Rashomon: A Commissioner Heigo Kobayashi Case is a Spanish graphic novel that is written and illustrated by Victor Santos. The collection has two stories that are inspired by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon, and John Allyn’s The 47 Ronin Story narratives respectively. While I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect going into the comic, I will say that I was rather taken with the illustrations and believe it’s worth a read for the artwork alone.
The main story, Rashomon, revolves around the mysterious death of a respected samurai. There are numerous perspectives and accounts as to what happened, but the real truth behind his death will be much more difficult to decipher than Commissioner Kobayashi anticipated.
As a huge fan of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, I was immediately taken by the premise of this graphic novel. For anyone who may be unfamiliar, Akutagawa was one of Japan’s most prolific writers of all-time. It can even be argued that he’s just one of the most brilliant writers of all-time, period. The original narrative of Rashomon is inherently an exploration of the human psyche and how no matter how noble our intentions are, humans are incapable of objective truths. Our personal biases, no matter what lengths we go to to separate from it, shall always taint the truth as we know it. The author does a very good job of bringing this concept to life within the pages of this book.
Rashomon is definitely a comic with a story that is told with the artwork. While there is dialogue and brief narration to provide the reader with the basic premise and furthering of the plot, it’s pivotal to pay careful attention to the details unfolding in each of the panels, as well as the imaginative artistic techniques implemented to express said narrative.
For example, within the first few pages, the colour palettes revolve around varying shades of greys and reds, creating a dark and gloomy atmosphere, which fits the natural landscape of a brewing storm. It plays superbly to the mystery element. As I read further on, and the Commissioner begins to question witnesses, the palettes shift to incorporate more vibrant colours, such as oranges, yellows, and even subdued shades of slate blue. I noticed that the colours helped differentiate one witness testimony from the next as there is no transition text explaining that a different person is speaking. You have to pay attention to the characters themselves and absorb these subtle artistic shifts. I felt it was quite brilliant and very much akin to Akutagawa’s style of storytelling; relying on the brain and human perception to unravel the clues provided.
Aside from colour palettes, the actual composition is another complement that helps build ambiance and draw the reader further into what’s occurring. The drawing styles of the world focus on the usage of lots of sharp angles, while the character designs are akin to papier-mâché designs. They work hand-in-hand marvellously in conjunction with the scope of the vibrancy from the colours I’ve mentioned before. Occasionally, depending on the character’s facial expression or the action sequences that are unfolding, the illustrations can come off mildly cartoonish, yet specifically in those scenarios the author switches to much darker and drearier shades to maintain the air of adult violence and suspense. He even leaves behind all of the more technical intricate styles in those cases, using only a bare sketch with penned outlines of either brown or blue.
As for the actual storytelling, aside from the necessary inclusion of the artwork, I felt that it is something a lot of readers will feel quite lost with while reading if they are completely unfamiliar with Akutagawa’s or Allyn’s historical tales. Both stories are tied together in this specific interpretation in an inimitable way with use of ambiguous references to those tales and they are important in being able to grasp the motifs and essential idea of what is happening. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to understand what you’re reading if you aren’t familiar with Rashomon and The 47 Ronin Story, but you will definitely miss out on a lot of what makes the graphic novel such a delightful adaptation. I can see this as being quite off-putting for many readers.
Another element that may be off-putting are the use of Japanese words to refer to specific Japanese practices or ideals. Such as the reference to the person who cuts off an individual’s head during seppuku, or the practice of ritual suicide, known as kaishakunin. The Japanese words are not explained and there are no appendices, so already the author has an expectation of familiarity between the reader and his comic.
Overall, I really enjoyed Rashomon: A Commissioner Heigo Kobayashi Case, and I think anyone who has read the original Rashomon and The 47 Ronin Story, or is a fan of Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of the former, will like this graphic novel. Even if you have not read the respective stories, but you are a fan of breath-takingly innovative artwork, I feel you should give it a try.