Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
In the late Meiji era, a young girl named Namiko loses her mother to tuberculosis. Her father, an army officer, tries his best for his two daughters, ultimately remarrying in order to give them a mother. But his new wife is unable to warm up to Namiko, who lives a second-class existence at home until one day when she is eighteen she receives a proposal from Takeo, the only son of the Kataoka family. Namiko and Takeo quickly fall in love, but their happiness is brief – three forces, Takeo's cousin, his cruel mother, and illness, conspire to tear the young couple apart in this adaptation of Roka Tokutomi's 1898 novel.
If Hototogisu, a two-volume josei title available as a digital-only release from Beaglee, feels like a Victorian tragedy, there's a good reason for it. The manga is a 2005 adaptation of the novel of the same name by Roka Tokutomi, and it was originally written as a serial between 1898 and 1899. Although the original novel does not appear to be available in English translation (and a Goodreads listing credits the author's more famous brother with its authorship), fans of 19th century literature should be pleased with Mako Takami's manga version, which covers the novel's salient points and is an emotionally powerful piece, albeit one slightly melodramatic to modern eyes.
The story follows Namiko, a young woman born into a military family. Her mother dies when she's a very little girl, marking the first time tragedy will touch her life. Namiko assumes the care of her younger sister and her father with the help of Iku, a loyal family maid, and her life is happy enough until her father remarries a few years later. His new wife finds Namiko cold and distant, refusing to give her time to adjust to having a new mother when she's old enough (unlike her sister) to truly remember her birth mother. The result is that Namiko becomes an outcast in her own home, not quite a Cinderella figure in that she's never forced to work like a servant, but clearly treated as lesser than her sister. Things come to a head when her stepmother has a baby, a son, and Namiko is pushed even further to the fringes of the family. It is at this point that Takeo, the scion of an old family and a member of the Imperial Navy, approaches Namiko's father for her hand in marriage. Takeo fell in love with Namiko at first sight, and she quickly falls in love with him in return.
Essentially the narrative of Hototogisu can be divided into three parts – Namiko's childhood, the happy days of her marriage to Takeo, and finally her battle with tuberculosis and Takeo's deployment during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-5. (No, this is not a series with a happy ending.) While both of the first parts are sprinkled with the cruelties of Namiko's stepmother, mother-in-law, and Takeo's cousin who wants Namiko for himself, there's still an undercurrent of strength and happiness, a feeling that Namiko will ultimately pull through with Takeo's help. It is only when he is deployed during the war that things truly go to hell, making for a last act that is tragic although not depressing. Basically the narrative functions like that of many other works of its time, with a lot of similarities to such novels as André Gide's Straight is the Gate and Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World. While this is a style of writing that has gone out of fashion, Takami's art makes it feel very palatable to modern readers, and the added bonus that this is not a manga about high schoolers may help to make this appealing to readers looking for something more mature.
The story itself, tragic romance elements aside, is rife with interesting symbolism. The title translates to “the lesser cuckoo,” a specific bird much revered in Japanese literature since its appearance in the 81st poem of the Hyakunin Isshun, which is quoted at the end of the series and can be interpreted in a number of ways; in the context of the story, it can be read as being about transition times. That ties in with Ken. K Ito's 2008 reading of the novel as being about the change between traditional and modern, with Takeo torn between traditional filial duty as the last child of his line and the more modern concept of marriage being about love, not propagating the family line. In his mother's eyes, Takeo must divorce Namiko when she becomes ill so as not to endanger the family's continuation; Takeo's own heart tells him that all that matters is that he is with the woman he loves. Meanwhile in her own family home, Namiko is disregarded by her stepmother, who was raised in England, as being too old-fashioned and clinging to the old ways, positioning Namiko as the crossroads between old and new, unable to be either and thus unable to remain in the world. The text also speaks of the difficulties being a woman during this time when expectations of feminine behavior are shifting, using the novel's famous line where Namiko laments that she was born female and hoping never to be so again, attributing some of what she has suffered at the hands of the older generation to conflicting views of womanhood.
As an adaptation of a classic work, Hototogisu is impressive. Whether or not this particular era of classic literature appeals to you is much more likely to determine your enjoyment than anything else, because the story is a full-blown sentimental novel, and a tragic one at that. The translation is very nicely done, evoking the time in which the series is set, with the only issue being that at times speech bubbles are translated twice, so that text which would have been broken up between two bubbles is instead repeated in both of them. If you can get beyond that and can handle the soapy melodrama of the Victorian novel, however, this is a very good read. It's the sort of story that stays with you long after the final page is read.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Classic late-19th century novel in manga form that's faithful to the the original with art making the content palatable for modern readers
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