“War and Japan: The Non-Fiction Manga of Mizuki Shigeru”

The web journal Japan Focus just published a translation of one of Mizuki Shigeru’s short manga pieces, entitled “War and Japan“, with a brief introduction to the man and his work written by Matthew Penney. One of the most famous and important manga authors in Japan, Mizuki Shigeru remains surprisingly obscure abroad, even among ardent manga fans. English translations of his most popular work may exist, but I have never even seen any. As Penney’s profile of Mizuki Shigeru (who, incidentally, is still alive at the age of 86-over 60 years since losing his arm to an explosion on a south Pacific island in WW2) makes a point of saying, “Mizuki, who unlike most prominent revisionists actually experienced the horrors of war firsthand, sees no contradiction between a love for Japan and its traditions, and a willingness to look honestly at the nation’s war history.”

Mizuki is in fact best known for his work involving Japanese folk spirits (or faeries or hobgoblins or monsters- the Japanese term youkai is a bit hard to translate directly), which despite having a generally comic tone do also occasionally deal with the horrors of war, and also received much acclaim for his truly excellent 8 volume Showa-shi (History of the Showa Period), in which he uses pages of pure historical explanation (all in manga form, of course) to frame the primary narative of his own life throughout the entire Showa period, which began around the time of his birth and ended as he was approaching pensioner age. Although covering the entire 62 years of the Showa period, Showa-shi focuses most heavily on his childhood, when he developed his lifelong fascination with youkai and folktales, and on the WW2 period, when he was the sole survivor of a bombing attack in the South Pacific island of Rabaul, lost his arm, and after the war’s end very nearly stayed behind in the native village that had nursed him back to health.

Showa-shi may be considered the capstone of Mizuki’s career. It is not his last work, but does form a synthesis of themes from throughout his entire career. Although it is his youkai manga that he is mainly known for, he had actually spent a chunk of his early career writing WW2 comics for the rental manga market, which at that time was a market publishing original material.

As it so happens, just last week I picked up one volume of a newly published series which reprints Mizuki Shigeru’s war stories for, I believe, the first time. Japanese books can have maddeningly scant publication history, however, so in fact the copyright page says only that this volume was first published in 2008, without specifying in detail the publication history, or even clearly labelling the original year of publication! Despite this annoying flaw, the book is great stuff. Labelled “comics for thinking about war and peace”, this particular volume is his stories of the air war. Much of the art bears little resemblance to Mizuki’s trademark style, instead opting for a sketchy grim style, particularly for the chaotic air combat scenes.

I haven’t yet had a chance to do more then flip through, although i did just read the first story -“Cockroach”, in which a Zero pilot named Yamamoto is shot down, captured by the Allies, kills a guard almost accidentally and then escapes only to discover upon his return that Japan had surrendered. He is arrested as a war criminal, without really understanding why, escapes from the jail in Japan, and then is finally executed-the last to be executed as a war criminal by the Allied military. In the final panel, as his weeping mother is handed a wooden box containing his ashes, she cries “my son’s entire life was just like that of a cockroach running about and hopelessly trying to escape.” Although the story is clearly anti-war, the ambivalence towards the war crime trials and criticism of winner’s justice presents a viewpoint difficult to sum up in the simplistic left/right paradigm that is all too often employed when discussing Japanese views of World War II.

12 thoughts on ““War and Japan: The Non-Fiction Manga of Mizuki Shigeru””

  1. Off topic, but does anybody know about Taro Aso being Catholic? All the (Western) news sources site him as openly Catholic, however, none of them seem to realize how rare a Japanese Catholic is.

    And none of them go into depth about it. In fact, Googling information on the Catholic Mr. Aso comes up with the same info as Googling the regular Mr. Aso – the news is just from Catholic sources instead of news agencies.

    Although, this lack of info probably means he is just a nominal Catholic. Just like most people in this country are nominal Shinto or Buddhist followers.

  2. I think that he is not a nominal Catholic because he’ve talked about his faith openly. Although Japanese Catholics constitute only a small minority group, you can find many in upper class(related to imperial family).

    Most of people are “indifferent” to others’ faith, so I believe that it’s surprising for many japanese to see western media focusing on PM’s individual religious faith.

    There existed two christian PMs before Aso in post-war Japan and a famous pre-war PM Hara Takashi was a Catholic, although I don’t know well David Hara kept his faith.

  3. Several of Mizuki’s yokai manga have recently been translated in french (NonNonBâ, Ge-ge-ge no Kitarō), and they are very successful.

    So much so that NonNonBâ won the Best Comic Book Price last year at the Angoulême International Comics Festival (biggest comics festival in Europe).

  4. As for Mizuki’s stories, I think that they represent one kind of popular acception of “the War” among senchu-ha戦中派, though, with his own strong accent: humiliation, resignation, anti-war sentiment, guilty consciousness, anger for war responsibilities, love for country, etc. Yes, they are not conformed to post-war left/right paradigm created mainly by a generation born in 1930’s who’ve experienced the War in their childhood and witnessed a radical change of values(imagine Oe and Ishihara).

  5. The senchuha also has a strong conservative element that just didn`t want to say anything about the war apart from anti-A-bomb platitudes, however. The contrast with those guys is one of the things that makes Mizuki shine.

    Roy asked about the publication history of those Mizuki volumes – there was a made for TV version of a mish-mash of several Miuzki war stories last year that caused Soin Gyokusai Seyo! to become a bestseller. That resulted in compilations like the Daikusen one that you have and a few more – Aa Gyokusai, Aa Taiheiyo I&II – being put together.

    It is really unfortunate that Mizuki is not more popular in the English-speaking world. Part of the problem is that you see Evangelion begin described as “old” (it came out in 1995). US anime/manga fandom has little sense of the history of the medium – older masterworks like Tezuka`s BlackJack are more or less ignored by manga buyers in favor of the new Jump stuff. I think that the French have a much better appreciation for older titles.

  6. >The senchuha also has a strong conservative element that just didn`t want to say anything about the war apart from anti-A-bomb platitudes.

    I am not interested in those idiots and the ex-soldiers I can respect are only the guys who’ve kept the silence with regret or succeeded in telling the truth without excuses or exhibitionistic repentant rituals. I feel the similar tone in representative senchuha artists like Kihachi Okamoto, Futaro Yamada, Shigeru Mizuki, Seijun Suzuki, etc. Their nihilistic and humourous tone is very different from senzenha artists who’ve experienced liberal Taisho era. Yes, this kind of argument is limited to intellectuals and artists, but it seems to me that Mizuki represent more popular tone and his stories have the capacity for evoking the souls of the mass including my grandfather.

  7. Excellent points Mozu. I admire the individuals that you menioned and will add Kobayashi Masaki to the list as well.

  8. I think if we look at it generously, then we have to say that even the most non-fiction manga, if it has historical characters in speaking roles, will almost certainly have to make some of those words up unless every single quote is a genuine quote. And no doubt a ton of other creative differences, based largely on not having the information. I can’t really see how, for example, “Embracing Defeat” could be made into a totally non-fiction manga. Certainly not a very good one.

    “Sensoron” might be considered a non-fiction manga, though the “non-fiction” aspect of it might be subject to debate… I also think it sucks as a manga – more like an illustrated polemic.

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