Note: this book was translated by Comics Bulletin’s Zack Davisson but the translation is not discussed in this review.
Shigeru Mizuki is one of the world’s greatest comic storytellers. This outstanding Japanese cartoonist is an institution in his native land for his delightful stories about yokai, adorable little demonic creatures that get tangled up in ridiculous adventures with a young boy. With his stories about yokai, Mizuki took a small part of Japanese folklore and turned it into a national craze, and eventually into an institution. He’s inspired museums, anime and even statues with those tales. A collection of the yokia stories was published in Canada by Drawn & Quarterly as Kitaro, a book very well worth seeking out.
But Mizuki is a man of many passions. In 2013 Drawn & Quarterly published his book Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, a bleak and brilliant story of soldiers stuck defending a tiny Pacific island. As I said a few months ago, that comic amazed and terrified with its naturalistic, captivating style that readers of any nationality can enjoy.
Recently D&Q released a new collection of Mizuki classics. Like the others in the series, Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan is remarkable: smart, drawn with a curious mix of exaggeration and realism, with a humanity and truth to it that is palpable. It’s also ambitious in a manner that’s different from the other two Mizuki manga I’ve read: it tells the story of life in Japan via two parallel tracks. One track presents the terrible tragedy of the social, military and financial struggles that happened in perhaps the worst era in Japan’s recent past. The other track walks readers through the shambolic history of Mizuki’s meandering childhood and youth, a surprisingly honest autobiography that doesn’t paint him at all in a good light.
Both halves of this book were spellbinding because of the portrait they give of a culture dealing with massive economic collapse, which meant famine, fear and confusion among ordinary people. Into that climate of existential terror rose a strong military class, driving troops into Manchuria, partially as part of their plan to colonize Asia as the Western powers did Africa; partially to seize upon the war fever and intense jingoism that often accompanies a fall from fiscal grace; and partially because the weak national government of caretaker Prime Ministers and ineffective managers simply had no power to stop them.
Though I’d read much about the effects of the Great Depression on the US and Europe, I knew nothing about Japan’s long and seemingly inevitable slide to war. I was surprised how fascinated I became with the events as Mizuki objectively presents them: the strangeness of the story, its actors and their behaviors made me feel more interested than I would have been with yet another recitation of Hitler’s appeal to jingoism (though Hitler does, inevitably, make a cameo). A lesser artist would make such an objective presentation a dull recitation of names and dates, but Mizuki’s dazzling art, which veers between caricature and realism on so many pages, gives this history a fascinating kind of clarity and insight, a sense of interior thought and exterior objective truth on display at the same time.
This intriguing mix is especially evident in the autobiographical scenes of Mizuki and his friends and family. In these sections, the people look strange and distorted. Their oddly warped faces are out of proportion with their bodies, with the effect being an odd sort of casualness that belies the terrors of the world that these characters are living in. In the same scenes in which we read of terrible privations – they eat bark to survive, starvation on the farm, an uncaring political class – these weirdly shaped citizens seem even more real.
Maybe their faces and bodies are symbolically carrying the pain and stress of the lives that they’re living, as a subtle sort of allegory. Maybe these distortions are symbolic with the Japanese language or folklore, invoking a deeper and more particularly Japanese style of presenting characters and plot, in the way that certain Japanese idioms are almost incomprehensible to Americans. Or maybe Mizuki just likes drawing people with his own very particular touch. Or maybe it’s a contrast between the high-living important elite who manage wars and incompetent hold government jobs and the ordinary peasants who are mere shapes to be glanced upon rather than fully defined human faces that are very specific.
But regardless of the reason for that style, it both amuses and saddens. It adds empathy to see such cartoonish individuals go through such hells, and Mizuki the master is brilliant at conveying such moments. In this eventful 500+ page manga, the clarity of those images and the poignancy of those scenes sticks in the mind even while the more important events on the world stage slip away.
It’s the contrast between high and low, between the objective history of the march to war and the subjective history of a country convulsed with fear, confusion and the fog of jingoism that helps give Showa its powerful impact.
It takes a master artist to create a work of art that spans such a deep and wide canvas, but the master Shigeru Mizuki is up to the task in this magnificent graphic novel. You don’t have to care about the past to love Showa 1926-1939 because the human elements are so interesting. And if you care more about major events than individuals when consuming a work like Showa, this history of the Showa period in Japan is compelling reading.