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.