009 respectively, was published in 2013. The Sengoku Basara franchise had its beginnings in 2005 as a series of video games but it has since spawned multiple manga and anime series among other things. Samurai Legends was actually my introduction to Sengoku Basara as a whole and it stands fairly well as its own work. Prior exposure to Sengoku Basara isn’t really necessary to enjoy or understand Samurai Legends, although it might not hurt to have some basic knowledge of Japan’s Warring States period upon which it is very loosely based.

In the aftermath of the devastating defeat of the armies of both Kai Takeda and Kenshin Uesugi at Kawanaka Island, very little stands between the forces of Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Masamune Date to prevent them from clashing head on. While there are now fewer contenders vying for control over Japan, the battle for supremacy is still fierce. Toyotomi relies on his own power and strength as well as the skills of his master strategist Hanbei Takenaka, destroying anyone and anything in his path and using fear to rule. Date, too, has an excellent strategist in the talented Kojuro Katekura, but his rise to power has been significantly less destructive, at least when compared to that of Toyotomi. Knowing that they must contend with each other, the two warlords have set their sights on Odawara Castle, a fortress that if conquered will grant the victor an immense advantage in claiming Japan as his own.

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, Omnibus 2, page 209While Samurai Legends is inspired by actual historical figures and events from Japan’s sixteenth-century, the manga, like the rest of Sengoku Basara, makes no attempt at realism or authenticity. Quite the opposite in fact—the series is deliberately over-the-top and anachronistic. The dialogue and trash talk is very contemporary in its style, giving the characters tremendous attitudes with a modern bent. (“Dude, seriously? You wanna dance with me!?”) Additionally, Date’s army is basically portrayed as a bōsōzoku gang, complete with pompadours, although his forces do ride horses instead of motorcycles. And when it comes to actually battling things out, a frequent occurrence in Samurai Legends, the amount of damaged caused and incurred by the overpowered fighters is impressive to say the least, though hardly believable. But that’s part of what makes Sengoku Basara so great. It’s ridiculous and outrageous.

The first omnibus of Samurai Legend moved fairly quickly from one battle to the next. The second omnibus also as plenty of action, but the pacing doesn’t seem quite as frantic. Haibara takes more time to delve into the personal motivations of the primary players in the series’ conflict, revealing what drives them to conquer and unify Japan. While in the end the characters still aren’t particularly subtle or nuanced, this does provide them with more depth. I appreciate it when there is more complex meaning behind a fight than a simple lust for power; the second omnibus clarifies the underlying purpose of the war, making the battles even more thrilling. Samurai Legends is a bombastic series, and a least one major continuity error does slip in amid all of the excitement. However, I’m actually willing to forgive this simply because the manga is so incredibly entertaining otherwise. In the immortal words of Keij Maeda, “As long as you’re having fun, it’s all good.”

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, Omnibus 1

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, Omnibus 1Creator: Yak Haibara
U.S. publisher: Udon Entertainment
ISBN: 9781926778334
Released: April 2012
Original release: 2007-2008

Sengoku Basara, an outrageous reimagining of the people and events of Japan’s Warring States period, is a franchise that started out as a series of video games but expanded to include manga, anime, and radio shows among other media. Although I have been aware of Sengoku Basara for quite some time, I’ve somewhat surprisingly never actually played any of the games. Instead, my first direct experience with the franchise was through Yak Haibara’s manga series known in English as Sengoku Basara: Samurai Legends, an adaptation of the second game, Sengoku Basara 2 (which is also the Japanese title of the manga). The first volume of Udon Entertainment’s Samurai Legends was released in 2012. It’s actually an omnibus collecting the first two volumes of the Japanese edition, published in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Normally, I tend to shy away from video game adaptations, often finding them to be less than satisfying, but I liked Haibara’s artwork and so made an exception for Samurai Legends. I’m glad that I did, because the manga is a tremendous amount of fun.

June 2, 1582. Akechi Mitsuhide leads a rebellion against Oda Nobunaga, setting fire to Honnou Temple and burning those inside alive. With Nobunaga dead, Japan’s temporary peace is disrupted as warlords once again battle to gain control over the country. The power vacuum is quickly filled by Hideyoshi Toyotomi with the aid of his impressively skilled strategist Hanbei Takenaka. Currently, they’re in the best position to seize complete control, but they aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the recent upheaval. In the east, the young and brash Masamune Date is itching to make his move, his chance encounter with Shingen Takeda’s protegé Yukimura Sanada spurring him on. Meanwhile, further to the west, Takeda is locked at an impasse with the “God of War” Kenshin Uesugi. While the balance of power is shifting swiftly and dramatically, the appearance of the vagabond Keiji Maeda on the field of war only seems to hasten events.

Sengoku Basara: Samurai Kings, Volume 1, page 87The Sengoku or Warring States period was an extremely tumultuous time in Japan, lasting from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries. Conflict was nearly constant as alliances between military factions were repeatedly forged and broken, making for an exciting setting for a franchise like Sengoku Basara. While fairly loose with its interpretation of historical figures and events, one thing is for certain: the action and fighting in Samurai Legends is almost nonstop. It’s also ridiculously over-the-top and over-powered. Characters are incredibly strong and resilient. They each have their own style of fighting and distinctive weaponry that, frankly, are often absurd. I mean, Date fights with three swords in each hand and Takeda’s battle-axe is as big as a horse. And that’s only two examples. Samurai Legends includes anachronisms and is hardly realistic, but the manga’s badassery is bombastic, dynamic, and highly engaging as a result.

Surprisingly enough, there actually is some legitimate history mixed into the raucousness that is Samurai Legends, but the manga was never intended to be a primer or to be taken too seriously. Though I will admit, I do find it much easier to remember who was who historically having been exposed to their highly-fictionalized counterparts. The manga has a very large cast of important and memorable players. Though Date is arguably the lead in the series, every faction involved in the conflict has at least one moment in the series in which it takes precedence. Samurai Legends isn’t particularly subtle or nuanced with its story or characterizations—more often than not it’s just one spectacular fight scene after another—but the manga’s humor and intense drama, exciting action, and sheer audacity have their own charm and appeal. Honestly, I never expected that I would like series as much as I do, but I get a huge kick out of Samurai Legends and find it to to be extraordinarily entertaining.

Adaptation Adventures: Udon Entertainment’s Manga Classics

One day long ago when I was still very small my parents brought home for me a box filled with Great Illustrated Classics—small, compact adaptations of classic literature with illustrations on almost every other page intended to introduce younger readers to some of the great, influential stories of the Western canon. I devoured them. It’s largely thanks to that series that I became so well versed in the classics. When I was older I would go on to read the originals of some of my favorites. And even those that I never got around to, I became familiar enough with their stories that I could hold my own in conversation and understand references made to them.

Literacy is something that I care very deeply about. Closely related to that, I also feel that exposure to the classic stories that have gone on to become such an integral and influential part of Western culture and world literature is important. However, I realize how intimidating those classics can be, especially for those who are reluctant readers to being with, or who simply don’t enjoy the authors’ styles of writing or find the length of some of the originals to be formidable. Because of that, I believe that efforts to adapt these stories in a way that is more approachable and appealing to a larger audience can be extremely valuable, which brings me to Manga Classics.

Manga Classics

Manga Classics is a line of graphic novel adaptations jointly released by Udon Entertainment and Morpheus Publishing. Their aim is to present faithful, high-quality adaptations of classic stories in a format intended to be especially appealing to young adults—that is, full-length, manga-style graphic novels. Udon isn’t the only publisher to attempt something similar to this. Recently I’ve seen other comics, graphic novel, and manga adaptations of classics released by publishers like Marvel and One Peace Books (to provide just two examples) with varying levels of success.

Strong adaptations can be notoriously difficult to achieve. Purists will often outright shun adaptations as they almost never carry the same nuance and complexity found in the source material or because they may stray too far from the original. Adaptations are especially challenging when trying to present a story in an entirely different medium, such as adapting prose into comics or film. For me, I consider an adaptation to be a great one if it is entertaining and engaging in its own right while at the same time inspiring readers (or viewers) to seek out the original stories. I feel that Manga Classics’ first two adaptations have accomplished this.

Pride & PrejudiceThe Manga Classics series debuted in 2014 with adaptations of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Out of the two, I am most familiar with Pride & Prejudice. I’ve read the original, I’ve seen many of its film and television adaptations (if you’ve not already discovered the recent webseries The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I highly recommend it), and back in high school I was actually even a main cast member in a Pride & Prejudice stage production.

The original Pride & Prejudice was first published in England in 1813. The story follows Elizabeth Bennet, the second-oldest daughter of an English family with a country estate outside of London. Elizabeth’s mother is determined to see her five daughters married, and married well, so when the wealthy (and young) bachelor Mr. Bingley moves into the neighborhood, her scheming immediately begins. Fortunately, Bingley and Jane, the eldest Bennet daughter, hit it off. Unfortunately, due to some misunderstandings and interference from Bingley’s best friend Mr. Darcy, their romance is cut short. And because of that, Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy suffers greatly, not that she held him in very high regard to begin with. To add to the awkwardness, Darcy, to his dismay, seems to have developed feelings for Elizabeth. Things get even more complicated from there as manners, social standing, morals, and some very strong personalities come into play before the Bennet daughters find their way in life and love.

Elizabeth Bennet and (blushing!) Mr. Darcy

Elizabeth Bennet and (blushing!) Mr. Darcy

Reading the Manga Classics version of Pride & Prejudice reminded me how much I enjoy the original novel, its story, and its characters. I was also struck by how perfectly Austen’s work is suited for shoujo. The story has been adapted by Stacy King and illustrated by Po Tse. The narrative has been slimmed down and largely focuses on Elizabeth and the ups and downs of her delightfully antagonistic relationship with Darcy. All of the major plot points are still there although some of the other characters (such as Elizabeth’s younger sisters) aren’t as fully developed. But the story still works and works quite well. The only thing I didn’t really like about Manga Classics’ Pride & Prejudice was the portrayal of Mr. Collins, the heir to the Bennet estate. To some extent he serves as the story’s comic relief, but he comes across as too much of a caricature in the graphic novel (visually and narratively) which clashes in style from the rest of the comic. Generally though, Po Tse’s artwork is quite lovely and occasionally even stunning. Elizabeth and Jane’s hair is gorgeously drawn and particular attention has been given to Regency period clothing and architecture as well. (A preview of the first chapter is available here!)

Les MisérablesI am much less familiar with Les Misérables. Although I know the basic story of the novel, I’ve never actually read the original. Nor have I seen any of its direct adaptations. However, I have listened to multiple sound recordings of the musical many, many times. I’ve seen the recent 2012 film adaptation of the musical as well, but that’s a couple steps removed from Hugo’s original.

Les Misérables was first published in France in 1862. The novel (one of the longest ever written) is an epic work of historical fiction set in the first half of the 19th-century, a rather tumultuous time in France. The novel begins in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and, following a large cast of characters, digressions, and subplots, climaxes with the June 1832 uprising in Paris. The most well-known story out of Les Misérables is that of the ex-convict Jean Valjean, the officer Javert whose goal is to recapture Valjean, and a young orphan girl named Cosette who becomes Valjean’s charge. Those three individuals and their relationships and connections to one another and the rest of the characters form the core of Les Misérables. Politics, religion, economic and social conditions, philosophy, morality, redemption, and love all have an important role to play in the novel as well.

Cosette and Jean Valjean

Cosette and Jean Valjean

Because I’m not as familiar with the original Les Misérables it’s difficult for me definitively say how the Manga Classics’ adaptation directly compares. However, I can say that it reads very well. Most of the subplots have been dropped in favor of the main storyline following the Valjean and Cosette and those who are directly involved with them. The adapter, Crystal Silvermoon, has taken great care to consider other adaptations of Les Misérables in addition to the original in the creation of the graphic novel. Because Les Misérables is so lengthy and complex there would be no possible way to include everything, but the most iconic scenes are all present in the Manga Classics adaptation. Stacy King provided additional assistance with the scripting and SunNeko Lee served as the volume’s illustrator. Stylistically, the art is a little simpler than that found in the Pride & Prejudice adaptation. However, it is more even in tone which suits the story’s serious and dramatic nature. Once again, particular attention has been given to the setting. I found the Les Misérables graphic novel to be engaging and, perhaps more importantly, it’s the first adaptation that has really made me interested in picking up the original.

Because it is so easy to create an unsatisfying adaptation of any work, let alone a work that is well-loved or held in high esteem, and after seeing so many poor adaptations, I’ll admit that I approached Manga Classics with some apprehension. However, I was very happy to discover that the line’s first two adaptations were very well done. Though I might have a small nitpick here or there, I sincerely enjoyed both volumes. I could easily see Manga Classics being used in a classroom setting, but I think the graphic novels will appeal to readers outside of that context as well. I am very pleased that new audiences will have the opportunity to be introduced to some of the classic works of literature in such an approachable format. Hopefully, like Great Illustrated Classics did for me, Manga Classics will inspire new generations to seek out those original stories.

Spring 2015 will bring three more adaptations to the Manga Classics line, graphic novel versions of Jane Austen’s Emma, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. So far, Manga Classics has approached the source material of its adaptations with care and respect; I can honestly say that I’m looking forward to seeing future Manga Classics releases.

Thank you to Udon Entertainment for providing copies of Pride & Prejudice and Les Misérables for review.