If you feel like an outsider peering into an unfamiliar world while reading Shigeru Mizuki’s mammoth graphic novel, Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan, you’re not alone. American history is long and sordid, and topics get cherry picked in its spotty public education system. Our world is crowded with abstract noise, political posturing, television identities, and spun-up commentary passing as fact, when the reality is, most of us have trouble locating Crimea, Uzbekistan, or Iraq on a world map.
Showa 1926-1939 is the first of two volumes Shigeru wrote and illustrated on the history of Japan during the Showa period; a period of history when Japan, in the run-up to World War II, was devastated by economic hardships, questionable political decisions, and military turmoil. Released by Drawn & Quarterly—one of the top publishers of graphic novels—Showa is a melting pot of manga style, photo realism, memoir, and narrative history.
Shigeru’s family and relatives affected by the Japan’s poor economy are drawn as simple creatures, reminiscent of Charles Schulz’ Peanuts gang. Shigeru and his boyhood friends (all of them conglomerated into some sort of makeshift gang) are always depicted as drooling, wide-eyed kids who are only tangentially affected by the economy and political problems. For them, being without money and hearing incendiary talk of right-wing politics are not a by-product of some greater national or world issue, they are just circumstances to be accepted. And there’s a charming innocence to Shigeru and his gang’s toils that flashes brightly against the backdrop of war.
In one scene Shigeru and two friends walk ten miles just to try a fancy treat they heard about called a “donut”, and never think twice about time and distance. Their thought process is a simple one: they don’t have enough money for both a train ride and a donut, so they walk. Later, Shigeru tells of the time he encountered Japanese hunger ghosts, or “hidarugami”, on a long walk where he certainly did not have enough to eat. Even though the story is supernatural and easily explained away (an overactive child’s imagination is heightened by hunger pangs), the way Shigeru depicts his ghostly encounter is believable.
Once Shigeru leaves the realm of the personal, the bulk of Showa is dedicated to Japan’s twisted, often bloody, Second Sino-Japanese War—a land war between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan—and the strain that Japan’s economy suffered beforehand, due in part to America’s Great Depression. Shigeru’s talent as an artist is on full display during the historical scenes of Showa. His black lines and human faces are intricate and poised and scenes of battle and military marches are razor sharp and hyperreal. Single pages pack monumental details into two frames, and are designed to be pored over, line by line, stroke by stroke. Even the shop signs within the frames are translated; a nice addition for those of us unfamiliar with the Japanese language.
Much of Shigeru’s historical sequences are taken from black and white photos of the war, likely driven by his hobby of collecting newspapers as a child. And his childhood plays predominantly into the storyline, as does his capricious narrator, Rat Man, who appears seemingly from behind the frames to guide you through the murky dates and military battles. Rat Man (the Japanese equivalent to Mickey Mouse) is the Virgil to our Dante, the stoic guide who has seen ahead and holds a cool, Zen personality. For Rat Man—and maybe for Shigeru, a soldier himself who last an arm in the war—the events of history are tragic, but unavoidable. The path has been laid before us, the past is set in stone.
Admittedly, I am not immersed in manga and, unfortunately, the name Shigeru Mizuki meant little to me, even as a long-time comics lover and graphic novel collector. Chalk it up to poor research on my part, or credit Drawn & Quarterly for issuing this hefty graphic novel, complete with some expert translation from Zack Davisson that deserves a special mention. Either way, Shigeru (now in his 90s) is a tireless artist who deserves to have his work read by a wider, international audience. Like the best tales, Showa is one you can appreciate on multiple levels: a brand new perspective on how history and war personally affect us all.
Yet, Shigeru can’t always distill 18 years of intricate Japanese history steadily, even when it takes the form of four 500-plus-page graphic novels (this one and Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan) and precise research. But what he can do is illuminate history through a personal viewfinder and, by doing so, he brings Japan and its history closer to a new world of readers.