In our military, soldiers and socks were consumables; a soldier ranked no higher than a cat,” the Japanese manga artist Shigeru Mizuki recalled in the afterword to his haunting illustrated Second World War memoir, “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.” “But when it came to death, it seems we were human beings after all.”
By all rights, Mizuki (born Mura) should not have died on November 30th at the age of ninety-three, from complications of a fall. He should have perished in 1943, when, incapacitated by malaria in a field hospital on the Pacific island of Rabaul, his left arm was mangled in an Allied bombing run. The shredded limb was amputated by the facility’s sole medic, an optometrist by training, without anesthetic. It was the coup de grâce for an altogether miserable experience that Mizuki chronicled again and again in his works.
In Japan, Mizuki is an icon for his long-running comic and animation series “GeGeGe no Kitaro,” which debuted on television in 1968 and continues in various forms to this day. (“Ge,” an expression of shock in Japanese, also happens to be part of Mizuki’s childhood nickname, Ge-Ge.) The series focusses on the adventures of creatures from folklore known as yokai. This is often mistranslated as “ghosts” in English, but the yokai are actually spirits of the natural world, more like the fairies of England or the kachina of the Pueblo than the souls of departed humans. That a man who had seen such terrible things would embrace such quaint superstitions might seem an understandable escape from reality. But the yokai were a constant presence in Mizuki’s life, and in Japanese culture as a whole. Understanding Mizuki requires understanding the yokai.
Tales of these shape-shifting creatures and animals inhabiting rivers, mountains, forests, and seas, handed down from generation to generation in the oral tradition, were part of the fabric of Japanese life until the late nineteenth century. Then the spread of modern education and a campaign to eradicate “foolish popular beliefs” stamped them out of the public consciousness. Mizuki’s work near singlehandedly resurrected these folk creatures from the dusty annals of history and academia and recontextualized them as pop culture for the masses. “Kitaro,” which mixes both traditional yokai and those of Mizuki’s own invention, stitched together a nation’s worth of folktales into a charming world, populated with a menagerie of strange creatures lurking at the periphery of our own mundane existences. Its success provided the roadmap for countless imitators and homages, including “Pokémon” and the current anime superstar “Yo-Kai Watch.”
Today, Mizuki’s name is virtually synonymous with “Kitaro” and the yokai. Given the smashing success of this long-running kids’ franchise, which has appeared in fits and starts for more than half a century, it’s tempting to dub Mizuki the Disney of Japanese monsters. But Mizuki’s disinclination to whitewash the darker side of the human condition out of even his children’s fare makes him more like a Japanese Vonnegut. His comics brim with subtle and not-so-subtle references to the wars of his own and other nations, untrustworthy authority figures, and the consistent failure of violent solutions to problems.
Also unlike Disney, Mizuki was never content to confine himself to family fare. He penned a series of devastatingly blunt portrayals of his time in the Imperial Army and of Japan’s behavior during the Second World War, including “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths,” the unflinching eight-volume opus “Showa: A History of Japan,” and an illustrated character study of Adolf Hitler, among many others. At turns autobiographical, researched, and fictionalized, they read like a hybrid of such dramatizations as “Letters from Iwo Jima” and the cartoon journalism work of Joe Sacco. “Whenever I write a story about the war, I can’t help the blind rage that surges up in me,” Mizuki wrote in the afterword to “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.” “My guess is this anger is inspired by the ghosts of all those fallen soldiers.”
That a bespectacled, artistic daydreamer like Mizuki was conscripted for jungle warfare in the first place is a testament to how desperately wrong things were going for Japan during the war. By his own description a terrible soldier, he was so traumatized by his experiences that he resolved not to return home after Japan’s surrender and to settle in an indigenous Tolai village that had befriended him. But an officer convinced him to speak to his family before making the decision, and he repatriated to Japan along with the survivors of his unit.
He moved to Tokyo and made ends meet by providing illustrations for two cheap entertainments of the immediate postwar era: kamishibai street storytellers and kashi-hon, comic books that weren’t sold but rather rented out of pay libraries. The fly-by-night nature of the publishers and appallingly low pay didn’t exactly fill Mizuki’s coffers. But the experience prepared him for a career in the burgeoning industry of manga, comic books sold outright, which quickly eclipsed the kashi-hon as Japan’s economy dramatically improved in the late fifties. The deadlines were grueling. But established publishers promised regular pay, and also royalties, if one’s comic was chosen for animation, signaling a new era for artists. As someone for whom simply being alive must have felt like having won the lottery, Mizuki didn’t seem to be fazed by the pressures of the comic-book industry. He was famous for sleeping nine hours a night even as his comrades and rivals burned the midnight oil year after decade, compromising their health in the process. (Japan’s two biggest postwar stars, Osamu Tezuka, who created “Astro Boy,” and Shotaro Ishinomori, whose copious output included what became the “Power Rangers” franchise, both died at sixty.)
Even with his penchant for a full night’s slumber, not to mention lacking an arm, Mizuki launched an astounding number of series over the course of his career. One fan site catalogs some seven hundred and sixty while still declaring the list incomplete. But the one that made his fortune was the deeply weird “Kitaro.” It centers on a one-eyed, half-human child who leads a team of yokai buddies that rescues people in supernatural distress. For inspiration Mizuki mined the scary stories that a beloved elderly neighbor had told him as a youth in the countryside; this backstory of Mizuki being raised in a pre-modern rural town is as much part of the mythos to fans as the characters. The madcap Japanese fairytale ensemble in “Kitaro” is like “Shrek” by way of Haruki Murakami rather than DreamWorks.
The financial cushion of the success of “Kitaro” allowed Mizuki the freedom to plumb the depths of his wartime experience for more mature audiences, but none of his war stories achieved nearly the domestic acclaim of his children’s work. While the fact that he penned them is well known, Japanese fans are often surprised to hear that it is for these stories and not the yokai tales for which Mizuki is best known abroad.
Mizuki’s squashed, stylized human characters stand in stark contrast to his highly realistic backgrounds, finely shaded with an expert draftsman’s cross-hatching. This schism between realism and cartoon amplifies the absurdity of his story lines, letting him sneak in his social criticisms. He was the last of Japan’s manga artists to have experienced the horrors of battle firsthand, and spent his career pushing back against those who would glorify them. In an era when the nation’s leadership seems hell-bent on expanding the military’s role, respected critics like Mizuki will be greatly missed. Fortunately, his voice won’t be. Like the immortal yokai themselves, it lives on.