A major hallmark of pop-culture success in Japan is how many times your work’s been adapted or reincarnated. What starts as a manga might turn into a TV anime, an animated feature film (or a whole bunch of them), a light novel, a literary novel, a drama CD / radio play, a live-action film, a stage musical … and I probably haven’t covered half of the derivatives out there in this list. If you’re big in Japan, you don’t just “cross over”; you break on through to the other side.
That makes it something of a curiosity as to why, until very recently, there was no manga adaptation of the perennially-best-selling fantasy series Guin Saga, now one hundred forty volumes and climbing. Us Yanks were lucky enough to see the first five books — the self-contained “Marches Episode” — translated into English thanks to the good graces of Vertical, Inc., but the Irish bookie in me is not about to pay on any odds that we’ll even come close to seeing the rest — not in my lifetime, anyway.
A big part of why I was hot in the biscuit to see a Guin manga in the first place was as an end run around the language barrier: if I couldn’t read the books, then the very least I could do was see what was going on, and maybe cobble together some semblance of comprehension from my own limited command of Japanese. When a Guin manga did come into existence (The Seven Magi), it was not from the main story itself, but derived from one of a number of gaiden or “side stories” — novels written to fill the gaps between one phase of the saga and another. I enjoyed it, but it only made me all the more curious as to what a manga adaptation of the main line of Guin novels would be like.
© Kaoru Kurimoto/Hajime Sawada/JIVE Ltd.
Rinda speaks on Guin’s behalf: “This man was just a mercenary,
passing through! Give him leave to depart!”
And so now comics publisher Jive, Ltd. and artist Hajime Sawada (沢田一) have started producing what will most likely be at least an adaptation of the same first five books. Two things are immediately apparent from reading even just the first volume of Sawada’s adaptation: 1) He’s willing to abridge the story to make it move all the more quickly, even if the original story already moved so quickly that the book ran the risk of sprouting legs and sprinting out of your lap. 2) He’s given the Guin-verse and its characters the art they deserve, except for the one thing that needs to be delineated with more care than just about anything else: Guin’s face.
Am I making a big deal out of nothing? I hope so, but I can’t ignore how much of a difference comes from something as simple as that. In the Magi manga, the artist (Kazuaki Yanagisawa) smartly assumed that when you have a main character with the head of a leopard, it makes sense to draw such a thing with subtle touches of humanity whenever you can. It wasn’t easy. There were times when Guin’s face had a stiffness to it that hearkened back to the early controversy over whether or not it was a mask, and at a distance his face seemed to disappear into a blur. But the effort was clearly there.
With Sawada, though, the leopard mask looks like, well, a mask — and it retains this stiffness in just about every shot. The only thing that moves is his jaw, and maybe his eyes, and while that’s anatomically correct for a leopard it’s an unnecessarily self-limiting design decision. Maybe, again, this is deliberate — a starting point from which we’ll see more of his nascent humanity come to the fore as things go on — but if it’s an attempt at some variety of realism, it’s misguided. What’s on paper doesn’t have to hew to what’s actually observed in order to be striking. (I’m reminded of the old argument about Leonardo’s Venus on the half-shell: you’d freak out if you saw someone on the street with those proportions, but you can’t argue that she looks great on the canvas!)
The other point of contention, the plotting, is actually something that doesn’t bother me as much. Any adaptation is going to be inaccurate; it’s a question of how graceful and sensible the changes are. Most of the cut-down here has been to get people from one way station of the plot to the next as fast as possible. The biggest omission is the entire second half of the battle in the marches, (i.e, the first third of the book). Originally, Guin used a little strategy and a whole lot of luck to burn down the forest and kill a veritable bestiary of monsters chasing him and the twins. Here, the battle ends right after Mongaul reinforcements arrive, with Guin being taken down thanks to a crossbow in the ribs. But the rest of it is strikingly close to the book, including appearances by Istavan (looking very handsome), Suni (the Sem look a lot cuter here than they do on the book covers), an early appearance by Lady Amnelis (again, I suspect for the sake of telescoping the plot a bit), and … a certain rotting bad guy.
What’s hardest to express is how the manga seems to not be able to convey the speed and economy of Kaoru Kurimoto’s prose. This is, I fear, another problem with adapting anything, but so much of what happens in the story takes on the color and intonation it does because it comes through the filter of her words. To see it in pictures somehow reduces it by a whole dimension, like watching a movie you know to be in color on a black-and-white TV. It’s something I’m willing to look past for the sake of seeing this story in a way I’ve never seen it before, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I sound ambivalent. Not to the point of skipping out on future installments, though. I’m not that dumb.