Time for a bit of manga-style Romeo and Juliet!
No, no, not THAT version of Romeo and Juliet… I’m pretty sure that has about as much relationship to the original text as I have to Marilyn Monroe. Today’s dabbling in the crossroads of bishoujo and the Bard comes from an American produced manga by Adam Sexton and Yali Lin, published by everyone’s favorite “WTF Shakespeare?” publisher, Cliffs’ Notes.
Back in 2011, I reviewed a very unusual manga edition of The Merchant of Venice – complete with bishounen elves – and concluded that, like chocolate and steak, just because two things are awesome doesn’t necessarily mean they go well together. How well does it work out this time around? Well, this time, the tropes of shoujo manga and the original narrative complement each other well… unfortunately, it may be a little TOO well.
These violent delights have violent ends…
Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet; blah blah blah two warring families, blah blah blah the son and daughter meet and fall in love, blah blah blah tragedy, angst and fruitcakes. Rather than rehash details that everyone knows, I’d like to point out something about the play that not many people realize: Romeo and Juliet is NOT about true and enduring love.
It’s about teenagers making really, REALLY poor life decisions.
Seriously! The driving force of the story, the force that causes all of the tragedy and tension, mostly comes from Romeo and Juliet both being far, FAR too impulsive and over-the-top with their OMG TOTES SRS EMOSHUNS. Do recall that Romeo is likely in his late teens (or 21 at the very oldest) while Juliet is the ripe old age of 13. How many of us were making wise life decisions at the age of 13? If it had been up to me back then, I would have had a closet full of sailor fuku color coordinated by Sailor Senshi, and I would have totally married that cute boy who actually liked to play Street Fighter with me once a month or so. Romeo and Juliet is just that taken to eleven.
If you are unconvinced, consider the following rough timeline:
Sunday morning: Romeo is OMG SO IN LOVE with some other girl called Rosaline but is moping and depressed because she won’t put out. Spends most of the first act trying to inspire the entire emo movement.
Sunday afternoon: Romeo sees Juliet for the first time. ROSALINE WHO? This new girl is TOTES more beautiful and perfect and MY LOVE IS FOREVER. Juliet takes approximately two hours to decide that this is the man she wants to be bound to for the rest of her life and agrees to marry him. This can only end positively!
Monday morning: Mawwiage is what bwings us togethwah! Even the friar is like, “dude, what the hell, you were emo-ing over another girl less than 24 hours ago,” but figures that they can’t possibly make things any worse if they get married. He apparently has never met an actual teenager.
Monday afternoon: Romeo gets in a fight, kills Tybalt, gets banished. Rather than struggling with his own demons and how he feels re: killing someone, he’s more upset that OMG I HAVE TO LEAVE TOWN THIS WILL PUT A DAMPER ON THE JULIET SEXYTIMES. Juliet hears about his banishment and calmly and logically concludes that the only proper response is suicide, until her nurse talks her out of it and arranges for our previously scheduled sexytime.
Tuesday morning: After sexytimes, Romeo leaves and Juliet’s parents suggest she marry Paris. MOM, YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND. MY LOVE FOR ROMEO IS PURE.
Tuesday afternoon: Juliet visits the Friar and announces that the only logical course of action is to kill herself rather than be with someone other than <3 HER ROMEO <3. Revises her plan to faking her death instead, because clearly this guy you’ve known for 24 hours is worth it.
Wednesday morning: Romeo doesn’t get the memo and thinks that Juliet is dead. He is devastated, but decides he will live on for her sake and AHAHAHAHA no, he realizes the only obvious course of action is to stampede back into Verona, break into the tomb and die dramatically by the side of his beloved bride. Who he knew for two days.
Wednesday evening: Romeo shows up at the tomb, kills some other poor shmuck who happened to be nearby because OMG YOU STAND BETWEEN ME AND TWU WUB. Kills himself just as Juliet wakes up. After taking in the situation, she immediately starts scrounging around for new and exciting ways to kill herself, first trying to kiss the poison off his lips, then relying on a good old fashioned dagger. For a guy she knew for two days. Ending: TOTAL PARTY KILL!
Now, having said all that, it’s still very possible to portray this all with sympathy and tragedy – after all, youthful infatuation is a much sweeter thing than some old cratchety dudes bearing deadly grudges against each other, and we know how it feels when you’re young and some minor thing = the world ending – but the point is that Romeo and Juliet, for all its emotion, is not really the best example of true love, or even a healthy and deep relationship, and any movies, theatre productions or comics that suggest as such are really doing it a disservice and spawning yet more starry-eyed young teens that think the story is the height of romance and what love is supposed to be like.
Guess what my problem with this manga is?
You kiss by th’book
Romeo and Juliet: The Manga Edition tackles its subject with a very solid and traditional, if sketchy, approach to art. Rather than the fanciful costumes and elven aesthetic of The Merchant of Venice, artist Yali Lin plays it straight with authentic Italian Renaissance clothing and settings, with the possible exception of Juliet’s penchant for completely loose, flowing hair (all the better for pretty wavy tresses!) The artwork itself is a bit on the variable side. Sometimes, the costumes and backgrounds are rendered in lush, loving detail, but at other times, they become a bit too sketchy, or indeed disappear altogether; there are entire pages where the action plays out against a blank white background. While most manga does tend to reduce the background to sketches or cut it out entirely, they also tend to use tones to keep the backdrop lively; the lack of those tones here make the artwork seem almost unfinished in places.
One thing the artist does capture, however, is that ineffable quality of “shoujo-ness,” that kind of effervescent, sparkly quality that saturates romance manga from middle-school to adulthood. Hair and clothing is swishy and swirly, and eyes are large and luminous with youthful hope and optimism (when they’re not wet with tears). Every romantic moment, every handhold and kiss and blush and dreamy sigh, is accompanied by sparkles and a misty haze. Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss is given all the weight of that of Miaka and Tamahome, Usagi and Mamoru, or Yukino Miyazma and Soichiro Arima. Yay, sparkly young love!
However, it’s this very presentation which doesn’t quite work, for the reasons cited above; the play isn’t really about OMG YOUNG LOVE as much as how said young love can make teenagers do really, really stupid stuff. By presenting their love straight and laden with shoujo manga tropes – the sparkles, the dreaminess, the towering romance and petals and whatfor – the manga makes the very common mistake of glorifying their relationship (to the point of making It seem like “true love”) rather than treating it as youthful infatuation (which, to be fair, could LEAD to true love but isn’t there yet). This is further complicated by the fact that the original Shakespearean text has been edited and cut in places; for example, while one or two of the friar’s comments about the volatile nature of their relationship are kept, the full dialogue (e.g. the “therefore love moderately” sequence) is cut, and his wry observations get only a panel or two of acknowledgement before they are swept away for more sparkles and perfect blushing shoujo kisses.
An uncritical reading of this manga would probably inspire many young teens (or adults!) to come away with a wistful sense of, “Oh wow, their love is so amazing and perfect,” rather than a more nuanced and problematic view. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, as long as you don’t mind another generation of country/pop songs, movies, TV shows and comics using the tired old “like Romeo and Juliet” metaphor for OMG THE MOST PERFECTEST LOVE EVAH!
I’ll look to like, if looking liking move
Despite my reservations, you could do a lot worse than introducing young teens to Shakespeeare with this manga, particularly if they are already into manga as a medium. And people can get over the whole “true love” thing over time; I was reading an unabridged comic version at the age of five, and I still managed to clue in when I grew up. If you know some young shoujo fans with stars in their eyes and a sigh in their heart (but not so much enthusiasm in Shakespeare), this could be a good place to start them on the road to Bard fandom. If, however, the teens in your life are bright and eager to get their teeth into some real Shakespeare, I’d recommend checking out an unabridged comic version that doesn’t flinch from the unsparkly, unshoujo truth.
Think Romeo and Juliet would work well with shoujo tropes, or do you think it needs a gritter portrayal? Any classic works of literature you’d like to see done in manga format?