12 February 2016

Some Thoughts on an Adaptation: Sangokushi

Sangokushi v60:   Mega;   Mediafire
All Previous Sangokushi volumes:   Mega;   Mediafire


With that burst of elation out of the way, I have to admit it's as sad as it is rewarding to finally hang this project on my completed-shelf. The 60 volume length was naturally daunting when I first decided to pick up this series, but as a labour of love, I enjoyed every moment of translating this series. But as they say, every end is a new beginning. While I'd be perfectly content to have this remain as my magnum opus (excuse my unwarranted self-importance here), there's still a whole world of great manga out there and I will most definitely be picking up a whole bunch of new manga so look forward to it!

For the curious, I'll begin work on the following projects this year:
Innocents Shounen Juujigen (no, I did not forget about this!)
Waga Na wa Nero
Zettai Anzen Kamisori
Dousei Jidai
Teito Monogatari

For Yokoyama fans looking for their next fix of Chinese history after Sangokushi, I will also start work on Shiji this year, though I'll be releasing it sporadically as it suits the nature of the work, being a collection of only loosely related stories taken from Sima Qian's Shiji (think of it like a collection of one shots).

Now on with my Some Thoughts on Sangokushi...

Sangokushi: Yokoyama's Turning Point
Yokoyama at the bottom right (19).
Tezuka at the bottom center.
Back in the early/mid 50s, Tezuka and his Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) were the unquestioned leaders of the emerging art-form known as manga. But in '56, one of Tezuka's former assistants made a bold challenge for the spotlight and the small, humanoid Atom soon found itself sharing the affection of Japanese children with a gigantic hunk of metal that could only wear one expression on its face. The name of this new robot was Tetsujin 28, and it was the brainchild of Yokoyama Mitsuteru, then only 22 years old. Yokoyama was undoubtedly one of the hottest stars of the up-and-coming generation that had been profoundly impacted by Tezuka's works in the late 40s such as New Treasure Island, Metropolis, Lost World, or Next World. Not one to sit complacent with success, Yokoyama then went on to churn out many popular short series in shounen and shoujo magazines. In '61, he scored another huge hit with Iga no Kagemaru which, along with Shirato Sanpei's manga, helped kick off the great Ninja craze of the 60s. And in the mid-60s, his Mahoutsukai Sally and Comet-san were popular forerunners of the genre of anime/manga now known as mahou shoujo (magical girl). But as I discussed in my post about Tomorrow's Joe, the 60s, particularly the late 60s, were a momentous time for the manga industry, thanks to gekiga breaking boundaries and venturing new frontiers where traditional manga had not gone before. Established mangaka like Tezuka and Yokoyama were suddenly in danger of being labelled as "outdated" and relegated to the dustbins of history. Many mangaka popular in the 50s would not survive this shift, and those that did had to reinvent themselves. 
Suikoden ('67-'71)
Suikoden (Water Margin) was Yokoyama's answer to the changing zeitgeist of manga, as well as an early turning point of his career. The decision to adapt Water Margin, one of China's classic literature quartet, was not an easy one for two reasons. One, this was an era before Sino-Japanese relations were normalized (Taiwan was recognized as China's sole legitimate government until '72) and the red scare was still a very real element in Japanese society. Although Chinese history was still a respectable subject for academics, it was hardly a topic that would excite Japanese children, and no mangaka before Yokoyama (I think) dared turning it into a setting for manga. Two, there's a well known proverb that says, "The young should not read Water Margin and the old should not read Romance of the Three Kingdoms." Water Margin, with its romanticization of crude outlaws and graphic scenes of violence would certainly be a risky work for Kibou no Tomo, the shounen magazine it serialized in. Thus, Yokoyama was testing the grounds with Suikoden to see if there was room in the rapidly changing manga world for a Chinese history-themed story that dealt with more mature subject matter.
Top half: early Suikoden
Bottom half: late Suikoden
In my post about Tomorrow's Joe, I brought attention to Chiba's artistic details like musculature to highlight how it reflected the changing mood of the manga world. In the case of Suikoden, this is best done by looking at Yokoyama's depiction of violence. As I already said, Water Margin is not a PG-rated story. Yokoyama's decision to adapt this in a shounen magazine signifies his intention to brave new frontiers in the late 60s. He takes cautious steps early on, by trying to hide the violence. If you look at the top half of the image above, you can see that the moment of stabbing or slashing is hidden or obscured from the reader's perspective. However, by the later volumes (bottom half), Yokoyama is bold enough to not only directly show these scenes of violence, but even turn them into the highlights of his pages. Now this isn't to paint Yokoyama as some sleazy artist using violence as simple eye candy to make money. Violent scenes like Wu Song's decapitation of his brother's unfilial wife are iconic scenes in Water Margin, and they cannot be brushed aside if one is to do a proper adaptation. Whereas at the start of Suikoden, Yokoyama was still a hesitant artist testing if audiences would respond favourably to a mature, Chinese history-themed manga, by the end, Suikoden's popularity with both children and teenagers gave him the confidence to do an honest adaptation of other mature, historically-themed stories without pulling any punches. It was this new-found confidence that pushed him into the project that would forever cement his legacy and mark a new phase in his career: Sangokushi.
Original Publication: 1972 ~ 1986
One does not simply make a 60-volume adaptation over 15 years.
I mention all this background info, not just to offer some interesting trivia on Yokoyama's career, but to explain the anomaly that is Sangokushi. This was the very first manga adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms (hereby shortened as RotTK) and yet it was a full-blown 60-volume adaptation that for ~95% of its content, adapted chapter by chapter, scene for scene, and even line for line from the actual novel! That is... the equivalent of a man who decides to take up swimming for a hobby and before you know it, he's swimming across the fucking English Channel. At a glance, it's completely baffling to think Sangokushi even exists. But if you take what I've written above into context, it makes sense. There was no need for an abridged adaptation as he did with Suikoden. He was confident that there was a new generation of manga readers receptive to more complex stories with mature content. After finishing up Suikoden in 1971, Yokoyama had already established his new footing. Thus in 1972, he knew it was time to keep moving forwards or be left behind as a has-been mangaka.

Sangokushi: An Adaptation

It's undeniable that classic literature, in spite of its prestige, carries negative connotations of being boring, irrelevant, or stuffy. Those that are younger than a century or two and still written in understandable prose for a native reader often fare better, but it's a general rule of thumb that the older and more foreign a classic is, the worse their reception fares among modern audiences. Partly, it's the fault of cultural and language barriers made worse by incompetent translations, but the development of trends in modern fiction or entertainment at large is also culpable. This is why RotTK's still continuing popularity in both high and low culture cannot be understated. While some may point to its universal appeal as a heroic romance, it seems to me an incomplete answer when you compare how another heroic romance, Iliad, has fared in the modern West. That's not to imply the Iliad has been forgotten, but seriously, how many people do you personally know who willingly chose to read the Iliad for fun? In any case, RotTK has clearly done something right by still maintaining such a large presence in modern East Asian culture and I strongly believe much of that is due to its continually evolving adaptations. So for the second-half of this post, let me contextualize Sangokushi to show you how it fits among the many RotTK adaptations.
Wow! It's just like one of my sugoi Japanese light novels! (´・ω・`)
The obvious place to start is Japan's relationship with RotTK. The relationship is an old one, as Sanguozhi (the historical record by Chen Shou) had been known at least since the Nara period (8th century), but it is the late 16th/early 17th century when RoTK made a full-blown entry to Japan, not just to snobby aristocrats but the increasingly literate society as a whole. In fact, Sanguozhi Tongsu Yanyi (Ming-dynasty edition of the novel) became the first foreign novel to be fully translated into Japanese. It was so popular during the Edo period that publishers printed out large volumes RotTK copies and woodblock art of iconic scenes for the mass audience.The above picture, showing Liu Bei feigning fear of lightning, is from a modern edititon of Ehon Tsuzoku Sangokushi, a popular Edo-period Japanese translation of the Tongsu Yanyi accompanied by woodblock art. 
Utagawa Kuniyoshi's woodblock print of Guan Yu playing Go with Ma Liang
as the doctor Hua Tuo scrapes away the poisoned area in his arm
Japan's enthusiasm for RotTK wasn't just reflected in its popular art. Its native storytellers eagerly took elements in RotTK and mixed them into their native legends about the Sengoku Jidai. This is why you hear stories like Hideyoshi paying 3 visits to Hanbei just like Liu Bei's 3 visits to Zhuge Liang, Hanbei instructing Hideyoshi on how to defeat the 8-gates formation, or Ieyasu trying the empty fort strategy to ward off Takeda's army just like Kongming's ruse against Sima Yi. But this enthusiasm for all things RotTK in the Edo-period didn't mean that it would still be widely-read over 200 years later. After all, Xenophon's Anabasis used to be standard reading for many Western schools and a frequent topic of romantic fantasies for young adventurous boys of generations past but what average teenager today would even know of the iconic quote, "The Sea! The Sea!"? For the post-war Japanese generation forced to break off from its fascist era and now exposed to new media like TV and manga, RotTK could have quickly lost relevance. It may have been left in the wayside, to be cared only by academics in ivory towers, if not for men like Yoshikawa and Yokoyama.
Yoshikawa Eiji is one of Japan's greatest novelists in the 20th century who adapted and reinterpreted classics such as Heike monogatari or Taikouki. For manga fans, you may know him for writing the fictionalized biography of Miyamoto Musashi, which is loosely adapted by Inoue's manga Vagabond. His RotK adaptation, Sangokushi, serialized from 1939-1943, has since become the version of RotTK that most Japanese readers are familiar with. So why was his adaptation more popular than any academic translation? Although I must confess I've only skimmed through Yoshikawa's Sangokushi, its appeal is immediately evident even upon a cursory glance. Just compare the beginning of RotTK and Sangokushi.

Despite the iconic line (added by Mao Lun & Zonggang), "The world under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide," the novel's introduction is a surefire way to turn off many modern audiences because it's basically an exposition dump, a big no-no for any modern writer. The reader is treated to a textbook summary of the Han dynasty's descent into chaos. Names whiz by right and left and you're tempted to wonder why anyone should give a shit about any of this. Although the novel certainly gets much, much better once the major characters and their goals are established, this introduction is simply unsuited for attracting the attention of modern audiences. This is why the 2010 TV series Three Kingdoms said "To hell with this!" and gave a bare-minimum opening narration before quickly establishing Cao Cao's character and depicting his intrigues at court.
In Sangokushi, the opening scene shows us a young man waiting by the Yellow river to buy tea for his dear mother. Immediately, we're introduced to one of the story's central characters and we learn one of his defining characteristics, filial piety, not through exposition but through the character's own actions. No mention of calamities, rebels, or corrupt eunuchs are present in this opening chapter. All the important exposition is introduced to us organically and gradually when the story necessitates it. Thus, whereas the novel details Han's failing governance and internal unrest to emphasize the first stage in the cyclic division and union of China, Yoshikawa basically sets up a more linear variant of the hero's journey. This differing framework then explains the different endings in the original novel, Yoshikawa's Sangokushi, and Yokoyama's manga. For Mao Lun & Zonggang, the novel cannot end with anything else but the reunification of the realm under the Jin dynasty. Meanwhile in Sangokushi, the story began with a hero (Liu Bei) and his dream (pacification of the realm), so it naturally ends when both are no more. For Yoshikawa, this meant the death of Kongming, the successor to Liu Bei's dream, was a fitting ending; for Yokoyama, the fall of Shu, the very embodiment of Liu Bei's dream, was an appropriate conclusion.

But aside from the very distinct beginning and ending, much of Sangokushi is highly faithful to the novel as I pointed out in the translator's afterword included with v60. Even so, Yoshikawa's Sangokushi manages to stand out because of its modern emphasis on dialogue over narration to advance the plot. The original novel isn't exactly too heavy on the narration, but there definitely are stretches when the dialogue is short and sparse. Yoshikawa eases this barrier for new readers by trying to use dialogue to describe the situation as much as possible, which makes the story feel more active and faster-paced, even though it's still covering the same amount of material. This is carried to the next level in Yokoyama's manga, and is arguably its greatest strength as an adaptation: Pure accessibility. Manga, as a visual medium, has a unique ability to convey so much more information in far less time. Gone are the long-winded or repetitive descriptions of how a battle is unfolding. The readers can see it unfold succinctly with each page in this manga. For those who gave up reading RotTK because there were too many names or too many bland battle descriptions that read along the lines of "A exchanged a few bouts with B and then drove B's army off the field," Yokoyama's Sangokushi is a godsend. And it's made more spectacular by the fact that it's not some abridged, RotTK-for-dummies version aimed for only children. It's meant to convey almost the same material as the original novel while lowering the entry barrier so that all adults and children can effortlessly follow along and enjoy it (I myself read the manga when I was a Pokemon-obsessed 10 year-old). An adaptation that manages to be faithful while being accessible to an even wider audience is really the ultimate dream for anyone adapting old classics.

Even though today, one may complain about the level of art and samey character designs in Sangokushi which certainly have been surpassed by modern mangaka, Sangokushi's success and influence as the epitome of a "faithful adaptation" is undeniable. (creative "loose adaptations" are great too but they're a different beast and outside the scope of this post). Its success has earned the affectionate nickname, "The Great Wall of the Manga World," to liken Yokoyama's enormous accomplishment to the Great Wall of China itself. It's sold over 70 million copies, and it's still within the top 20 or 25 best selling manga series of all time, depending on the source. Without Yokoyama's Sangokushi, who knows if post-war Japan would have seen a RotTK-boom in popular culture? Who knows if Koei would have released their RotTK-themed video games? Who knows if there would have been a demand for mangaka to create new interpretations like Souten Kouro? Who knows if Lu Bu would have been gender-bended as the loli Ryofuko-chan? Who knows if ancient China would be readily perceived as an interesting setting for mangaka like Hara Yasuhisa to play with? Whether you like or dislike Yokoyama's Sangokushi, if you consider yourself a RotTK fan, you should give both Yokoyama and his manga credit, for they most certainly deserve it. With the completion of the English translation, I sincerely hope I've been able to make more people aware of this debt of gratitude.


  1. Many, many thanks for your awesome work!

  2. Let me be the first to say: Congratulations, Hox! I know how hard you worked on this, and I can tell you it's enormously appreciated!

    I look forward to seeing the next manga you do and look forward to working with you more on others!

  3. Congratulations! You are the MVP in scanlation.

    Looking forward to Crusade and Nero manga

  4. Amazing!!

    Thank you so much for your work and effort.

  5. Jeez,all that work and you're not even taking a breather? You are something else.

    I really, really appreciate this exists, and am glad you're planning on doing more Yokoyama manga. Personally, I would really dig seeing 'Tales of the Water Margin' someday, but really, just seeing manga this old get such quality scanlations is a blessing.

    Thank you so, so much!

  6. Thank you so much, this series has been a pleasure to follow the last years!

  7. 438 chapters in six and a half years by a single scanlator must be a record as well. In fact I can't even think of a group who's achieved this. Congratulations.

    I'm going to have a large Sangokushi shaped hole in my reading list now. I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed reading it, and how much I appreciated your efforts.

    I also found your summary post really quite interesting. I love getting the behind the scenes history like that.

  8. Thank you for your hard work Hox!

  9. Indeed, thank you for your work bringing this to us. And it is a strange feeling that sangokushi has ended. It was a long but fun ride.

  10. I'd argue Historie will be your Magnum Opus, since you would probably need to write and draw the rest of it for Iwaaki down the line just to finish it.

  11. Been reading this since you start translating it.

    Love you hox.

  12. An astonishing feat that you have accomplished here.
    Sincere congratulations.

  13. just amazing :d are you gonna pick up any other manga now?

  14. Thank you sir for all those volumes.
    It was quite enjoyable

  15. Everyday I eagerly checked if there was a new chapter. Unfortunately the story ended, but it was the time anyways.

    I hope you got what you wanted. Well at least you got me happy with your work.

    So thank you very much and good luck on the next project.

  16. I have been following this since you had a site on fluffypress. I did not believe that I would see the way when this series would be completed. So glad to see you still around and thanks a lot for completing the series! You're a legend.

  17. I'm a big fan of Three Kingdoms stories and your dedication to translate all of it alone is much appreciated and I am grateful. Some people who too lazy and can't read novel (since they depict it boring as novel don't have much picture) can now enjoy it in manga. Thank you for your hard work!

  18. Congratulations Hox! Yokoyama must be proud of you.

  19. Thanks but Can I say you are awesome?God, your work Sangokushi is great but your ending post which explain a lot about the author, the manga success is great too.
    My question is when we will see a tranlation os Suikoden?

  20. You're amazing my man!

  21. Congratulations on completing this manga.

  22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oyFQVZ2h0V8

    1. An astonishing achievement, your taste in manga & the quality and number of your releases is second to none. Sir, I salute you!

  23. Thank you for this excellent series!

    As a note: "Sangokushi v13.zip" has a CRC-error on both mirrors.
    "! K:\Temp\Sangokushi\Sangokushi v13.zip: Checksum error in Sangokushi v13 p146.jpg. The file is corrupt
    ! K:\Temp\Sangokushi\Sangokushi v13.zip: The archive is corrupt"

    1. I just read that you mentioned in another article that p146 was already broken in the raw.
      In this case the JPG would be broken, not the archive.

      And for some reason Mangafox has a working version of p146 without any artifacts in their listing (v13 c003 p43).

    2. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I thought this was the corrupt page, but I must have misremembered. Here's just that page for now: http://www.mediafire.com/view/d9y74t8rq41j29o/Sangokushi%20v13%20p146.png

      I'll reupload v13 in a bit.

  24. Hox is one of the best scanlators on the whole web. I can't think of anyone else who just wants to bring us interesting reads and does it so untiringly without developing a big ego. I'm truly glad you exist, Hox.

  25. Oh shit i keep telling myself "i will read it when it is done", well looks like the time has come.

  26. Thanks so much, Hox. Probably nobody in Europe and America would ever have been able to read a translation of Sangokushi if it hadn't been for you!

  27. THANK YOU for this! :)

  28. This comment has been removed by the author.

  29. Well to be honest, Sima Yi and his sons were talented, except for Zhuge Kongming, no one was able to predict their moves. in the 10 years, they gathered talented warriors such as Ding Ai and Wen Yang. While on the other hand, the good for nothing ass Liu Shan preferred to live on babes and wines. Shu's fall was inevitable. If there's a lesson behind this, it would be "Kingship's system is a FAIL"

    it's been a pleasure reading your translations Hox, everyday I've been opening the website waiting for a new chapter. Thank you for your hard work. I'll be discussing a lot of Sangokushi events with you so get ready :P

  30. Hox, congratulations on your meticulous work. It's always a pleasure to read your scanlations. Thank you for being you and all the best for the years ahead!

  31. Seriously: heartfelt congratulations for this gigantic piece of work!
    Well done, and thank you very much for sharing and making the (English speaking?) world come in contact with stories as these!
    Thank you very much again!

  32. Wonderful news about Teito Monogatari! I'm looking forward to it.

    Also, congrats on your completion of Sangokushi.

  33. *slow clap*
    *standing ovation*

  34. I read the Iliad for fun, as well as the Odyssey and all the extant Greek tragedies. Are you suggesting I'm odd?
    Guess it's time to download this, even though I'm behind on Khan and haven't even started Punpun. The length is a bit daunting, but I've come to trust your taste in manga.
    Thrilled to bits about Innocents. Been looking forward to reading it for a while now.

  35. YOU, SIR, ARE A HERO. 。゚(゚ノ∀`*゚)゚。
    I am also looking forward to all the new things. All the things!!!

  36. Dude, I'm so thrilled you're going to do Shiki!! Can't wait for your releases.

  37. @Hox: Thank you.

    As a side note: I found this post about long-running manga.

    It mentioned:

    Could I interest you in doing a chapter or two?

  38. This has been an amazing manga. I was sad that Liu Bei, Kongming and Shu didn't triumph.

  39. Thank you, Hox. And an extra thanks for making such awesome write-ups!

  40. Congratulations and Thank you so much Hox.
    As much as I'm looking forward to Shiji, are you ever going to translate Suikoden...?

    1. To be honest, it's a fairly low-priority project so maybe Happyscans or someone else may do it instead.

    2. We could be persuaded on that one...

      Honestly, when it comes to Yoko's histories, Hox gets first dibs as far I'm concerned.

  41. Finally finished reading, thank you so much!

  42. You're crazy, Hox. Thanks for great work!

  43. thanks! Many many thanks for your working :x

  44. I've read the novel several times, but only after I read the manga do I remember the entirety of the story. This was a massive undertaking, Sangokushi was by far the best manga I've ever read. Thanks Hox.

  45. ROTK inspired countless people to dream big and achieve great things. Thanks for kindling the flames of ambition in the hearts of your readers!

    Really enjoying your Shiji manga also!

  46. Can't appreciate your efforts enough man. Thanks so much