By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazine. A bibliophile, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University, Julio currently keeps the lights on by working at JTB USA while writing freelance in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and comic books on his blog and Twitter @brittlejules.
Showa 1953-1989: A History of Japan is the fourth and final volume of the English translation of Shigeru Mizuki’s manga history of the Showa period. Translated for the first time into English by JET alum (and JQ interviewee) Zack Davisson (Nara-ken, 2001-04; Osaka-shi, 2004-06), the release of this book marks the end of a long journey for us readers. Mizuki took great pains to detail significant events of the Showa period and Japan’s role in World War II in order to preserve a comprehensive look at the time from the perspective of someone who had lived it. He intended this manga history to be a gift for all the generations born in a time of peace. As a reader born in the first year of the Heisei period, I was not even alive for any single event I read about, but nevertheless was moved by the power of Mizuki’s personal and historical storytelling and art to think about world history in new ways. The best part of reading something by Mizuki is you’re in for plenty of laughs along the way as well.
As a refresher for those of you who have been with us from the start, and an intro for those just tuning in, the first volume of this illustrated history of the Showa period in Japan covered the years 1926-1939 and highlighted a modernizing Japan and Mizuki as a child fascinated by spirits called yokai, and almost as importantly, a child obsessed with food. The book chronicled a number of incidents in Japan and Asia that took Japan down the road to World War II that come to a head in the second book which featured the years 1939-1944. This volume devotes itself to capturing the massive scale and harrowing death tolls of air-, sea-, and land-based conflicts in the war, and as time passes Mizuki’s own autobiographical narrative weaves in as he serves in the army. The third volume covers 1944-1953 and sees the darkest parts of Japanese history in World War II, and Mizuki’s own experiences are spotlighted, but it is not without the hope and admiration for humanity inspired from Mizuki’s encounter with the natives of Rabaul. This book also covers the Allied occupation of Japan and the beginning of what historians call “Postwar Japan” in which Mizuki starts down the path that will lead him to manga success and Japan becomes a booming economic power.
Interestingly, the last volume covers 1953-1989, which is 36 years of history and among the other volumes is the one that tackles the longest period of time. It’s also the most varied in its content. The same historical approach to events from a variety of perspectives narrated by either Nezumi Otoko or Mizuki himself persists through this volume, but as TV, movies, and popular culture take on an increasingly larger significance in society, so do strange events take on a more significant coloring in history. Mizuki devotes many pages to portraying abnormal events both comical and criminal that preoccupy the public mind by way of showing how times have changed since before the war. For this reason, the fourth volume at times can sometimes feel like a series of short historical episodes told in manga form, but of course presented in a chronological and unified way.
Some of the highlights include observations on the fishing incident that inspired the Godzilla franchise, mass toilet paper shortages, protests by the political left, the political right, and especially students, which would build up to extremist factions on both sides going too far and losing public favor. Mizuki’s own anecdotes shine brighter in this book as he continues his self-disparaging comedic portrayal of his life, often laced with moments where you can’t help but pity the poor guy.
At first, Mizuki’s comics are not profitable and he spends at least 15 years nearly impoverished with most of his belongings being held in a pawn shop before he finds success. We find that for a manga writer, “success can be as punishing as failure,” as he is constantly compelled to create work in order to make money for a variety of publishers and he is forced to take on assistants to create the necessary volume. We even see the appearance of the money-mad editor that inspired the Nezumi Otoko of GeGeGe no Kitaro fame and also the narrator of Showa.
This volume also departs from previous ones in that Mizuki seems more comfortable now flexing his creative muscles and depicting longer chapters of stories in his life that take on a kind of magical realism. From dreamlike experiences involving Afterlife Insurance to flights of fancy involving an Extra-Marital Affairs Company taken a bit too seriously, Mizuki returns to the idea that during the high-pressure comic writing time of his life he would often have trouble distinguishing fiction from reality and he invites the reader into this confused but nevertheless entertaining state on several occasions.
A final highlight worth mentioning here is Mizuki’s return to the islands where he served in the war, where he and his fellow veterans have a moving spiritual encounter. After that, Mizuki takes a personal journey to Rabaul, where he visits the natives that took care of him when he was sick and wounded during the war, and whom he consequently grew to love. His first return visit suffers from comical culture shock, but later his relationship with his dear friend Tobetoro and the culture of Rabaul become a central part of Mizuki’s life. He collects stories and souvenirs that will influence his work and inspires him to travel the world learning about yokai.
One noteworthy episode that informs Mizuki’s unique approach to life is when he is discussing bending tableware with his children. After Uri Geller bends a spoon with his mind on live television, Mizuki is inspired to try, and fail. But he reminds his children that the important thing is to be receptive to the unknown and the things you cannot see or know, “Like when you feel a presence in a room but can’t see anything. If you say…‘It’s nothing’…then you aren’t being receptive.” Mizuki has had many encounters in his life that he cannot explain, and attributes them to the presence of yokai, several of which appear in this series, and it is clear that to him an attitude of openness toward the unknown and a disdain toward the narrow-minded approaches to things of the material world that lead to greed and violence are two of the most important principles in his life, and ones he hopes to impart on his children and his readers.
It’s hard enough to end an original work of fiction, but how do you really end a series about history when history doesn’t really end? The easy way out for Mizuki would have been finishing with the passing of Emperor Showa in 1989, and while he does not shy away from the incident, that is certainly not the last page. The note that is important to Mizuki to end on is a notion that we are always racing against the final deadline of our lives, and before he passes he wants to pay back what he calls his war debt. As the Showa period draws to an end, it is Rabaul that Mizuki feels compelled to return to frequently, and to support his closest friend the and people who have become like his family. Looking forward from there, he wants all of us to remember dark parts of history and avoid repeating them in the future.
This final volume also has excellent bonus material at the end, about 60 pages of Mizuki’s illustrations from the series in color. Revisiting previous volumes in breathtakingly rendered versions of memorable panels was a pleasant surprise. Many panels focus on the destructive and horrific aspects of wartime and approach a Guernica level of inspiring anti-war sentiment, but there are some that are more scenic or nostalgic for a different age. Mizuki’s style varies from playful and exaggerated to hyper realistic and that dichotomy is apparent here, but both styles are elevated to new heights with color.
Shigeru Mizuki has led a full life of hardship and wonder. At the time of this book’s publication, he is 93 and still bringing laughter to many through his enormous body of award-winning work, which is thankfully becoming more available in English thanks to the publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Look for The Birth of Kitaro coming in spring 2016 to see the origin of Mizuki’s seminal work GeGeGe no Kitaro. And if you find Mizuki’s manga approach to history interesting, then you might also consider checking out Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler, available later this month and also translated by Davisson.
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