Manga: Kafka

February 16, 2024 · 0 comments

By Tom Wilmot.

As part of its latest wave of Japanese releases, Pushkin Press has taken the plunge into the world of manga, starting with Nishioka Kyodai’s Kafka. First published in Japan in 2010, the manga adapts several short stories from Bohemian-born author Franz Kafka, who’s widely regarded as one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. Presented here in its original Japanese format – reading from right to left – the manga blends Nishioka Kyodai’s distinct and unsettling imagery with Kafka’s obscure and absurdist tales.

The authorial credit for Kafka officially goes to Nishioka Kyodai (literally ‘Nishioka siblings’), this is, in fact, a pen name for the creative brother-sister duo of Satoshi and Chiaki Nishioka. Born in Mie Prefecture, the pair have been active in the manga scene since 1989, their initial works being published in the now defunct alternative manga magazine Garo, a safe haven of sorts for creators seeking artistic freedom away from mainstream publications.

Despite little information on the elusive authors floating around, we know, courtesy of this release, that elder brother Satoshi spearheads the story and composition, while sister Chiaki is responsible for the visuals. Together, the siblings have developed an unorthodox style that they’ve applied to their darkly-themed manga, which has seen them build a cult following over the years. Their 2009 piece, God’s Child, frequently appears on superlatively titled lists like ‘most disturbing manga’ and is by quite some way their most famous work.

A quick glance at the sibling’s output is all it takes to see that they don’t fit the mould of traditional manga, which is perhaps why precisely none of their works have received an official English translation until now. Given the likely familiarity that English-speaking audiences will already have with Franz Kafka, this particular collection serves as a fitting bridge between East and West, reframing classic European literature through Nishioka Kyodai’s uniquely eerie lens.

With Kafka, Nishioka Kyodai have adapted nine of Franz Kafka’s stories in all, ranging from some of his shortest pieces, like ‘The Vulture’, to one of his most famous works, ‘The Metamorphosis’. The adapted works provide a solid overview of Kafka’s varied oeuvre, each featuring the author’s hallmark dark humour, surreal narratives, and instances of overpowering existentialism. Nishioka Kyodai strip these stories to their core elements, with carefully chosen passages of the original text accompanying uncanny imagery, consisting of gangly figures and near-hypnotic geometric designs.

One of the joys of reading Kafka’s stories comes from how open they are to interpretation, often a direct result of their abstract nature. The manga brings to life some of the more difficult-to-comprehend aspects of Kafka’s writings, such as the mysterious and seemingly immortal Odradek from ‘The Concerns of a Patriarch’, a tale presented as an almost psychedelic, ethereal experience. Similarly, the manga also realises some of Kafka’s lucid inventions, notably the intricate execution apparatus from ‘In the Penal Colony’. Here, the source material’s detailed description of the central machine in action is replaced with a series of caption-less panels, making for a colder, arguably more haunting rendition of the narrative climax.

Contrasting these rich visual interpretations of Kafka’s stories is the duo’s take on ‘The Metamorphosis’, which is remarkable in its restraint. The pair choose not to show protagonist Gregor Samsa at all, instead leaving the reader to conjure the results of his sudden transformation into a horrifying insect in their minds. In doing so, the authors have not only managed to retain the sense of mystery found in the original short story but have also upheld a requirement of Kafka’s made in 1915, the author writing to his publisher that “the insect is not to be drawn. It is not even to be seen from a distance.” Such a consideration is a sign of Nishioka Kyodai’s clear respect for the source material, which is found consistently throughout the manga.

Anyone familiar with Kafka’s writings will be aware of his tendency to ramble, the author often chaining together long-winded sentences that race into one another. There’s an urgency to his work that can make it equal parts confusing and exhausting to read, but that, of course, is part of its charm – his distinct prose contributing to the intensity of his nightmarish tales. However, Nishioka Kyodai’s stripped-down adaptations allow for a more meditative reading experience. Kafka’s monolithic blocks of text are broken down into smaller, digestible chunks, as you’re encouraged to focus on individual passages and, especially in the case of these stories, contemplate their significance.

It’s worth noting that while Nishioka Kyodai’s Kafka is impressive as an adaptation, it might not serve as the best introduction to Kafka’s work alone. The manga certainly complements the existing material, as it’s interesting to read into the creators’ interpretation of Kafka’s stories, and this is what a successful adaptation should do: urge you to view the same story in a different way. However, someone unfamiliar with the source content may garner little from the manga in the way of meaning without the context of the original material. ‘The Bucket Knight’, in particular, lacks the same narrative punch in this cutdown version despite its fantastic visuals. While not a necessity, I’d recommend seeking out the relatively short source material to enjoy Kafka to its fullest – or at least visit it afterwards to supplement a manga reread.

Kafka closes with two afterword sections, the first from Satoshi Nishioka, who delves into the challenges of adapting Kafka’s stories to graphic novel form. The mangaka gives his impression of the Bohemian author’s work and provides worthwhile insight into the chosen direction for this project, particularly where ‘The Metamorphosis’ is concerned. The second afterword is provided by translator David Yang, who discusses the mighty task of interpreting the Japanese translation of Kafka’s texts while also trying to retain both the author’s voice and Nishioka Kyodai’s reading of his stories. Based on the final product, it would be fair to say that Yang has succeeded in maintaining the integrity of both works.

The decision from Pushkin Press to publish Kafka in the first place is worth commendation in and of itself. It has made accessible to English-speaking audiences a unique piece of work that, for some, will serve as a welcome introduction to fringe manga. Hopefully, this neatly packaged release paves the way not just for future translations of Nishioka Kyodai’s gorgeous works but also those of other independent mangakas whose tales are yet to find their way West.

Kafka, the manga, is published in the UK by Pushkin Press.

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