Aya Kanno Plays With Gender and Shakespeare in ‘Requiem of the Rose King’
Mangaka Aya Kanno is perhaps best known for her plays on gender and gender roles in the manga Otomen, and she does not disappoint on that front with her new series Requiem of the Rose King, which Viz started publishing in March. Requiem of the Rose King is loosely based on Shakespeare's Henry VI and Richard III, but the operative word here is "loosely." Still, when you take some of the more compelling beats of Shakespeare's plays, the truth of history, and the tropes of manga and mash them all together, what comes out could be terrible --- but in Requiem of the Rose King is not.
Minor spoilers follow.
If you're looking for historical accuracy, well, Requiem of the Rose King is not for you. If you're a passionate defender of Richard III, you may be even more put out than most, as his character has a great deal of leeway taken with it. That being said, the character of Richard III in Requiem is easily the most interesting character in the book. From child-Richard adorably skulking about in a cloak to teen-Richard being slim and sinister but also misunderstood, there's also a lot to enjoy about the character visually. Is this Shakespeare's Richard, or even the historical Richard? No, of course not, but it's a fascinating substitute.
In the first volume alone, there's a lot to unpack, especially in regards to women. The two major women characters, Margaret (Henry VI's wife) and Cecily (Richard Plantaneget's wife), are portrayed as controlling and either evil or unhinged. Only one female character seems kind and stable from the beginning, and that is Lady Anne, who in reality was Richard's wife (although here is shown as a child). She treats Richard well and has a crush on him. The men are primarily gorgeous heroes who ride about on horses going to war. While Henry VI's insanity keeps him from seeming quite so heroic, it is played here to give him a level of vulnerability and intensity that is pretty interesting.
It's not as if Shakespeare himself didn't add enough layers of gender play to his writing, but with a layer of manga gender-fluidity on top of that, there's a lot to delve into, which hopefully the series will do more of over time. Our hero here, as it were, is Richard, and yet the book pulls no punches about Richard's character --- while it paints him as misunderstood, it also implies that he has powers and visions or is possibly insane and controls many of the lead characters. But there are questions about Richard's gender from early on in the first volume --- Joan of Arc appears and says "You're not a boy. That said, you're not a girl either." And throughout there are a few instances of Richard's top being torn, with the implication that Richard has breasts.
It's an interesting, if immensely complicated, choice to take a character that Shakespeare described as "deformed" and imply that the character is either intersex or transgender, but regardless of the realities of the character's sex organs, Richard was raised as a boy. There's little implication yet in Requiem that Richard identifies as anything other than a boy, but it was the gender role he was assigned from birth, after his mother decided he was a monster. There's hopefully a lot more to be shown about who Richard feels he is and how that plays in the world of Shakespeare's plays and the real history of England.
It will be interesting to see how closely Requiem follows the source material as time goes on --- after all, manga can last volume after volume, and Richard III did not have that long of a life.
If you're a fan of Aya Kanno, or curious about her work, she'll be at TCAF this year for her first ever North American appearance.