Greek Story from French Bande Dessinee Artist Makes Waves in Japan

The cover of “Rebetiko”

Selling comic books from abroad is difficult in Japan, where domestically produced manga are so abundant. Comic books printed in Europe and North America are published in a much larger format. Many are printed in full color, which raises the price. “Rebetiko” isn’t cheap, selling at ¥3,000 for about 100 pages. However, I strongly recommend taking a look at this bande dessinee, or French graphic novel, because it is a very fine work.

Japanese readers will find both the setting and the theme portrayed in “Rebetiko” quite unfamiliar. The story is set in Athens in 1936. Markos is released from prison where he has just finished serving a sentence for the past six months. He is a celebrated musician of popular music called rebetiko, also known as Greek blues.

At the end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, a defeated Greece lost its territory in Turkey. A large number of Greek residents of this territory became refugees and fled back to Greece, forming slums in big cities. Rebetiko was born out of such chaos and confusion.

The Greek dictator at the time banned rebetiko due to its decadent style and the fact that it was played in underground hashish dens. Rebetiko musicians thus became synonymous with outlaws.

The story is simple. Markos is greeted by his fellow musicians. Stavros smuggles drugs as a side job, Batis is a cheerful middle-ager, Artemis is frivolous and dandy, and then there is Chien (dog in French), who is on the run after killing his lover’s husband.

They perform together in a bar filled with swirling hashish smoke. They play the bouzouki (a Greek string instrument) and sing, quarrel with the guests, flee from the police, and sail out to sea in a boat. Despite living in the gutter, they are remarkably cheerful.

The author, David Prudhomme, is a Frenchman. If I reveal to you that the front cover illustration is a blown-up version of a small frame used in the manga, you can imagine how overwhelmingly good his artwork is. He says in the prologue, “At the time when this music was born, the audience and musicians were like brothers. Both outcasts stuck in the lowest level of society, they were singing together songs that were rough, primitive and offbeat.”

“Rebetiko” is a story of men who resist the “unfreedom” of expression, and yet this manga is not about simple political criticism. Markos refuses an offer from a U.S. record company, feeling that music they record in a studio cannot really be their sound. Rebetiko must be close to the “brothers.” Apparently, the real-life model for Markos was a famous musician by the name of Markos Vamvakaris.

This real-life Markos left us with several recorded CDs, so if you are interested, I recommend you give rebetiko a listen. Masato Hara, who translated this work from French into Japanese, searched unsuccessfully for a Japanese publisher to take on the translation. Eventually, he set up a crowdfunding project, created a new publication label and managed to publish “Rebetiko” in October 2020. He is planning to publish more books using a similar process. If his attempts turn out to be successful, this may be a revolutionary step forward in the market for translated comic books from abroad.

— Kanta Ishida, Yomiuri Shimbun senior writer.