Adaptation Adventures: Mushishi

Mushishi, Volume 1After revisiting and reviewing each volume of Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi for my horror manga review project, by now it’s probably readily clear that I greatly enjoy the series. I love the influence of traditional Japanese folklore on the stories. I love the manga’s subtle creepinesss. I love the exploration of the relationship between humans and the rest of nature. I love how the series delves into the connections that exist between people. I love the importance placed on the search for knowledge. The storytelling in Mushishi is atmospheric, beautiful, and frequently unsettling as individuals struggle with themselves and with the unknown. There is darkness and tragedy in Mushishi but there is also hope—one of the major themes in the manga is that for better or for worse, life will ultimately persevere.

Mushishi is a largely episodic series following Ginko, a mushishi, who travels the Japanese countryside studying mushi and trying to help people who have fallen under their influence. Mushi are described as creatures which are very close to the original form of life. Their presence is fundamental and necessary to the living world, but depending on the circumstances they may either be beneficial to or negatively impact humans. Mushi are frequently at the heart of unusual natural phenomenon or may cause otherwise unexplainable illnesses. Within the context of the series mushi can be taken literally, but they can also be read as metaphors for many conditions experienced in reality.

MushishiAnime1Urushibara’s ten-volume Mushishi, originally serialized in Japan between 1999 and 2008, was first released in print in English by Del Rey Manga between 2007 and 2010. Soon after, Del Rey’s manga imprint was closed and Mushishi subsequently went out of print. Unsurprisingly, the print edition of Mushishi has become increasingly difficult to find over time, but in 2014 Kodansha Comics released the entire series digitally. In addition to earning multiple awards and honors over the course of its publication, Mushishi was also the basis for multiple anime adaptations and a live-action film (most of which are available digitally if not physically in North America), as well as a variety of other media.

The first Mushishi anime series, directed by Hiroshi Nagahama, aired in Japan in 2005 and 2006. At twenty-six episodes, it only adapted a portion of the original manga. (Granted, the manga hadn’t yet been completed at that point.) Since I love the Mushishi manga, it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that I love the anime as well. Although the first Mushishi anime adaptation isn’t necessarily my favorite series, or even the anime that means the most to me personally, it is the series that I’ve seen the most number of times; I return to it frequently. Eventually, nearly a decade after the first Mushishi anime series, an animated television special was released which was followed a few months later by a second anime series. This twenty-episode series, also directed Nagahama, aired in Japan between 2014 and 2015 and adapted most of the remaining stories found in the manga. (A second animated television special was released during this time as well.) Despite the number of years that passed between the first and the second anime series, they are both very similar in tone and style. Nagahama also directed the Mushishi animated film released in 2015 which adapted the manga’s final story arc. Since I loved both the original manga and the first anime series, I was very happy to see so much more Mushishi anime produced.

MushishiAnime2-17The various Mushishi anime are very faithful adaptations of the manga. Frequently the scenes in the anime follow the scenes in the manga frame by frame and panel by panel, though occasionally the order that events appear in the narrative is slightly altered. Where the anime distinguish themselves is in their color and sound, especially in the establishment of the backgrounds and settings. Urushibara’s color artwork is lovely, but except for the covers of the individual manga volumes, very few examples of it officially appeared in North America. (I imported Urushibara’s 2015 Mushishi artbook which is filled with color illustrations and I adore it.) The anime bring the world of Mushishi to life. While the actual animation can at times be fairly simple and limited, the environments are always absolutely gorgeous and beautiful in their detail. The sound design in the anime adaptations is great, too, adding spectacularly to the overall atmosphere. The music by Toshio Masuda (which I’m constantly listening to) makes extensive use of bells, chimes, and other percussion along with unobtrusive synthesized and acoustic instruments, creating a beautiful soundtrack that is in turns ethereal and dramatic. Much like the original, the Mushishi anime creates an experience that can be calming and soothing as well as unsettling and disturbing.

MushishiMovieUrushibara’s manga series was also the inspiration for Katsuhiro Otomo’s award-winning 2006 live-action film Mushishi. For the most part the film was received very well both inside and outside of Japan. Though overall it’s palette tends to be darker and more subdued than the anime adaptations, the visuals can be quite stunning; the special effects hold up surprisingly well even a decade after it was first released. I actually only very recently watched Otomo’s Mushishi for the first time. From the standpoint of someone who is very familiar with the original manga and its anime adaptations, the live-action movie is somewhat disorienting and perhaps even shocking. Though it begins much as one would expect, it ultimately deviates a fair amount from its source material even to the point of changing some of the underpinning mythologies and characterizations of the original. It’s clear that Urushibara’s manga provides the basis for the movie, but many details have been reimagined or remixed in some way. The narrative is still interesting, though. Otomo successfully weaves together several stories from the manga series and makes references to many others before taking the film in an entirely new and different direction. While the original Mushishi tends to be episodic, Otomo’s film is self-contained and provides a single cohesive story. In part this is accomplished placing a significant focus on Ginko’s past and what it means for his present and future, providing a framework for the film as a whole. Instead of simply wandering the countryside helping other people, Ginko has the additional motivation of trying to solve the mystery of who he really is and to reclaim his missing memories.

MushishiLiveActionWhile I would consider the Mushishi manga and anime to be horror, albeit fairly subtle and subdued horror, the film is much more obviously so. Many of the underlying elements are the same, but the film focuses more directly on the aspects of traditional, supernatural horror. However, this does mean some of the more nuanced themes found in the manga and anime are missing. Otomo’s film is a much darker incarnation of Mushishi. The movie, especially towards its end, is incredibly creepy and extraordinarily disconcerting in both imagery and story. It’s so different in tone and narrative that it might actually be better described as a portrayal of an alternate universe of Mushishi rather than being a strict adaptation. It certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially if viewers are expecting something more akin to the gentler (though still disquieting) anime adaptations, but I actually quite liked the movie. For me though, it’s really more of a horror film before it’s a Mushishi film. Still, I feel that the live-action film, the anime adaptations, and the original manga are all well worth checking out and are all fascinating in their own rights. And of course, although unlikely, I’d love to see more Mushishi media and merchandise released in North America.


Adaptation Adventures: The Twelve Kingdoms

The Twelve Kingdoms, Volume 1: Sea of ShadowIn 1992, The Twelve Kingdoms debuted as a series of fantasy novels written by Fuyumi Ono with illustrations by Akihiro Yamada. The series has inspired an anime adaptation as well as audio dramas and video games. Between 2007 and 2010, Tokyopop released English translations of the first four books in the series (which I have previously read and reviewed): Sea of Shadow, Sea of Wind, The Vast Spread of the Seas, and Skies of Dawn.

Although I had vaguely heard great things about The Twelve Kingdoms, I didn’t actually get around to reading the novels until they had technically gone out of print. I ended up loving them and they are well-worth tracking down. (The hardcover editions were apparently notorious for quality control issues, though, so it’s probably best to stick with the paperback releases when they can be found.) Soon after reading the first volume, Sea of Shadow, I immediately sought out the remaining books as well as the anime adaptation; I wanted all of The Twelve Kingdoms in English that I could get. Directed by Tsuneo Kobayashi, the anime is a forty-five-episode series which originally aired between 2002 and 2003. In North America the anime was licensed by Media Blasters. It, too, is well-worth tracking down.

The Twelve Kingdoms is a fantasy epic with an Asian flair, the worldbuilding drawing particular inspiration from Chinese myths and legends. It’s a story about the rise and fall of kingdoms as well as a person’s role in influencing the world around them, whether for good or for ill. There is action, adventure, magic, politics, combat, court intrigue, and more. The Twelve Kingdoms is broad in its scope, but it can also be very personal with the attention that is devoted to its characters and to their development as individuals. Both the narrative and the characters of The Twelve Kingdoms are layered and complex. The Twelve Kingdoms also stands out from many other fantasy works due to its excellent female characters. They often play a prominent role, whether as a hero or as a villain, and in many cases are the characters who are the focus of and really drive the story. They are every bit as nuanced as any of the other characters in the epic.

The Twelve Kingdoms Complete CollectionFor the most part, The Twelve Kingdoms anime adapts the material covered in the first four books. So, anyone who has read the Tokyopop novels and is looking for more of the The Twelve Kingdoms story in English won’t find much new. However, there are some differences between these two versions of The Twelve Kingdoms. Some changes are inevitable due to the very nature of the new medium in which the story is being expressed—illustrated prose has been transformed into moving images with color and sound—while others are the result of deliberate choices made by the creative teams.

The anime remains faithful to the content and tone original, but it’s also not a strict retelling. Generally, the novels tend to stand on their own as separate books. They are closely related to one another, sharing the same world and even some of the same characters, but the individual stories don’t necessarily directly impact the others in the series. In the anime, the plot is treated as more of an overarching whole and is chronologically more cohesive. As a result, the anime is arguably more successful in making The Twelve Kingdoms feel more like a single, continuing story rather than a series of connected tales. There are still distinct story arcs in the anime, they’re just more closely intertwined and slightly reordered when compared to those of the novels.

One of the most notable differences between the novels and the anime is the introduction of two new characters (Ikuya Asano and Yuka Sugimoto) who play an important role in the first major story arc which largely adapts the first novel. The addition of these characters actually makes a good deal of sense. For the most part, Sea of Shadow follows Youko Nakajima, who becomes one of the most significant characters in The Twelve Kingdoms as a whole. In the first novel she is quite often alone, both literally and figuratively, and so much of the narrative as well as her personal character development are internal. This sort of inwardly-focused storytelling doesn’t always translate well in a more visual medium; the inclusion of the new characters allows the internal development of The Twelve Kingdoms to become more outwardly explicit in the anime.

TwelveKingdomsYoukoIn general, I find Yamada’s illustrations in the novels to be more refined and consistent than the anime’s visuals. (I have been sorely tempted to import Yamada’s The Twelve Kingdoms artbooks; they’re gorgeous.) There are scenes in the anime that are stunning, but there are also scenes where the animation and artwork are simply off. However, it is marvelous to see and be constantly aware of the visual details of the series’ setting and character designs in the anime, something that is more easily missed when reading the books. While the novels often allow a reader to better understand the worldbuilding and the more internalized aspects of The Twelve Kingdoms, overall the anime does provide a better visual context.

The anime also has a wonderful soundtrack, something that I particularly appreciate as a musician. Obviously, a soundtrack is one of the elements that the novels completely lack and is therefore unique to the anime. The music for the anime was composed by Kunihiko Ryo and is a mix of sweeping orchestral pieces and pieces more reminiscent of folk music. As previously mentioned, The Twelve Kingdoms as a whole is in large part inspired by Chinese culture, legends, and mythology. This influence can be heard in the soundtrack as well; Ryo incorporates many traditional Chinese instruments and stylings into the music of The Twelve Kingdoms.

I love The Twelve Kingdoms, both the original novels and the anime adaptation. The Twelve Kingdoms has an interesting setting and exceedingly detailed worldbuilding, well-developed characters with strengths and weaknesses, and a complex story that can be engaging as well as emotionally resonant. Anyone who enjoys a good fantasy tale would do well to experience the epic for themselves, in whichever medium it happens to be that appeals to them most. I wish that more of The Twelve Kingdoms was available in English, but what we do have is great.

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.