What do Ayrshire’s most famous son – the poet Robert Burns – and Japanese comic books, called ‘manga’, have in common? Well, nothing… until now, that is. Scottish author Richmond Clements has teamed up with Japanese artist Inko to adapt Burns’s classic horror poem Tam O’Shanter into a manga.
And it is wonderful!
This mash-up isn’t exactly an obvious one – you might be familiar with manga like Akira, Tokyo Ghoul, and Death Note or their on-screen anime adaptations and be wondering how this would gel with a folksy Burns yarn about a pissed-up Scotsman getting chased by demons on his way home from the pub – but it sure does work.
Tam’s adorable wee red-cheeked face under his bonnie hat, sipping from a hip flask as he rides off into town on his faithful mare, Meg, is a brilliant image that captures the sly, smirking tone of Burns’s words as he laments, “How mony lengthen’d, sage advices, The husband frae the wife despises!”
In fact, the style of Inko’s artwork, from the cutesy to the bloody, with thin, sketchy pen-lines married to vivid washes of colour, suits the poem superbly throughout. The poem comes alive on the page, with the pictures – splashed out in large panels common to the manga medium – also helping decipher The Bard’s auld Scots tongue. The book is aimed at 8–12-year-olds, so it really is a great way to get to grips with what will likely be unfamiliar language (helpful for many adults too no doubt!).
Don’t understand what Burns means when he says, “That every naig was ca’d a shoe on, The smith and thee gat roarin fou on”? Well, here’s a panel of Tam and the smith leaning against poor Meg, clinking mugs of beer together. “Wi’ tippeny, we fear nae evil; Wi’ usquabae, we’ll face the devil!”? We see Tam taking a slug from his trusty flask as he approaches the blazing lights of the supposedly abandoned Kirk. Magic!
And speaking of getting roarin fou on, the early scenes depicting Tam and his drouthy cronies in the pub are some of my favourite in the whole book. The warmth of firelight bathing Tam as he regales his friends with tall tales (not unlike the one we’re reading), his buddies crumpling in laughter, beer mugs full, the rain lashing down outside – white streaks cutting across the panels – really captures the heart of the story and the essence of Scottish pub culture, which may no more or never have existed. As Burns says, “Nae man can tether time or tide”, and eventually it’s closing time and we have to take the long road home, beset by the weather and, sometimes, the devil himself.
The moralistic aspect of the poem is – coming from Burns, a man not likely to heed his own warnings against drinking and chasing women – tongue-in-cheek, and the juxtapose of the words and pictures captures this beautifully.
This new adaption of Tam O’Shanter is a celebration of both Scots and Japanese tradition – manga may not be as ancient as our dear auld Rabbie Burns, but its impact and importance to Japanese culture is equally great – and it’s wonderful to see these different cultures being brought together.
In 2015, I went on holiday to Japan and fell in love with the place. I became obsessed with Japanese food, reading Japanese fiction, and watching Japanese films. It’s also where I got engaged to my wife (who, like Tam’s Kate, is a woman of “counsels sweet” and “sage advices”). Japan has a special place in my heart and is often the setting for my own fiction, so it’s not surprising how much I enjoyed this cross-cultural collaboration. The combination of Burns and manga, Scottish folklore and Japanese comic book art, may seem odd at first, but I love it and I think other readers, young and old, will too.
All that’s left to say is Weel done, Cutty-Sark! And weel done Richmond Clements and Inko!