If you’re a long-time fan of comic books, then you know that there’s a lot more to comics than superheroes. That doesn’t mean we don’t like our superheroes as comic book fans. It’s just that we know comic books are capable of telling all kinds of stories -- from the struggles of everyday life in Will Eisner’s A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories to the horrors of the holocaust in Art Spiegelman’s Maus to the beauty of classic opera in P. Craig Russell’s Ring of the Nibelung. Well, you can add another classic to the comic book library. Manga master Shigeru Mizuki, better known for his stories about yokai (Japanese goblins and ghosts), wrote Showa: A History of Japan at the end of Emperor Hirohito’s life. Now, 25 years later, Drawn & Quarterly has published this classic manga for the English language market and it’s a masterpiece.
Mizuki tells two simultaneous stories in Showa. The first is the history of Japan under the Emperor Hirohito, whose reign lasted from 1926 to 1989 (and is known as “Showa,” or “radiant glory,” in Japan). The first volume covers 1926 through 1939 from Hirohito’s accession during a bank collapse through Japan’s conquest of China. The second volume covers 1939 through 1944 focusing on the war years and the war’s impact at home. (The third volume, covering 1945 through 1953, will be published in November.)
The second story is Mizuki’s own. He alternates between world events and his own adventures as a young boy and then a young man. The juxtaposition could have been jarring as Mizuki jumps back and forth between sobering world events and the amusing hijinks of a young boy. But it’s not. The two stories create a wonderful counterbalance. Initially, the war serves as a backdrop for the misadventures of youth. Children are the same in any era and in any circumstance -- they simply want to play and have fun. Mizuki and his friends are more interested in the introduction of talking movies and donuts to Japan than they are in world events. Eventually, the two stories intersect as the military regime imposes increasing regulations on domestic life and then as Mizuki is drafted into the army.
Mizuki’s military duty, depicted in the second volume, is both humorous and heartrending. Mizuki is a naïve young man who is always getting into trouble with his superiors. But this is no Beetle Bailey comic strip. After refusing lighter duties, Mizuki is shipped to the front where he learns the real horrors of war. Mizuki expands on these experiences in the companion book, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.
I found Mizuki’s military experience particularly fascinating. Mizuki was originally scheduled to go to Guadalcanal but that battle was lost before he could arrive. He was instead deployed to New Britain, one of the islands of Papua New Guinea. He battled the jungle, the insects, the rain and the mud long before he encountered any American enemy. Then, already weary from the jungle, Mizuki was marched into battle with the expectation that he would not survive. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is not only an excellent companion to Showa: A History of Japan. It’s also an interesting parallel to the The Pacific and to the autobiography of Robert Leckie, Helmet for My Pillow, which served as one of the sources for the TV mini-series. Mizuki and Leckie shared similar miserable experiences in New Britain before fighting on opposite sides.
My only complaint about Showa is that it starts out a little awkwardly. Mizuki wisely relates some of the events that happened before Hirohito’s reign and which set the stage for economic unrest and military rule. However, he also drops in events that might mean something to someone who’s Japanese -- such as the death of a beloved celebrity -- but are otherwise unconnected to the rest of the story. That minor problem fades as the story progresses -- in part because the notable obituaries feature people already mentioned. It also helps that Mizuki introduces a narrator -- Nezumi Otoko. Otoko is a rat-like creature who would have been familiar to Mizuki’s primary audience through his children’s stories (the editor compares Otoko to Donald Duck). Mizuki uses Otoko to slow down the story when necessary and explain important background information. With Otoko as a guide, the historical sections become much more accessible.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I would recommend Showa to anyone. My 10-year-old daughter saw me reading Showa and asked to borrow it. She recognized it as a comic book and was interested in it even after I told her what it was about. Mizuki’s masterpiece was able to teach her history at her level, educating her and entertaining her at the same time. I also recommended it to the president of the board of my local library. After I told her about it, she mentioned her appreciation for Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima and I agreed that the two stories shared a similar sensibility.
Showa is one of those books, like Maus, that every comic book fan should read eventually. It’s informative. It’s humorous. It’s heart-rending. It’s everything great comics should be.
Yeah, I enjoy Mizuki's stuff immensely. I've read the books you mention above, plus a collection of some of his yokai stories. (The title slips my mind - I'll check my personal library tonight.) He's a good writer.
However, he also drops in events that might mean something to someone who’s Japanese- such as the death of a beloved celebrity- but are otherwise unconnected to the rest of the story.
This does come up sometimes in manga. One has to bear in mind that it was written with a Japanese audience in mind, who would presumably "get" these references. It's possible that it might not have occurred to him that his stuff would one day be translated.
Kitaro is the book I was thinking of.