My Week in Manga: November 7-November 13, 2016

My News and Reviews

Last week was pretty quiet at Experiments in Manga (like most weeks these days, really) but I did finally get around to posting October’s Bookshelf Overload for those interested in some of the cool things I picked up last month. Last week was pretty stressful for a variety of reasons so I wasn’t online much, but I did recently find out about two Japanese novels scheduled to be released in translation next year that I’m very excited about. In May be on the lookout for Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother. Only two of Mizumura’s long works have been translated so far–A True Novel which in part is a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and the utterly fascinating nonfiction treatise The Fall of Language in the Age of English–both of which were tremendous, so I’m really looking forward to reading more by Mizumura. And in June look for Tomoyuki Hoshino’s Me, a novel exploring themes of identity. Hoshino’s stories are frequently challenging and unsettling but I find that it’s well-worth the effort it takes to read them. Like Mizumura, currently there are only two books by Hoshino available in English–the novel Lonely Hearts Killer and the short fiction collection We, the Children of Cats which in particular left a huge impression on me–so I’m happy that there will be a third.

Quick Takes

Cells at Work!, Volume 1Cells at Work!, Volume 1 by Akane Shimizu. Sometimes the premise of a manga is so fantastically odd that I can’t help but be curious. Cells at Work, in which the cells of the human body, bacteria, and such are literally personified, is one such series. It’s also an educational manga–readers may very well learn a thing or two about microbiology and human anatomy and physiology thanks to Cells at Work (assuming they weren’t already familiar with how the body functions). Although there are recurring characters, the first volume of Cells at Work is fairly episodic, mostly focusing on the immune system’s response to injury and potential infection. Things are more exciting when the world seems like it’s about to end and a catastrophe must be averted. Bacteria are portrayed like monsters and villains out of some sort of super sentai show. White blood cells are fairly cool and laid-back, at least until they’re fighting off invaders and are completely overcome by maniacal bloodlust. Influenza causes a zombie outbreak. Cedar pollen triggers an apocalyptic allergies. Sneezes take the form of enormous missiles. Cells at Work is actually kind of ridiculous and over-the-top (with artwork to match), but it’s a great deal of fun.

ghostlady1The Ghost and the Lady, Volume 1 by Kazuhiro Fujita. As far as I can tell, The Ghost and the Lady actually makes up the last two volumes of the three-volume series The Black Museum. I don’t believe Kodansha Comics has any current plans to release the rest of The Black Museum, but if it’s anywhere near as good as the first volume of The Ghost and the Lady then I hope to one day see it. The Ghost and the Lady is admittedly somewhat peculiar. Basically it’s a supernatural retelling of the life and legends surrounding Florence Nightingale. Tormented by eidolons–spectral manifestations of ill-will and malice–Florence seeks her own death, asking a ghost known as the Man in Grey to kill her. He agrees, but declares he will only take her life once she reaches the depths of despair. (Grey, who haunts a theater, has perhaps seen Shakespeare’s tragedies one too many times.) The Ghost and the Lady is intense and enthralling with both Grey and Florence precariously balanced on the edge of insanity. The series is a little difficult to describe in a way that conveys just how great it is. Honestly, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from The Ghost and the Lady, but I loved the first volume and am looking forward to reading the second half of the story.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 4Requiem of the Rose King, Volumes 4-5 by Aya Kanno. I continue to thoroughly enjoy Requiem of the Rose King, Kanno’s dark and sensual reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays Henry VI and Richard III and of the historical Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare took some liberties when dramatizing England’s dynastic conflicts and Kanno has as well. The most notable difference in Requiem of the Rose King is the deliberate ambiguity of Richard’s sex–the perceived imperfection of his physical body contributing to his supposed demonic nature and already established mental and emotional anguish. Kanno’s artwork in the series is fittingly provocative, moody, and atmospheric. Dreams and reality are heavily intertwined which can occasionally make some of the transitions in the story difficult to follow, but for the most part it’s a marvelously effective technique. Anyone even remotely familiar with Shakespeare or history will know that Requiem of the Rose King can only end in tragedy. The never-ending political and personal betrayals along with the characters’ constant struggles to determine the destiny of the kingdom and of their selves makes for an immensely engrossing and provocative tale. I absolutely love the series.

Welcome to the Ballroom, Volume 1Welcome to the Ballroom, Volume 1 by Tomo Takeuchi. Even with the resurgence of sports manga in translation, I still wasn’t expecting that Welcome to the Ballroom would be licensed. Competitive ballroom dancing, despite being very physically demanding, probably isn’t what immediately comes to most people’s mind as a sport. In addition to that, in my experience many people are unfairly dismissive of dance and especially of men who dance. I, however, more than welcome a series on the topic. Welcome to the Ballroom is about a high school student, Tatara Fujita, who ultimately becomes interested in dance after finding refuge from a group of bullies at a local studio. At first he’s embarrassed and he hides the fact that he’s taking lessons, but at last he’s finally found something in his life to be passionate about. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t seem to have any natural talent for dance except for the uncanny ability to shadow and mimic another dancer. The first volume of Welcome to the Ballroom didn’t engage me as much as I thought or hoped that it would and some of the characters’ casual sexism was bothersome, but I’m still curious to see where the series goes from here, in part because it ends with quite a cliffhanger.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 3

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 3Creator: Aya Kanno
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421582597
Released: January 2016
Original release: 2015

Aya Kanno’s manga series Requiem of the Rose King has quickly become one of the releases that I most look forward to from one volume to the next. I’m not particularly surprised by this, though—I’ve enjoyed many of Kanno’s past works, and she has proven to be quite versatile when it comes to genre and style. In the case of Requiem of the Rose King, Kanno has taken direct inspiration from the historical plays of William Shakespeare, more specifically the Wars of the Roses cycle consisting of Henry VI and Richard III. Even if Kanno hadn’t been involved with the manga, this would have been more than enough to catch my attention. But Kanno is involved and she brings her own touches to the story, giving it a dark fantasy-tinged atmosphere in addition to exploring gender and identity in an interesting and engaging way. With all of that and more, I have been completely taken with Requiem of the Rose King, and so was glad when the third volume of the series, originally released in Japan in 2015, was published in English by Viz Media in 2016.

The battle has been won and the House of York reigns victorious, but the struggle for the English crown continues; the war is far from being over. The deposed King Henry seems content to wander the countryside, the weight of rulership lifted from his shoulders, but the rest of the Lancasters are plotting to return their family to power and reclaim the throne. The hold that the newly established King Edward has on the England is in more peril than he realizes. In addition to the threat that the Lancasters pose, there are others among the nobility who are againt the House of York’s usurption of the throne. The widowed Elizabeth Woodville is prepared to take advantage of Edward’s womanizing ways in order to bring about his and his family’s downfall; besotted with Elizabeth, he puts his own desires before the security of the kingdom, risking the loss of the support of France. His younger brother Richard is one of the few people to recognize the danger, but Richard isn’t yet in a position to avert the potentially calamitous outcome.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 3, page 68I continue to be fascinated by Kanno’s interpretation of Richard, a young man who has been irrevocably harmed by the the rejection and hatred of his mother who sees him and his body as imperfect and demonic. He has a difficult time connecting with people because of the anxiety surrounding his self-identity, an issue made even worse by the recent death of his father on the battlefield. Henry is a perfect foil for Richard and is in many ways his opposite, which throws Richard’s perception of himself and of the world into confusion. Richard has resigned himself to loneliness and darkness, even while Henry seeks his company. The two men spend a fair amount of time together in Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 3, neither of them knowing who the other truly is and that their families are enemies. Much as Edward and Elizabeth’s relationship may doom the kingdom, Richard and Henry’s awkward friendship can only result in tragedy with far-reaching consequences.

Personal strife is mixed with political turmoil in Requiem of the Rose King, each feeding into the other as events unfold. With multiple people expressing interest in obtaining the crown, whether in jest or in all seriousness, the social structures and relationships among the English nobility have become extraordinarily precarious during a time of tenuous peace. This underlying chaos is also reflected in how Kanno approaches the story of Requiem of the Rose King. Many times several scenes overlap with one another, tied together thematically rather than chronologically. Pasts, presents, and possible futures all intertwine and are simultaneous revealed. This can be somewhat disconcerting at first and at times challenging to follow, but I do like the overall effect and drama that it brings to the series, emphasizing the individual characters’ experiences as memories, reality, and visions merge together. Requiem of the Rose King has an almost dreamlike quality to it and I find that I fall more deeply under its thrall with each passing volume.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 2

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 2Creator: Aya Kanno
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421580906
Released: September 2015
Original release: 2014

Aya Kanno has had several of her manga series released in English in the past—Soul Rescue, Blank Slate, and Otomen—all of which were quite different from one another. One of the things that I appreciate most about Kanno is the versatility apparent in the range of her work. I was especially looking forward to her most recent series Requiem of the Rose King and was thrilled when Viz Media licensed for an English-language release. The manga is loosely inspired by William Shakespeare’s historical plays Henry VI (in its various parts) and Richard III which are in turn a dramatization of England’s Wars of the Roses. As a fan of Shakespeare and as a fan of Kanno, I was very interested in seeing her interpretation. Although upon initial reading the first volume of Requiem of the Rose King could occasionally be somewhat confusing—visions, nightmares, and reality all bleeding into one another—I loved its dark atmosphere, theatrics, and dramatic nature. I was very glad when Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 2, initially published in Japan in 2014, was translated into English in 2015.

The bloody struggle for England’s throne continues. The Lancasters executed King Richard II for treason and has now ruled the country for three generations. However, there are many who still view the Lancasters as usurpers and who support the House of York’s claim to the throne. Richard, the Duke of York, is poised to become the next monarch after King Henry VI is captured and coerced into relinquishing the crown in order to end the bloodshed. But then Queen Margaret takes command of the King’s military forces, unwilling to let power to slip from her and her family’s hands. The resulting conflict does not go well for the Duke and with this turn of events the dynastic war escalates. During this time, both Henry and the Duke’s youngest son Richard are imprisoned in a tower, unaware of the battle’s progress and the changing tides of war. Richard is utterly devoted to his father and wants to see him crowned as England’s king. Thus, the Duke’s death on the battlefield will set into motion a tragic series of events for his son and for the entire kingdom as the darkness that resides within Richard is unleashed.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 2, page 96In part, the first two volumes of Requiem of the Rose King have been a prologue to the rest of the series. The stage, characters, and mood have now been fully set for the unfolding drama and tragedy. There is a huge psychological element to Requiem of the Rose King. Kanno draws parallels between Henry and Richard which emphasize that, especially in regards to their mental states. Both men are touched by madness, but it manifests in vastly different ways. Henry’s insanity seems to be fairly benign although it does cause significant political turmoil. It also provides a way for him to escape from his responsibilities as a ruler and to avoid a very violent reality. Richard’s madness, on the other hand, is the result of facing that same reality head on. He becomes utterly consumed by rage and a desire for vengeance. Compared to Henry’s passivity and what could be described as harmlessness, Richard takes on a much more active and venomous role. The contrast between Henry and Richard and light and dark extends beyond their characterizations and is captured visually as well; Richard’s black hair and clothing consistently set him apart from everything else.

Anno’s Richard is both a tragic and terrifying figure. The beginning of Requiem of the Rose King shows the creation of a monster—a young man who is forcefully taking ownership of his own destiny after being irrevocably scarred emotionally and psychologically. Since his birth, Richard has been labeled as a demon child and a harbinger of death. He initially struggles against this stigma, but has now begun to embrace his own darkness. His father, the one person he loved and admired the most is dead; his mother has abandoned him multiple times; Richard sees very little incentive to retain his humanity if everything he truly cares about will be torn from him and he is already viewed as an abomination. The second volume of Requiem of the Rose King is defining for Richard. Among the chaos, violence, and death of war, he loses what little innocence and hope that he might have had. Although many of the surrounding circumstances were beyond his control, ultimately the choice to become a villain is his own. He is driven by despair, madness, and rage, willing to do anything to ensure his own future and the downfall of the Lancasters and anyone else who would stand in his way.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 1

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 1Creator: Aya Kanno
U.S. publisher: Viz Media
ISBN: 9781421567785
Released: March 2015
Original release: 2014

The English-language release of Aya Kanno’s Requiem of the Rose King was one of the manga that I was most looking forward to in 2015. Several of Kanno’s series have previously been translated into English—Soul Rescue, Blank Slate, and Otomen—all of which are quite different from one another, and Requiem of the Rose King is different still. I tend to enjoy Kanno’s work, but I was particularly interested in Requiem of the Rose King because the series is based on William Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III, the first tetralogy of a series of plays that dramatize the Wars of the Roses, a dynastic conflict over the English crown in the fifteenth-century. I adore Shakespeare (I actually used to perform monologues competitively as part of my high school’s speech and drama team back in the day) and so was excited to learn about Kanno’s adaptation and thrilled when Viz Media licensed it. Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 1 was first released in Japan in 2014 while Viz’s English-language edition was published in 2015.

Young Richard is the third son of the Duke of York, a man who many believe to be the rightful successor to England’s throne. The current king, Henry VI, inherited rulership from his father as a child, but the Lancasters are accused of usurping the crown when their house executed King Richard II for treason. Richard desires nothing more than to see his father crowned king and as his son to prove himself worthy of his noble lineage. But Richard’s fate is a troubled one. His body, not fully male, is considered to be deformed and weak, a sign of demonic influence. He is plagued by nightmares, visions, and seemingly prophetic dreams. Richard is adored by his father and loved by his older brothers, but his mother despises him, believing his cursed existence to be a harbinger of evil and death and ashamed of her role in bringing him into the world. Whether or not it is because of Richard’s presence, that world is about to descend into chaos and civil war as the Yorks and the Lancasters vie for the crown.

Requiem of the Rose King, Volume 1, page 58Requiem of the Rose King is not a strict adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays. Instead, Kanno uses them as a source of inspiration, remixing, as she describes it, the characters, dialogue, and settings of Shakespeare’s originals to create a distinct work of her own. The manga’s English translation is excellent. With their refined formality and elegance, the patterns of speech, dialogues, and monologues are reminiscent of Shakespeare without necessarily quoting directly from his plays. A reader does not at all need to be familiar with Henry VI or Richard III to enjoy Requiem of the Rose King. One of the most striking differences between Requiem of the Rose King and Shakespeare’s dramas is the portrayal of Richard. At this point in the series, Kanno’s Richard is a much more sympathetic character than Shakespeare’s ever was. However, there is still a tense and ominous atmosphere that surrounds him in Requiem of the Rose King. It is very clear that the first volume of the manga is a prelude to even grater tragedies to come.

There is always a danger of disappointment when anticipating a manga to such a great extent, but I can honestly say that I loved the first volume of Requiem of the Rose King. It’s theatric and dramatic, with appealing artwork and interesting interpretations of historical figures. Because Requiem of the Rose King is based on plays that were already dramatizations of actual persons and events, the series isn’t rigorous in its historical accuracy. However, I find Kanno’s version to be both fascinating and immensely engaging. The manga is a bit fragmented in its storytelling, quickly moving from one scene to the next and to from time to time overlapping dreams and reality, but I feel this effectively reinforces the turmoil of the era as well as the unrest experienced by the individual characters. Requiem of the Rose King is a beautifully dark and compelling historical fantasy. I’m very much looking forward to reading the second volume and seeing how the rivalry between the Lancasters and the Yorks continues to play out.