Monday, January 13, 2014

Showa: a History of Japan (1926-1939)

A Fascinating period in Japanese history explored by a master of manga.

Showa: a History of Japan, 1926-1939 is the first volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s meticulously researched historical portrait of twentieth century Japan. This volume deals with the period leading up to World War II, a time of high unemployment and other economic hardships caused by the Great Depression. Mizuki’s photo-realist style effortlessly brings to life Japan of the 1920s and 1930s, depicting bustling city streets and abandoned graveyards with equal ease.”

“When the Showa Era began, Mizuki himself was just a few years old, so his earliest memories coincide with the earliest events of the Era. With his trusty narrator Rat Man, Mizuki brings history into the realm of the personal, making it palatable, and indeed compelling, for young audiences as well as more mature readers. As he describes the militarization that leads up to World War II, Mizuki’s stance toward war is thoughtful and often downright critical – his portrayal of the Nanjing Massacre clearly paints the incident (a disputed topic within Japan) as an atrocity. Mizuki’s Showa 1926-1939 is a beautifully told history that tracks how technological developments and the country’s shifting economic stability had a role in shaping Japan’s foreign policy in the early twentieth century.” [ Text from the publisher's website and from the back cover ]

As I already wrote in my comment on his illustrated biography of Hitler (in french), Shigeru Mizuki is one of those older generation's mangaka (like Shôtarô Ishimori, Sampei Shirato, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Osamu Tezuka, Kazuo Umezu) who tell stories in a relatively simple and rather crude, sometimes even caricatural, style. Born in 1922, he showed an early artistic talent but WWII did not give him the chance to make a career. Conscript in 1943, he found himself in Papua New Guinea where he saw the horror of war (sick, he barely survives the massacre of his unit) and was seriously injured in an Allied bombing at Rabaul in 1944. Amputated of his left arm, he learns to drawn with the right and, among other various small jobs, works as a kami-shibai artist and storyteller (story illustrated with painted cardboard panels and presented by a street storyteller). He starts his mangaka career late, with the release of Rocket Man in 1957. He first works mostly for the Kashibonya market (libraries who rented books at low prices) and then joined Garo magazine in its debut in 1964. Mizuki is "above all a creator of ghost stories" (Frederik Schodt, Manga! Manga!, P. 15) and is best known for his Kitaro series (first known as Hakaba no Kitaro [Graveyard's Kitaro] and later as Ge ge ge no Kitaro [Kitaro the repulsive] serialized in weekly Shonen magazine from 1965 to 1969; available in English from Drawn & Quarterly) as well as many other tales of horror inspired by the yokai (monsters) of the traditional Japanese folklore. I can only wonder: was he writing this kind of stories because he was haunted by all the deaths he witnessed during the war?

With the 70s, he is finally ready to directly address another kind of horror: the one he lived during the war. In 1971 he serialized Gekiga Hitler (“Hitler: A Biography”, available in french from Cornélius) in the seinen magazine Weekly Manga Sunday (compiled in a single volume by Jitsugyo no Nihon-sha in 1972). This book is both a kind of personal introspection (where he tries to understand what happened to him during the war) and his take on a period of history that most people would prefer to keep quiet (maybe trying to explain what happened during the war to a younger generation who didn't live through it). In 1973, he continued on the same line with the publication of Sôin Gyokusai Seyo (Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, available in English from Drawn & Quarterly and in French [Operation Mort], from Cornélius), which is an "anti-militarist story denouncing the blind and vain sacrifice" of the japanese soldiers (Thierry Groensteen, L'Univers des mangas, p. 109) and is directly based on his own experience in Papua New Guinea.

This has given him a taste for autobiography, so he published NonNonBâ to ore (lit. "Grandma and Me" / NonNonBâ, available in English from Drawn & Quarterly) in 1977, where he looks back on his childhood and how he discovered, through the stories of an old woman, the supernatural "bestiary" of traditional Japanese folklore. He continues in 1988 with Komikku Showa-Shi (Showa: A history of Japan, available in English from Drawn & Quarterly), a history of Japan in manga dealing with the Showa era (1926-1989) in eight volumes. Finally, in 2006, he began a new series where he tackles a true autobiography: Mizuki Shigeru Den (“Mizuki's Life”, available in French from Cornélius). His style and humane stories, expressing deep respect for all life, make him "one of the forerunners of the 1960s gekiga movement, which sought to introduce more realistic artwork to Japanese comics" (Jason Thompson, Manga: The complete guide, p. 123). For more information on the gekiga movement, I'd like to refer you to my comments on A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. On Shigeru Mizuki himself, you can see ANN's entry and the 106th episode of "Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga" dedicated to him.

Showa: A history of Japan (コミック昭和史 / Komikku Showa-Shi / lit. "A Comics History of the Showa Era") was first published in eight volumes (tankōbon), between november 1988 and december 1989, by Kodansha without being serialized in a magazine beforehand as it is generally the case for a manga series. It won the 13th Kodansha Manga Award in 1989 and was reissued in a smaller format (bunkobon) in 1994. The English edition by Drawn & Quarterly will be compiled into four huge volumes (the first volume was released in november 2013 and the second one is due in may 2014). There's a five-page (pg 348-352) preview available on their website. [opposite: pg 194]

It is always rather difficult to comment on such historical manga, because there is so much material to talk about, so many dates, so many events and historical characters, that it's a little overwhelming. Fortunately, the superb foreword by Frederik L Schodt says it all about this huge volume and helps us put everything into perspective:
“The long Showa era was arguably the most tumultuous, violent, and tragic of them all, with only brief moments of optimism. (...) It might at first seem odd that a manga artist would create what, I believe, is one of the best histories--of any sort--on Japan's Showa period.” [foreword, p. 9]

“[Mizuki] is not afraid to tell how an entire nation became first delirious with war fever, and afterward disillusioned with not only war, but nationalism itself.” [p. 10]

“In this first volume of Mizuki's Showa series, we are given a rare Japanese view of the train of events that led up to the war, and shown what it meant for ordinary citizens--and especially for Shigeru Mizuki--to be dragged deeper and deeper into a world of no escape” [p. 11]

This manga tells us the story of the Showa era, which corresponds to the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926-1989). This first volume explains the circumstances that brought Japanese expansionism, creating an asian colonial empire (mostly in Manchuria and Korea), and the events (particularly the Mukden incident on september 18th 1931) that led the military (without the consent of the government or the emperor) toward the Second Sino-Japanese war (on july 7th 1937) and later into World War II. I was told that the war was very hard on the Japanese people (and the story told in the first volume of Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa is an excellent example of what they had to endure). However, I realized while reading this manga that the entire era was one of hardship: from the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake to the financial crisis, from the Great Depression to a virtual military dictatorship, from war to defeat and occupation. The making of the pacific war was much more complex that I had previously thought. [Opposite: pg 234]

Mizuki is telling us two different stories with his manga: first, the History (with a capital “H”) of the Showa era that he presents to us in “a quasi-acedemic approach” and, second, his own childhood memories of that era, which is presented in a more casual and comical way as he portrays himself as a looser. In order to emphasize the difference between the two stories, he uses two different--and even opposite--styles: the historical story is told with rather realistic drawings which use “iconic photographs (...) hand-traced or rendered in super-high contrast” while his personal story is told with his usual “loose and cartoony” style (he even sometimes uses Rat-man, a character from his yokai stories, as narrator) [all quotes are from Schodt, foreword, p. 10]. All in all, he uses for this manga a very simple layout that is made of quite large drawings and very little panels per page (sometimes even only two and rarely more than eight). [Opposite: pg 278]

The manga concludes with an interesting afterword by Hideki Ozaki, followed by explicatives notes and relevant facts that help a lot to better understand the context of the historical events and the actors that participate in them. It is quite an interesting subject, but unfortunately the complexity of the narrative (as I said, many dates, many people) is made even more confusing for readers who are unfamiliar with Japanese history by the fact that Mizuki doesn't tell his story in a strictly chronological manner but often comes back in time to tell about more events or give more details on previously presented events. [Opposite: pg 412]

However, as an historian, I am compelled to find highly fascinating such a manga which succeeds to summarize an important--but often embarrassingly neglected or distorted--era of Japanese history with simple terms and illustrations. It's an heavy book (literally!) which is not always easy to read (particularly for us gaijin) but it is a very good (if not always entertaining) story and an excellent way to learn about Japanese history and better understand the culture. So, if you have any interest in classic manga or in Japanese history & culture, I recommend reading this manga.

Showa: a History of Japan, 1926-1939, by Shigeru Mizuki (translation: Zack Davisson). Montreal, Drawn & Quarterly, november 2013. 6.45 x 8.765 x 1.75 in., b&w, paperback, 534 pg., $24.95 US/Can. ISBN: 978-1-77046-135-2. Recommended for young adults (14+).

For more information you can check the following websites:

Showa: a History of Japan © 2013 Shigeru Mizuki / Mizuki Productions. Translation © 2013 Zack Davisson. Forward © 2013 Frederik L. Schodt. Afterword © 2013 Hideki Ozaki. Relevant facts © 2013 Shigeru Mizuki. English edition © 2013 Drawn & Quarterly. All rights reserved.

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