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Guest reviewer Lucy takes us through a manga retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Henry VI. Notes have been added in brackets to keep a grip on historical events.
Requiem of the Rose King, an ongoing manga series by Kanno Aya, is something of an oddity. Surrounded by laughably bad ‘manga adaptations’ of Shakespeare plays, Requiem does something quite different. Kanno creates a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III that can stand on its own.
The basic concept is the same – Richard Plantagenet is brought into a tumultuous struggle for the English crown – but the heart of Requiem is in its characters, and there, I believe, is the real split between the plays and Requiem. As someone who hasn’t read Richard III and only skimmed Henry VI, I can’t speak with any real conviction on the extent of the differences, but there are some obvious ones, the first and most important of which is Richard himself.
[Henry VI suffered insanity during his reign (1422-61, 1470-71), during which period Richard Duke of York governed as his regent, which brought about the Wars of the Roses. Henry died in prison, possibly / probably at the orders of Edward IV, eldest son of the by then deceased Richard of York, and the eldest brother of Richard III, who succeeded him.]
In Requiem, we follow Richard from childhood. Since Kanno, unlike Shakespeare, isn’t writing for a Tudor monarch, she’s free to make the York characters as sympathetic as she likes, and Richard, despite his flaws, is certainly overwhelmingly sympathetic. Here, he is not disabled but intersex, and while only his mother and a few trusted servants know this, his mother makes his childhood hell for it. Even into adulthood, he is plagued by the idea that he’s the devil’s spawn, unwanted and unlovable, since the only person who ever showed him love was his father, Richard of York, and he was killed – which our Richard learns in one of the defining dramatic moments of the early volumes. Though Richard eventually mellows out a little, training himself to be a fighter since he thinks that killing is all he can do, he never loses this certainty that he is damned. The situation isn’t helped by the ghost of Joan of Arc who comes visiting to torment him.
[Joan of Arc died thirty years before Richard III was born.]
Enter Henry VI. In Requiem, he is a pious king who never wanted to be king at all: he longs for the peaceful, uneventful life of a shepherd, and during his reign he escapes from the castle now and again. On one of these brief excursions into freedom, he meets the young Richard [Henry died when Richard was nearly 20], though neither character knows the other’s true identity. These meetings continue: sometimes the characters are guided by a white boar [the heraldic device later used by Richard III], sometimes it is simply fate bringing them together, but they repeatedly find each other. Henry, terrified of his controlling wife [Margaret of Anjou] and the responsibilities of being a king, or of being forced onto the throne again, clings to Richard as the only person who will let him be himself. This has the same effect on Richard as water might on have on parched soil. Over the course of years, Henry’s unswayable enthusiasm and kindness make Richard see that he might be good for more than cold-blooded killing. This comes to a head in volume 5, when Richard realises that he is in love with Henry, just as Henry confesses that he thinks he will never be able to love anyone.
The main struggle in Requiem is between characters’ inner desires and their responsibilities. Henry wants to live peacefully with Richard, but he must be used as the figurehead for the House of Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses. His son, Edward [of Westminster, died at the Battle of Tewkesbury, 1471], also wants to live with Richard (due to a number of misunderstandings), but must accept that they’re fighting on different sides of a war. Anne, the Earl of Warwick’s daughter, is as in love with Richard as Edward is, but must do her duty and marry Edward instead [She married him at the age of 17, then married Richard III after Edward’s death]. Richard, oblivious to all of these attentions, wants only to honour his late father, but disapproves of the way his older brother is trying to do it, and has to make peace between his private revenge and what he’s supposed to do. Edward Plantagenet [Edward IV] manages to almost completely avoid this struggle, as he marries the woman he wants to (who just happens to want him dead) and – as of volume 6 – is doing really quite well for himself.
Kanno maintains a consistent aesthetic through the series, but there is notable improvement in her anatomy in the later chapters (earlier ones feature limbs so long that they might be a safety hazard). The art is detailed, with a good sense of tone: lighter sequences are distinctly lighter on the page, especially when Henry is involved, for example. While the panels do generally focus on the characters and not enough on backgrounds, that isn’t to say that backgrounds are completely neglected, and there are enough to give the setting a sense of place. In fact, sometimes this helps remind the reader that the story was originally a play: the only location in France that is ever shown is the king’s throne room, a place that characters come back to time and again, as if it were a set on a stage.
The concept might sound overdone, or plainly ridiculous, and I thought the same when buying the first volume, but this is a series I would highly recommend. The characters are engaging, the drama not so melodramatic as to be unpalatable, and with every volume I find myself more excited to read the next. It is currently being translated and distributed in English by VIZ Media, with new volumes coming out every few months.
Kanno Aya, Requiem of the Rose King (2015 in English, VIZ LLC), ISBN 978-1421580906
Lucy studies Japanese at a British university, and reads manga in three languages.