February 13, 2014
The juicy lives of Japan’s literary greats, now in comic book form
by Martin Rouse
Even if you’ve never read a book in your life, you probably have a special place in your heart for at least one famous literary figure (no judgment, Jane Austen fans). Japanese manga artists understand this, and thus continue to crank out comics based on the lives of famous Japanese writers.
“Lives meaning biographies?” you ask skeptically, already losing interest. No way! “Lives” meaning the juicy love details, favorite foods, and everything you actually want to know about the lives of literary greats.
Manga artists have always had an obsession with literary, historical, and now philosophical figures, but this recent crop of author fare is particularly fun. Asahi Shimbun staff writer Kensuke Nonami notes “Koisuru Bungo” (Literary Giants in Love), a manga that details the real life romantic pursuits of Soseki Natsume, Ogai Mori, and Junichiro Tanizaki, who scandalously “encouraged his wife to have a relationship with his friend and fellow writer.”
Or, if sensual love stories somehow aren’t your thing, there’s also “Bungo no Shokusai” (Literary Giants’ Gourmet Foods), which illustrates various authors’ preferred cuisine, or—even better—“Bungo Stray Dogs,” which reinvents authors like Osamu Dazai and Rampo Edogawa as armed detectives with super powers based on their writings.
Lest you assume comic books featuring great literary minds would be too dense to actually enjoy, Nonami assures you that “Koisuru Bungo” is drawn in easily digestible “kyun kyun” style, a cute rendering of characters designed to please girls and young women. “Bungo Stray Dogs” is also especially popular with women, and would be a great gift for anyone who loves explosions or hates getting headaches from big words.
Its editor, Hirotsugu Kato, has his own take on this phenomenon, saying, “[These comics have] been criticized for being far-fetched … but it makes me glad when I hear that young readers who had never read or been interested in the great writers’ works say they now read their representative works.”
Representative works? It’s easy to forget that these manga characters actually wrote something in the way of literature at some point. If pressed, Kato might tell you that Tanizaki’s novel Naomi offers more of a compelling love story than any comic ever could, or that Edogawa’s The Human Chair is one of the most thrillingly disturbing short stories around. Dazai’s The Setting Sun is a beautiful meditation on the declining aristocratic class—if one has the attention span to read it. But who does? I’d rather they have super powers.