In his intriguing and ambitious manga Showa: A History of Japan 1926-1939 (Drawn & Quarterly: $24.95) Shigeru Mizuki skillfully interweaves autobiography with national and international events; The only graphic novel in English of comparable depth and scope is Art Spiegelman's Maus. Originally published in 1988-89, Showa is the first installment in a 4-volume set that will be issued in the US over the next year.
In Japan, the 92-year-old Mizuki is a hugely popular manga artist, best know for his charmingly off-beat tales of yokai. (Yokai are spirits in Japanese folklore; the word has been translated as "ghosts," "spooks" and "haunts.") There’s a museum dedicated to his work, and his manga have been adapted to animation and live-action films. A street in his home town of Sakaiminato features 100 bronze statues of his yokai characters.
"Showa" ("period of enlightened harmony") refers to the 63-year reign (1926-1989) of the Emperor Americans know as Hirohito. Born in 1922, Mizuki grew up and lived most of his adult life during the Showa era. He sometimes describes himself as a "Showa Man," much as an American might call himself as Gen-Xer or a Hoosier.
The personal sections of “Showa” have a warm, informal tone, especially when Mizuki recounts his adventures with “Nonnonba,” a warm-hearted, hard-drinking old woman who became a sort of substitute grandmother. She teaches him about yokai, including such bizarre creatures as Betobeto-san, a spirit who embodies the creepy feeling someone is following you in the dark. Young Mizuki hears the clack of his wooden getta (clogs) behind him on paths at night. Nonnonba explains that if Mizuki politely allows Betobeto-san to pass by him, he’ll go away. And he does.
For Japanese readers, World War II began not with the German invasion of Poland or the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but with the conquest of Manchuria. In 1931, a cabal within the Japanese Army faked an attack by "Chinese saboteurs" on a Japanese railway near Mukden to provide an excuse for the conquest of the resource-rich area. As the Mizuki grows older, war games, including battles with rival gangs of kids, occupy his time. The increasingly violent play and patriotic songs he sings parallel the expansion of Japanese aggression in Asia and the domestic suppression of communists, liberals and anyone else who doubted government policy.
Mizuki pulls no punches when he describes the expansionist policies of a government dominated by armed forces it had difficulty controlling. Those policies would produce the infamous Rape of Nanking and other acts of brutality. Nezumi-Otoko ("Rat-Man," a yokai with a large face, buck teeth and whiskers whom Mizuki invented) provides explanations and sardonic commentary.
Mizuki drew the "Showa" manga in three different styles. His childhood adventures have a simple, cartoony look that suggests a time of innocence. His portrait of himself as a child has a large round head comparable to Charlie Brown's and small features. Nonnonba's head and enormous staring eyes rest on a small body and tiny feet. Mizuki's ineffectual father and some of the other adults are done in a less cartoony, though still simplified, style. The characters sometime inhabit equally minimal settings; at other times, they walk through carefully drawn evocations of pre-war Japan.
Historical figures, including the Emperor, various generals and the Chinese victims of Japanese aggression, are rendered realistically, sometimes redrawn from photographs. As he did in his mordant account of his military service in the South Pacific, "Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths," Mizuki anticipates the combination of drawings and photographs in the graphic novel The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier (and the animation-live action combination in Waltz With Bashir).
Showa goes far beyond what are often seen as the limits of manga. Mizuki deals boldly and honestly with subject matter that continues to resonate 26 years after the book's initial publication and almost 80 years after the events took place. Many Koreans and Chinese object to what they see as the Japan’s failure to acknowledge the brutality of the actions in Asia Mizuki recounts.
Showa: A History of Japan 1926-1939 offers compelling reading for anyone interested in manga as a form of artistic and political expression—and in the current political conflicts in East Asia.