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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Victor Hugo Conquers Japan

Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables, seems in little danger of being forgotten. Published in 1862, it is considered one of the finest novels of the 19th Century.  Weighing in at over 2,700 pages, it must also be one of the longest novels ever written. Even The Naked God--the third installment in Peter Hamilton’s 1990s epic Science Fiction trilogy, The Night’s Dawn--weighs in at less than half that. My copy of Hugo's novel, which I inherited from my grandparents’ library, comes in two hardbound volumes. To read such a long novel seems a daunting task. To read a historical novel, without any Science Fictional or Fantasy aspects, and one set in France, a country whose history and culture I’m unfamiliar with, seems overwhelming. Nor do I salivate over the prospect of reading a novel closely associated with a musical. So it was with some bemusement that I picked up this manga adaptation of Hugo’s classic story.

In 19th Century France, social and political unrest have made life difficult for everyone. Fantine’s husband (or boyfriend?) abandons her, and with jobs scarce, no one wants to employ anyone of questionable appearance or background. Fantine is forced to leave her hometown, and decides to pay a couple to raise her daughter Cosette, while she finds employment in another town. 

Remember, Manga reads from right to left.

After she finds a job, people grow suspicious by all the letters she receives. Eventually they learn she has a child. So, even though she has been there for an entire year, and proven an exemplary worker, her employer fires her. 

Fantine's letters come from the couple, who continually demand more money for her daughter's care, or they will throw young Cosette onto the streets. Fantine must take increasingly desperate measures to pay for child support. After selling her hair and her teeth, she is forced to take up prostitution. Then a man humiliates her in public, and when she responds, the police arrest her. How will she support her daughter, she wonders, if she is locked up in prison?

Fantine’s story has its basis in truth, as Hugo once saved a prostitute from arrest for assault. Another interesting fact is that this graphic novel adaptation comes from Japan, where comics are called Manga. The magazine Monthly Shōnen Sunday started printing this adaptation last September, after it finished its run of the Irish author Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak novels. Evidently the Japanese feel that Hugo’s stories about 19th Century France form a natural follow-up to tales about Vampires and otherworldly creatures. 

Les Misérables has already been adapted in Anime in Japan, a form of animation that has a strong cult following in the United States. Hugo's earlier novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is wildly popular in the states, not only as a book, but also for its numerous film, TV, and stage versions. So does this new manga version of his later novel has all the story elements readers here demand? Having conquered Japan, will Victor Hugo capture the hearts of comics’ readers in the United States? I wouldn’t bet against him.

Now, to ignore the plaintive pleas from those two hardbound volumes in my bookcase, at least until I finish reading the Bronte sisters' novels…

Dragon Dave

This Manga adaptation of Les Misérables was written by Crystal Silvermoon and Stacy King, and drawn by SunNeko Lee, and is published by UDON Entertainment.

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