Aug 1

JQ Magazine: Manga Review — ‘Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan’

"Showa is an enjoyable book to read, and this volume in particular will appeal to those interested in World War II and comprehensible narratives of the political and military intrigue of the time." (Drawn and Quarterly)

Showa is an enjoyable book to read, and this volume in particular will appeal to those interested in World War II and comprehensible narratives of the political and military intrigue of the time.” (Drawn and Quarterly)


By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazine. A bibliophile, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University, Julio is currently working at Ishikawa Prefecture’s New York office while seeking opportunities with publications in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and board gaming on his blog and Twitter @brittlejules.

School might be out, but that doesn’t mean your educational summer reading can’t be fun. Welcome to part two of Shigeru Mizuki’s manga history of Japan during the Showa period! If you’re just tuning in or need a refresher, check out JQ’s review of the first book, Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan. This series is translated beautifully in English by none other than JET alum Zack Davisson (Nara-ken, 2001-04; Osaka-shi, 2004-06) and published in North America by Drawn and Quarterly.

Illustrious manga artist Mizuki continues his retelling of the Showa period through his mouthpiece character Nezumi-Otoko (sometimes translated as Rat Man) of GeGeGe no Kitaro fame, and in this section includes events you have no doubt heard of such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway as well as ones you probably have not such as the Japanese campaign in the Dutch East Indies and the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first true incident of carrier warfare and air-to-air combat.

Mizuki also inserts his own autobiographical story into narrative, providing both a macro historical view and micro personal view of the war. As established in the previous volume, he has portrayed himself in a pretty poor light from the get-go, a good for nothing son that is too lazy to hold a job, can’t properly attend any school, and only seems to have a strong interest in eating as much food as possible. But the humble and comical portrayal of himself should be taken with a grain of salt, as Mizuki points out himself, in this era, “If we had a little food in our bellies, it was considered a blessing….We didn’t think about the future because we didn’t have one. Hard times at home were just the tip of the iceberg. After that there was the army, where all your future holds is an unmarked grave on a godforsaken island.”

Although he persists in humbly glossing over his intelligence and talents with laziness and gluttony, this pessimistic outlook on life led him to seek answers, and before he became drafted, Mizuki became exceptionally well read in philosophy and religious texts at that time in his life. Looking down on his younger self is an interesting trend in the narrative, and towards the end of this volume he begins to hint at life altering events which may explain this negative view of the younger Mizuki.

No one will contest the point that World War II is the most formative of time periods in modern Japanese history, and the same is true for much of the world today. For this reason, it’s not surprising that in the history of the Showa period, which is 63 years long, World War II alone occupies the entire second volume of Mizuki’s manga history, and there is sure to be more to come in the next volume. In many ways, the second volume feels like an extended climax to the rising actions of the first volume. The biggest difference is that volume one was full of various staged incidents, smaller scale military conflicts, and coups, but volume two now shifts to play-by-play descriptions of many naval and air battles between Japan and the Allied forces in the Pacific.

Each battle feels epic in scope: the loss of aircraft, ships, and lives are astounding in their number, and the frequency of these conflicts magnify those numbers in a chilling, yet detached way. There is a noticeable difference of voice and feeling between the historical narrative and MIzuki’s own, which is most easily compared by the depictions of air and sea battles discussed above and the ones that Mizuki witnessed firsthand. The main narrative focuses on facts, numbers, historical figures, and their presence in these events, while the most human feelings and sincere confrontations with death are hinted at in Mizuki’s narrative.

The strangest but most approachable quality of this part of the history, which is so preoccupied with death and war, is that the death of people is very rarely depicted graphically. Fire, explosions, guns, bombs, torpedoes, and all manner of weapons in use are rendered realistically and accompanied with all uppercase sound effects, devastated ships, and falling aircraft leaving a trail of smoke, but the human death toll remains exclusively in numbers. On the other hand, Mizuki’s personal encounters with fallen soldiers, which are not so explicitly rendered, are made all the more haunting in their murky and indistinct depths of black ink.

Showa is an enjoyable book to read, and this volume in particular will appeal to those interested in World War II and comprehensible narratives of the political and military intrigue of the time. Mizuki succeeds at making a piece that covers very heavy topics but also brings in slapstick humor and personal anecdotes that lighten the load and help the reader through the journey. But even at its most lighthearted, the manga is a strong and fascinating critique of Japan’s history, and of the artist himself as a younger man.

If you enjoy or are interested in manga and history, or if you appreciate excellent works such as Barefoot Gen and Maus, then this series is a must-read. If you haven’t already, jump in with the first book Showa 1926-1939 before picking up the second book.The third volume, Showa 1944-1953, will be released November 11, and is available now for pre-order at a reduced price on Amazon. If you can’t wait to read more of Mizuki’s other works, Drawn and Quarterly has already published his award-winning Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, and his yokai-focused cultural landmark manga Kitaro and NonNonBa.

For more on Davisson, read our exclusive JQ magazine interview with him. For more JQ book reviews, click here.

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