Rizal in manga form
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - January 25, 2020 - 12:00am

I have met Malaysians who are named Rizal, and I have talked to Latin Americans who could recite “Mi Ultimo Adios,” our national hero Jose Rizal’s farewell poem, from memory. My friend, the Ateneo de Manila professor Ambeth Ocampo, has made a lucrative cottage industry out of writing about Rizal’s past, present, and future importance in our lives. Streets, match boxes, cinema houses, and yes – people – are named after this genius in our midst.

Now comes the book Jose Rizal: The Filipino Hero’s Life Illustrated, the national hero’s life reimagined and drawn in a manga, or the Japanese comics. In this illustrated work originally published in Japan and published here by Anvil, Takahiro Matsui and Ryo Konno retell Rizal’s astonishing life.

Writ large on the cover is the name of Jose Rizal in white set against a blood-red background. Filipino soldiers stand, their rifles pointed at the man in the middle. Drawn in tones of mostly gray and brown is Rizal’s face – the left eye both angry and sad, the right eye shrouded in darkness.

From this dramatic cover begins this fictional version of Rizal’s life. The opening pages give us a Guide to Reading Manga, which follows a right-to-left, up-to-down direction, following the sinuous shape of the letter S. As in a film, this set of logical instructions is intercut with a gray map of the Philippines, the sight of clear sea and lovely mountains, the black shoes of a man stepping on grass, a man drawn only from the chin to the space below the eyes.

Then the lines of the poem Rizal wrote before he died: “Goodbye, my beloved motherland, / darling land of the sun,/ pearl of the Orient Seas,/ paradise that is no more!/ With pleasure, I would give up/ this sad and oppressed life./ Had it been filled with light/ and the path had been none but flowery,/ still, I would give this life for you./ For your liberty,/ I would sacrifice this body.”

Prescient Rizal must have been, for after the volley of shots had torn through his body and killed him, the leaders of the Philippine Revolution who had read his novels Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, charged through the Spanish ranks, starting Asia’s first modern war for independence. Although Rizal did not endorse the revolution, opting instead for reform through education, he later became the spirit of that revolution: its north star and blazing light.

Artist Ryo Konno has received the ”Spirits Award,” which is the highest acclaimed award in the 265th Spirit Awards in 2013. His most praised works are “Mosh Pit,” a four-volume manga (“Shogakukan”) and “Demon City,” or “Shinchosha.” He draws Rizal’s story the way a skilled director must have framed a film – the crane shot of the day Rizal is shot in Bagumbayan, a close-up only of Rizal’s nose and mouth telling the lieutenant: “I will not die faced away from the people!”

Konno’s lines are also sharp and detailed; the tones of these black-and-white art impressive. Look at the drawing of Laguna’s vast rice fields, fringed with a brooding mountain on the background and a tendril with young leaves in the foreground. It is a balanced composition, dark and light commingled. Its echo is found in the books’ middle, where Rizal, upon learning that his mother is falsely accused of murder and made to walk for 60 kilometers on foot, begins to write his flaming novel. The drawing is of a Rizal with hair like sharp spears, eyes like twin points of knives, the quill of his pen quivering with rage as he wrote his incendiary words.

Takahiro Matsui, who penned the story, was born in Aichi Prefecture in 1975. From 2003 to 2014, he was involved in Japanese language education in the Philippines and Thailand (amongst other countries) while developing a keen interest in South East Asia.

From the rich seedbed of Rizal’s life, he has chosen the points on which the plot turns: the aforementioned charge of murder against Rizal’s mother (“my mother, my once beautiful mother”), Soledad Rizal’s dancing skill that frees her mother from prison, and Madrid as a haven of intellectual ferment.

But since this is fiction, Matsui also rewrites the life of Rizal. Rizal here gives his farewell poem to his wife, the Irish woman Josephine Bracken (“my sweet stranger”) instead of to his sister. The widow later joins the forces of General Emilio Aguinaldo as a nurse in the Philippine Revolution.

Matsui also sneaks in sharp commentaries. “However, Spain is not the only enemy in this battle. A stronger predator bites us in the neck as well.” And the images to accompany these fanged words? Ferocious animals swarming around the water buffalo, the carabao that stands as a symbol of the Filipino.

“Nationalism is a beautiful tale.” This sentence blazons on another page, and a few pages later float lines of Rizal’s farewell poem. A leader of the revolution reads these lines to the weeping people: “Some give their lives without doubt or regret. / On the battlefield, with burning passion,/ It does not matter where – cypress, laurel, or lily,/ Gallows or open field, combat or cruel martyrdom,/ It’s but the same, if the home and the Motherland call for it.”

Matsui is a true student of history, for he conflates Benedict Andersons’s now-iconic insight of ‘the nation as an imagined community” with Rizal’s life. Near the end of the manga, with the date set at 25 February 1986, in Dapitan, Mindanao, a boy runs to his grandmother on the beach. He tells her that “it is over!” The dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. has fled the Philippines. It’s a savvy insight, for a country becomes one only during its moments of revelation – when a man writes two novels that give birth to a nation, when a people liberate themselves from a regime of lies and terror.

The story of Jose Rizal continues today.

(Danton Remoto is the head of school and professor of English at University of Nottingham Malaysia. Email: danton.remoto@nottingham.edu.my. Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com)

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