In November 1884, Annie Russell-Cotes and her husband, distinguished Victorian hoteliers from Bournemouth, went on something of a world cruise, taking in a variety of locations but spending seven months in Japan. To suggest that they might have fallen in love with the country is an understatement – they visited towns all over island and returned to England with more than 100 cases of artefacts. Although pillaging a country’s history and heritage with a pocketful of cash is probably frowned upon nowadays, at least the Russell-Cotes weren’t being overly mercenary about it – instead, they decorated their hotel with the goods and opened it up to the English public. The ‘hotel’ is still a museum today, and this manga-sized graphic novel is somewhat unusual, in that it was commissioned by the museum as an accessible adaptation of Annie Russell-Cotes travelogue of her time in Japan.
What’s most surprising is how well the couple come across. OK, so it was written by one of them so it seems unlikely that it’s going to include information on how rudely they behaved or how superior they felt. But in fact, with our minds filled with the clichés of Victorian England and its habit of colonising any land it can lay its hands on, it’s a surprise to see the protagonists of this story humbled by Japanese society. They only mention once how good it would be to convert the Japanese to Christianity, they partake fully in the culture of Japanese life (or at least the middle to upper class facets of it) and embrace the differences with their own ways.
Wilson’s adaptation of the diary sounds authentic, no doubt partly because it has been closely kept to the spirit of the original work, even keeping in spelling errors that Russell-Cotes made on place names and the like. Likewise, Mizuki’s art is a perfect fit, drawing on Japanese history to impart authenticity to the detailed drawings.
You get the feeling that Annie Russell-Cotes might have been quite pleased with this adaptation and its sympathetic Japanese feel. It isn’t the kind of comic that’s going to appeal to everyone, but if any elements of the subject matter peak your interest, whether from the Japanese or the Victorian perspective, it makes for an interesting read. And as a way of drawing our attention to a museum’s collection of Japanese artefacts, collected in a long-gone era, this format beats the hell out of even the glossiest of brochures.