Japan gives a comic twist to 'Das Kapital'


Manga publications are capitalising on Japan's insecurities, writes David McNeillin Tokyo

KARL MARX, who predicted that capitalism would crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, is making a comeback - in the form of a comic.

More than 140 years after Marx's Das Kapital(Capital) was released on an unsuspecting and initially baffled world, its dense meditation on political economy and alienation is to be splashed across speech bubbles on the pages of a Japanese manga.

Set for release at the start of next month, Reading Das Kapitalthrough Manga is expected to top the comic bestseller lists, following the success of a string of popular publications capitalising on Japan's growing inequalities and economic insecurity.

The world's second-largest economy has slipped into recession for the first time since 2001, despite a $275 billion government stimulus package designed to insulate it from the impact of the global financial tsunami.

More than one-third of the workforce is already part-time and with profits diving even at manufacturing powerhouses like Sony and Toyota, millions of young people express deep pessimism about the future.

The economic turmoil has provided fertile ground for critics of free-market capitalism, new and old. A manga rendering of The Crab Ship(Kanikosen), a grimy 1930s proletarian classic about the exploitation of workers aboard a fishing boat, stunned Tokyo-based publisher East Press this year by shifting more than half a million copies.

Several introductions to Capitaland other Marxist tomes have been rushed out since and a book by a former broker berating the sticky-fingered bankers of Wall Street has become one of the year's fastest non-fiction sellers.

"Poverty has been a growing and visible problem for some time, but now people are looking for answers about why it is returning," said Kaori Katada, a lecturer in social welfare. "That's why they're turning to these books."

Japan's prolific comic culture has for years distilled complex issues into pocket-sized, graphic books that can be read in the office or during long commutes. History, war and the country's tortured relationship with China have all been grist to manga artists; East Press, publisher of the comic Das Kapital,has a catalogue of unusual titles including Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Dante's Divine Comedy,Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampfand Shakespeare's King Lear.

Sneak previews suggest that the comic Das Kapitalhas not shirked on the key details of Marx's forbidding original. Exploited salary-men are seen slowly coming to terms with the bearded philosopher's central analysis: that they are the sole source of capitalism's wealth.

Along the way, they are treated to a tour of commodity fetishism, the labour theory of value and the law of declining profits. Ultimately, explain the speech bubbles, capitalism creates its own gravediggers - the workers who create its wealth - although it's doubtful that Marx ever envisioned them armed with graphic novels.

While there are few signs that the novel's ideas have translated to major political activity, there have been recent signs of life on the once-moribund left.

A march last month by anti- poverty campaigners on the Tokyo house of prime minister Taro Aso, aimed at calling attention to his considerable wealth, made headlines after the police shut it down and arrested several activists.

A video of the arrests has since become an underground phenomenon, earning tens of thousands of views on YouTube.

"I think many young people in Japan are afraid of the future and that fear is sometimes turning to anger," said Kosuke Hashimoto, one of the activists who took part in that march. "Reading comics might only be the start."