SBP Blog

Frederik Schodt on Shigeru Mizuki from "Dreamland Japan"

Michael Palmer - Monday, November 30, 2015

In light of the sad news of Shigeru Mizuki's passing we'd like to share an excerpt from Frederik L. Schodt's Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga on the famed manga creator.  

Shigeru Mizuki



"I first met Shigeru Mizuki briefly in the early eighties at a gathering of cartoonists in Japan. He was hard to overlook. In an industry where many artists are in their late teens or early twenties, he was in his late fifties, and the left arm of his coat hung empty. But he exuded vitality. I met Mizuki again in 1993, in San Francisco, after he had just returned from an arduous research trip in Hopi Indian territory in Arizona. He was nearly seventy then and accompanied by an entourage of much younger men. After a late dinner and drinks, they were all exhausted, but he insisted on slipping into a porn shop to look at the girlie magazines. His companions rolled their eyes in amazement.

Mizuki was born Shigeru Mura in 1924 in the town of Sakaiminato on the isolated western seaboard of Japan. He exhibited a precocious drawing ability as a child, even garnering a mention in the local Mainichi newspaper. Much later, after the war, he briefly attended Musashino Art University in Tokyo, but since formal art training can destroy the originality required for good cartooning, he fortunately was not ruined by the experience. Today he often draws highly realistic, detailed backgrounds while rendering human characters in quirky, “cartoony” shapes.

Mizuki’s cartooning ability was aided by the voracious curiosity he developed at an early age. An elderly local woman he called “Auntie Non-non” often took care of him as a child and helped him develop a passionate interest in the spirit world, especially in local tales of goblins and ghosts.

Mizuki’s other formative experience was war. In 1943 he was drafted into the Imperial Army and sent to Rabaul on the island of New Britain in what is now part of Papua New Guinea. As one of the lower-ranking, late arrivals in a hierarchical and feudalistic command structure, he was constantly beaten by his superiors. While on sentry duty in the field one day, his detachment was completely wiped out in an attack by Australian and native forces. Mizuki made a harrowing escape alone back to Japanese lines, only to be reprimanded by his superiors for losing his rifle and (in Imperial Army style) for surviving. Later, during a raid by Allied airplanes, he was badly wounded and lost his left arm. After lingering on the verge of death and battling malaria, he was eventually nursed back to health. During this time he developed a deep affection for the natives of New Guinea, and he claims to have realized that a spirit force was guiding his life. Indeed, had he not been put out of commission, it is most likely that he would not be alive today. In a fairly famous incident, a unit to which he would have been attached was sent out on a suicidal “banzai” charge. Miraculously it survived, but since the men’s “glorious death” had already been reported to HQ, the unit was sent back to the front with orders not to return alive.

After repatriation, Mizuki worked for a time drawing for the kami-shibai, or “paper-play,” market—an inexpensive pre-TV form of street entertainment wherein raconteurs embroidered tales with a sequence of illustrated panels. He also drew stories for the manga pay-library market—a series of for-profit libraries that lent manga (and books) for a small fee to entertainment-starved readers. His debut work, published in paperback form in 1957 when he was already thirty-three years old, was titled Rocketman.

Commercial success and recognition eluded Mizuki until 1965, when he drew a story called Terebi-kun (“TV-kid”) for a supplement of the boys’ weekly Shônen Magazine. Terebi-kun was about a young boy who discovered how to enter his TV set, steal the products displayed on commercials, and give them to his poorer, real-world friends. The only people who could see him do this on the screen, though, were children who watched television. It was a novel plot, and with the huge boom in TV sets in Japan after the Tokyo Olympics, a formula for success. It won the prestigious Kôdansha Manga Award the next year.

Thereafter, Mizuki began to win the hearts of Japan, especially with his ghost and goblin stories. He drew heavily on Japanese spirit traditions, but the paranormal world he depicted was completely his own, and the monsters and goblins that populated it were, rather than scary, endearing. Kitarô, his most famous creation, in the series Ge Ge Ge no Kitarô (“Kitarô the Spooky”) was born of a family of ghost-goblins (his father was a mummy), the last of their kind on earth. Both parents “die,” but the father’s eyeball survives (with little arms and legs) and becomes Kitarô’s guardian. Since Kitarô himself only has one eye, the father’s eye sometimes hides in Kitarô’s eye socket. Kitarô lives in modern, normal human society, but along with a character called Rat Man he is poverty-stricken and an outcast. With his supernatural skills, he often helps people.

This blend of the weird and the normal proved tremendously popular. Ge Ge Ge no Kitarô was animated for television in 1968. A loose translation of a line from the theme song lyrics (written by Mizuki) illustrates one reason children loved it:

Boo, boo, boo boo-boo-boo-boo . . . in the morning I am snoring in my bed . . . Oh, it’s so much fun, it’s so much fun, goblins don’t have to go to school or even take exams. . . 

The other genre of manga in which Mizuki excels is war stories. Many of them have an antiwar theme and commiserate with the plight of the average soldier, thus allowing Mizuki to exorcise his own personal demons. Of these, the 1973 Sôin Gyokusai Seyo! (“The Banzai! Charge”) is Mizuki’s best. It is an account, in dramatic manga-style, of the fate of Mizuki’s doomed unit in New Guinea. Its gruesome detail and Mizuki’s obvious anger over the way arrogant Japanese officers squandered the lives of their men make it one of the most powerful antiwar comics ever created. (Ironically, Mizuki’s older brother was tried and convicted as a Class B war criminal.)

In the early nineties, with renewed interest in Japan in psychic phenomena and the spirit world, Mizuki’s popularity soared. In addition to comics, he published several essays and books on Japanese folk beliefs. In 1991 and 1992, a story by him about “Auntie Non-non” was broadcast as a prizewinning drama on the public television network NHK. And around the same time, he received the prestigious Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon from the Emperor of Japan.

At the end of 1994, Mizuki completed a marvelous 2,000-page series titled Komikku Shôwa-shi (“A Comics History of the Shôwa Era”). It wove his own tumultuous history into that of one of Japan’s most dramatic and controversial periods—the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1925–89)—using one of his ghost characters as an interlocutor and including meticulously researched footnotes and historical references. Had anyone else attempted to create such a work, it might have seemed forced or presumptuous. But Shigeru Mizuki made it seem a very natural thing to do."

Purchase Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga by Frederik L. Schodt  

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