Not many of us consider Pushkin Press as a publisher when searching for manga, whether it be obscure or not. Though they aren’t completely unknown, their Pushkin Vertigo imprint has been introducing mystery classics to English-reading audiences, including The Decagon House Murders and its sequel, The Mill House Murders, as well as Seishi Yokomizo’s long-running Kousuke Kindaichi mystery series, albeit out of chronological order. Their main imprint publishes contemporary Japanese fiction. It seems like a matter of time, considering the publisher’s sensibilities, before they ventured into avant-garde or literarily inclined manga.
Kafka most definitely satisfies both of those criteria. It is illustrated by the brother-sister collaboration Kyōdai Nishioka and features nine different length adaptations of short stories written by German author Franz Kafka. All of the material is taken directly from the original works by Kafka; for shorter pieces, such as “The Vulture,” it is reprinted nearly verbatim, divided into manageable chunks for the panels. This places us in an unusual translational position, as translator David Yang points out in his afterword. The German text by Franz Kafka was translated into Japanese, then back into English, creating a translation chain that resembles a telephone. (Notably, Yang is a qualified translator of Japanese and German.) Luckily for us, this isn’t always apparent, and the stories in the texts still have the feel of Kafka’s writing. However, it does provide us with an alternative perspective on the stories, sifted through a number of linguistic filters to produce a version that is best understandable to the translator, reader, and artists.
It’s also noteworthy that at least one of the manga artists had serious doubts about creating a manga version of The Metamorphosis in the first place. It is unclear how to adapt the novel for a visual medium while staying true to the original author’s intentions, as Kafka was adamantly against anyone drawing pictures of the monstrosity Gregor transforms into. Though The Metamorphosis is arguably my least favorite story in the book, I’m happy to report that this is done quite effectively. Rather than seeing Gregor as a beast or as a human, we seldom ever see things from his perspective. Instead, we are given a type of omniscient vision that allows us to see the other characters, the food, and the backdrops while keeping the text at the center of each panel. The idea of Gregor’s sister seemingly taking advantage of his gradual departure, as well as the overall aim of the story, are conveyed, albeit without going beyond what Kafka’s original text says.
There are no speech bubbles in any of the artworks, in contrast to most traditional comics. The narration and conversation are all presented in text boxes or directly over the artwork, giving the book the appearance of being read to rather than read. This is especially true for “The Bucket Knight,” whose artwork adopts a far more magical style, with the protagonist riding a bucket into the skies in quest of coal for his fire—a metaphor that the text story may be said to be referencing. Here, it has literary fairy tale undertones reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” with a character being abandoned to freeze by an indifferent world. The artwork used to tell the story of “Jackals and Arabs” also lends the work a folkloric quality. Although none of the characters in the stories could be considered “realistic” (the closest being in “A Country Doctor”), the way the animals are drawn in this story helps to set it apart from everyday life, which is unquestionably helpful given that the story may come off as having racist overtones to the modern reader.
Generally, it is up to the reader to sort through the plethora of interpretations that may be found in Kafka’s writing. The first narrative, “The Concerns of a Patriarch,” appears to be the only one that provides a particular interpretation of the story. This is because, although the cross-piece is occasionally interpreted as a crucifix, it is entirely drawn to resemble one here. The odradek is depicted as a six-sided star, or Star of David. This substantially draws from the school of thought that regards the enigmatic object as a symbol of tradition that has endured over time. This reading seems to fit Kyōdai Nishioka’s rendition, however there are certainly other alternative interpretations.
Even people who are not familiar with Kafka’s work can nevertheless read it. Exaggerated shapes, blocky patterns, and strong lines all contribute to the art’s captivating woodcut-like quality. The combination of lights and darks further enhances this effect. Although readers who are familiar with the author’s work may benefit more from it, this is still worth reading if you’re interested in manga adaptations of Western novels or manga that take an unusual artistic tack.