Saturday, August 12, 2017

Seven Shakespeares, vol. 1 review

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Nana-nin no Sheikusupia, by Harold Sakuishi, Grade B+
The title translates literally to "Seven People of Shakespeare," and alludes to Sakuishi's concept that the plays we attribute to the guy we call William Shakespeare were actually the results of a collaboration between 7 people. There's still no wiki article on this title, and very little information on it in English. Nana-Nin ran in Big Comic Spirits, from 2009 to somewhere between 2010 and 2011, and has been collected in 6 normal takobon volumes. However, in a simultaneous release with volume 1 of the sequel, Non Sanz Droict, the original series is being published in a large 500+ page format (1000 yen, so it's a bit pricey). I found myself in possession of the first book of this new edition, so here we are.

(Queen Elizabeth likes the theater, to the crowd's amazement.)

The story starts with "William Shakespeare" performing in his latest play, "Hamlet," while the facially disfigured Thomas the bookseller is trying to convince a thug-like client to buy the story from him. To show that he has the real wares, Thomas quotes one of Hamlet's key lines. Unfortunately, the client's partner had seen Hamlet in person a few years before, and he says that Thomas is lying - these aren't the lines in the play he'd seen. Thomas is called a fraud and tossed into the street. Thomas yells that the real fraud was "Shakespeare," and then the real story starts with "the truth." Lance Carter is a playwright working in Liverpool, trying to put on his own play, but he runs afoul of the Puritans, who control the local government and are trying to shut down all immoral activities, including the theater. Lance is living in a mansion (not the Japanese version of the word, which is just a large apartment), with his friend and co-worker, Hughs Worth, and the housekeeper, the diminutive devote Christian, Milo. The scene changes to Li (I used "Lee" in the Non Sanz Droict write-up).

(Li picks the verdict that to save the townspeople, they need a sacrifice.)

As a very young girl in China, Li had the ability to foresee the near-future. She'd blurt out that one person was going to get into an accident, or another was going to have a miscarriage, and within a day or so that's what would happen. Soon, her father, a brick maker, was losing work and her mother was refused service by the other merchants. Both parents blamed their daughter for their situation, and her father seared her throat with an x-shaped branding iron to "seal" her powers. A few years go by, and Li is taller and more beautiful, but she keeps her throat wrapped up to hide the "x" mark, and she can only talk with great difficulty. The family receives word that relatives that had made the trip to England have set up a new life there in a small "Chinatown," so Li's parents decide to join them. But, once in Liverpool it turns out that things aren't going so well. Li's aunt, a big, jovial woman, is barely eking by with a small restaurant, and the woman's husband is a nasty little rat who spends their money gambling and cheating with other women. Through Li's help, her aunt's restaurant becomes more famous with the nearby Brits, but the uncle-in-law's cheating gets uncovered, and Li's own parents resent the fact that they have to grub by as extra workers in the restaurant.

(Hughs and Lance survey the flooded town, looking for something.)

Eventually, things come to a head, with about half of the Chinatowners holding a grudge against Li, and the other half grateful for her assistance. Then, the weather turns bad and there's rain for several weeks. The farms get flooded, no one can work out of doors, and the next cargo ships expected in port have been delayed and are feared to have been sunk. The village elder is called on to make a decision, and he asks Li to pick one of three envelopes with different decrees in them. She does so, knowing that "The most beautiful girl, an undamaged virgin, must be sacrificed," is going to ultimately lead to her being executed. The Chinatowners are desperate to save their own daughters and come up with excuses for why Li's brand mark is not "skin damage." They attempt to half-bury her in the soil near the beach (Li hears a voice in her head telling her that all will be well and to be patient) when the rains trigger a mudslide and resultant flood that kills everyone in Chinatown but her. The scene changes again to Lance, who is outside at night. He catches a glimpse from the corner of his eye of what looks like the moon crying. The next day, he and Hughs go out riding in a carriage, where they roll past the remains of Chinatown. (Hughs is familiar with the fact that Chinese people have been living near Liverpool, but Lance isn't.) They find Li unconscious along the shore, and Lance decides to take her home with them, to Hughs' horror. The narrator then says that there's a 7-year period where no one knows what William Shakespeare had been up to, and that what follows is a recounting of the "Lost Years."

(Lance finds Li and takes her home, while Milo readies a bath.)

At this point, the household consists of Hughs, a salesman for a salt importer that's paying for everything, Lance, and the housekeeper, Milo. The last thing Hughs wants is for another mouth to feed, especially one that doesn't speak English. He gives Lance an ultimatum - if Li can't find work for herself by the end of one month, he'll find a buyer for her. Lance asks Milo to help out, and the cook goes into overdrive to teach the girl English, going from simple vocabulary to reading whole passages from the bible. Two months go by, and Li turns out to be a fast learner (she also wonders if the voice that spoke to her that one night might have been God, so she's extra motivated.) Lance believes in miracles and that he's destined to be a great playwright, and that therefore Li is supposed to be a member of their troupe. Milo goes along with anything Lance says, and Hughs is just dragged along as an unwilling slug. A little later, Hughs fills in a bit of Lance's background - both of them work for the head of the salt importer's guild at the docks, and one day someone came in to ask the guild master to write another script to be performed as a morality play for the Church. The boss' plays are boring and turgid, so he gets Lance to come up with something better. Lance's first work went over poorly, but instead of getting depressed, he just tried harder. His second play went over better, and he got more interested in being a playwright.

(When Li meets Moon.)

Unfortunately, Rosef, another dealer at the docks, has been taking the salt that Hughs sells to the merchants in town, and mixing in wheat to undermine his competition. No one wants to buy salt from Hughs anymore, and he takes it out on Lance while blaming Li for all their problems. Lance is convinced that their partnership is over, except that Li drags him out to the backyard where Hughs is throwing rocks into the carp pond. She defends the fish, urges Lance and Hughs to remain friends, and reveals Rosef as the true villain. Hughs, Lance and the dock boss confront Rosef as he is in the middle of doctoring more of Hughs' salt. The boss bans him from working in Liverpool anymore, but Hughs steps in and offers forgiveness if Rosef repays him 3 times the salt he'd lost. They sign a contract to this effect, and Lance likes the way things worked out, yet wants to know how Li learned of Rosef's name.

A little later, Lance wants to try something, as well as thank Li for helping them sort things out. When Li enters the dining room for dinner, she sees the two carp from the pond grilled and being served as the main dish. She goes into shock and bolts from the room. Milo is afraid that there's something wrong with his cooking. Lance goes to Li's room and hears her muttering Chinese through the door. He goes inside and apologizes, adding that he'd thought she'd known that everything growing on the land was only there for food for them. Li replies that she does know that; it's just that she hadn't had a chance to say goodbye to her friends. A little after that, Li is in her room with a bunch of candles set up on the floor (the group is thinking that she's afraid of sleeping in the dark), talking to two pieces of paper cut out to look like fish. Milo comes in, scaring her. The paper fish land on one of the candles, ignite, and then catch the hem of her nightgown on fire. Milo springs forward to pour water from a flower vase on her gown, then slaps the fire out with his hands, burning them pretty badly. Li apologizes, and Milo says its nothing. Hughs says this is why she should stop wasting his money by burning so many dangerous candles all the time.

The next day, Milo melts down the remaining candles and turns them into one BIG candle that won't get knocked over. Then, Hughs and Lance return home with a puppy that immediately takes to Li. She decides to name him "Moon", and is surprised that it was Hughs that had decided to pick up a stray in town. Lance has noticed that Li has a dark past, but also a brilliant way with words. He tells her to keep a diary, and what she writes down becomes the basis of "Shakespeare's Sonnets." Meanwhile, the sales of salt have been improving now that Hughs isn't being sabotaged. Unfortunately, the Wine and Sugar import guilds are sponsoring their own Church stage plays, and those are turning out better than what Lance is writing, so the Salt guild boss tells Lance that he's being let go, while the boss also gives his own trade route to Hughs to take over. The book ends with Hughs writing a letter to Lance from Bristol. He says that the religious situation is starting to escalate - the government captured some Catholic pirates, probably from Spain, and they've been strung up on a gallows in the public square as a warning.

Summary: The character designs pretty much match those in the sequel manga, but Lance looks much older on the covers.  The characters are a mix of realistic-looking and absolute caricatures. The story is mostly low-key, with lots of dialog, but also some pretty shocking scenes of violence. I still don't buy the premise that Shakespeare's works were written by a very tight group of friends, but some of the other historical elements are fairly convincing (building architecture, and the numbers of merchant ships lost at sea). Recommended if you like historical fiction.

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