Russian student Raskolnikov is so fed up and desperate for cash that he resorts to pawning his possessions to a stingy old woman. When she cheats him out of money again and again, Raskolnikov decides that she doesn’t deserve to live and murders her with an axe. He gets away with the crime, but is so wracked with guilt that his manner and outlook on life change, though he never admits to his guilt even when questioned several times by Judge Porfiry. He winds up entangled with his sister’s evil fiancée and the wife and daughter of a poor alcoholic man who dies the same day he met him. By the end of the book, he also finds himself on the wrong side of a revolution, and his guilt has still not left him.
While many fans of Tezuka are familiar with the 6-volume bilingual edition of Princess Knight, I have almost never seen this book discussed. I was worried that the translation would be a little spotty, as it was in Princess Knight, and that a rough translation might make a super-condensed version of Crime and Punishment sifted through Russian/Japanese/English hard to follow. Happily, the English translation is done by Fredrik L. Schodt, the same translator who worked on the US editions of Phoenix and Astro Boy, and it is wonderful. As is the book itself. Amazingly, for being Crime and Punishment in 131 pages, it makes the transition to comic form very smoothly.
For the curious, the speech bubbles provide the English translation, and are numbered to match up with the original Japanese in a footnote area at the bottom of every page. The book is slightly longer than a normal tankouban volume to accompany the footnotes. There’s also an essay by Schodt in the back of the book about Tezuka and his then-recent passing (this was released in 1990).
Released in 1953, this is very much a reflection of Tezuka’s older and more cartoony drawing style. There’s still a lot of panel and layout experimentation, and it’s clear to some extent that he was trying for an audience outside of children (the primary manga audience at the time), but the more sophisticated visual metaphors and play with light and shadow that always indicate madness and morality are not present here. It looks like Astro Boy, but doesn’t suffer from some of the same scattered narrative problems as some of the early Astro Boy stories or works like Lost World (those narrative quirks are unfortunately linked to this style in my mind). The panel play, including a wonderful static stairway sequence at the beginning where the murder is committed “off camera,” is still up to Tezuka’s usual standards, and is interesting here because some of the techniques wouldn’t look out-of-place in MW or later series. Also present, and part of Tezuka’s older style, are a few crowd scenes with a full-page illustration dedicated to a mob commenting on current events. I only ever see it in Tezuka’s earliest works, and it’s a wonderful way to illustrate public opinion.
Unfortunately, I haven’t read Dostoyevsky’s original novel in order to compare the adaptation here, but I do know they end differently. The manga stops somewhat short and leaves the outcome to the reader, where the novel keeps going to the bitter end. There are some wonderful condensed scenes that are clearly more detailed in the original, but work well here in shortened form. For instance, Raskolnikov’s family situation unfolds as an illustrated narrative accompanying a letter his mother sends him. Raskolnikov’s ideas of superiority are explained in about 2-3 pages, and his “sickness” registers as a sort of madness that begins immediately after he commits the crime and lasts throughout. The weakest parts of the narrative are probably the revolution that Raskolnikov is recruited to at the end of the story, and the way Raskolnikov gets himself involved with Marmel’s family. Marmel’s daughter Sonya is important at the end of the story, but it’s strange how Raskolnikov accidentally finds himself the hero of this dysfunctional family. There’s also a certain amount of brevity to everything, but for being Crime and Punishment in such a small package, it works really well. And unlike a lot of other manga adaptations, it nails all the details and makes perfect sense as a standalone work.
It’s been a long time since I’ve read early Tezuka, or any 50s-era manga for that matter. This book has withstood the test of time, and while it’s not as sophisticated as Tezuka’s later work, it’s still a wonderful read from the God of Manga. I’d love to see more of his early work of this quality.