Posted on May 20th, 2011 6 comments
Some kids will do anything to avoid reading books. It’s understandable. Writing a book report on Oliver Twist is no fun at all; watching Oliver! on VHS is. (Voice of experience here. I think. I can’t remember the details, except that I got like a C- in the end.)
One can therefore see why a novel like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a book that tends to wind up on Japanese school summer reading lists all the time, was targeted for manga-ization. What’s perhaps more surprising is that this isn’t a recent thing — Osamu Tezuka, the original manga gentleman, did it in 1953.
Tezuka’s Tsumi to Batsu is a bit of an abridged version of the original. It’s about a third as many pages and cuts out pretty much everything except the juiciest events — the ones Tezuka was safe depicting in a book meant for little children, at least. Although it features a lot of originality in the storytelling (the climactic scene, with Raskolnikov coming to terms with himself in the midst of a hopelessly crowded Petersburg public square, is particularly memorable), the book was not a great success. It turned out to be the last one-off book Tezuka ever wrote, subsequently devoting his full attention to running manga like Jungle Emperor.
His heart wasn’t really in it anyway, one could say. He only wrote it because Osaka-based publisher Tokodo asked him to — the second manga-ification he did after Goethe’s Faust in 1952. No, really, they tried to make Faust into a kid’s manga nearly sixty years ago.
“Faust sold surprisingly well, maybe because it was such a rare thing,” Tezuka wrote in 1978. “Crime and Punishment came next, but by that time, I was finally just beginning to get a few regular gigs at magazines and I found it hard to find the time to write one-off properties like this one any longer. The book wound up taking a year to produce, and the results didn’t sell nearly as well when published. I think that’s because the story’s main themes are too hard to encapsulate and there really just isn’t enough action. However, I don’t think I received nearly as many compliments from kids and adults for any other comic I had written at that point, which was odd to me. It’s such a poorly-drawn piece of work, but simply having Crime and Punishment in manga form was such an adventure to people. I think they were thankful for the experiment more than anything else.”
Like with a lot of other things, it turned out Tezuka was just ahead of his time. Like with Classics Illustrated in the US, there was a major boom in late-’50s Japan for comic adaptations of classics like Tom Sawyer and The Three Musketeers, most of them of low quality done on the cheap by no-name children’s book artists. By then, though, Tezuka’s reputation as the hottest manga writer in the country was already well cemented.