Exhibition: Shigeru Mizuki

Spirited stories make Mizuki a true original

Japanese manga (comics) have now attained an international appeal. Whether this is a long-term trend or just a passing phase, perhaps based on their novelty, will depend on the quality of the product. A browse through the racks of any Tokyo bookstore or a casual glance over the shoulder of your fellow comic-reading commuters, however, is not particularly inspiring.

The disposable nature of the product and the prevalence of cinematic techniques -- the use of close-ups and pointlessly varied angles to impart tension and dynamism to otherwise dull and badly drawn stories -- means that the majority of manga have a short-term and local appeal that is unlikely to carry overseas.

Luckily for the industry, amid all the clichéd gangster yarns, salarymen sagas, and sports-themed dross that has been churned out over the last few decades, there have been some more inspired artists at work. One of these is undoubtedly 83-year-old Shigeru Mizuki who is currently being honored by a major retrospective of his life and work at Tokyo's most populist museum, the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Located in the shitamachi (downtown) area of Ryogoku, the museum likes to feature exhibitions of interest to the average person. In focusing on the life and work of Mizuki, they have chosen wisely, as Mizuki is widely known and loved by the Japanese public, in particular for his character Gegege-no-Kitaro (Cackling Kitaro), a spooky boy who exists in the world of the youkai (bewitching apparitions), a fantastic realm inhabited by goblins, ghouls, and other fantastic monsters.

The mass affection for Mizuki is signaled by the tone of the exhibition, which makes a point of trying to present the man almost as much as his work, with an indulgent life-sized cardboard cut-out of the artist at the entrance and a wax-work of Mizuki inside to welcome visitors. In addition to his artwork, the show also includes Mizuki's fascinating collection of horror-related curios that helped to inspire many of the multitude of characters that inhabit Kitaro's world, and much of the exhibition is devoted to explaining his life and career, which is almost as enthralling as his comic tales.

"In a way, the life of Mizuki symbolizes the story of the Showa period," exhibition organizer, Keita Fujimoto, states, referring to the classic tale of war-time horror, followed by post-war austerity and hard work, rewarded by final success that is taken to be typical of the dynamic of that lengthy and varied period (1926-1989). Mizuki's life reads like an exaggerated version of this.

As a young man he served in the Japanese Imperial Army, seeing service in the South Pacific island of New Britain, now part of Papua New Guinea. Here, in one of the pockets of the Japanese military by-passed by General MacArthur's island hopping campaign, he contracted malaria and, while suffering from this, lost his arm in an Allied air raid. Luckily, it was not his drawing arm. The memories of this period recur throughout his work, even in the famous grass hut in which Gegege-no-Kitaro lives, obviously inspired by the huts he saw on New Britain. A full-scale model of this iconic hut has been specially constructed for the exhibition.

"In New Guinea he found a kind of paradise," Fujimoto adds, emphasizing the positives. Mizuki was also deeply impressed by the animist culture of the local people and their belief in spirits, something that helped him develop his interest in Japan's own spirit world.

After the war he got his start as a working artist, drawing rather clichéd pictures for kami-shibai (paper play) storytellers, who used to cycle around working class districts putting on shows, using a box with changeable pictures. Examples of this are on display along with a bicycle used by these itinerant storytellers who flourished in the days before television.

From this he graduated to drawing rental comics on various subjects, from science fiction and samurai tales to 'heroic' war stories. His true feelings about this period of his career can be surmised from the war stories he produced after he became famous. Unlike the earlier efforts, which glorify the heroism of war, Mizuki's later, more personal accounts invariably show the more human side and stress the horrors of war.

This period of hackwork nevertheless paid the bills and allowed him to develop his artistry. He also started to build up name recognition so that publishers increasingly came to give him more creative autonomy. From this, Mizuki started to create increasingly original projects, drawing not only on his wartime experiences, but also on childhood memories from his Tottori hometown.

"When he was 5 or 6 years old, he met an old woman called Nonnon, who made many ghost stories based on Japanese tradition," Fujimoto explains. "This is also why we have included many old Edo scrolls, showing traditional supernatural creatures."

For Japanese there seems to be a big difference between the scary supernatural and the non-scary, between yuurei (ghosts), who are seen as the dangerous disembodied souls of those killed in sudden or sad circumstances, and youkai (bewitching apparitions), the monsters, goblins, and ghouls of Kitaro's world. These latter are seen as comical, bizarre and mischievous rather than terrifying, a distinction that Fujimoto is keen to point out.

"These spirits are not harmful. They are much more friendly; they are not the enemy for us."

This is certainly the way Mizuki's fans feel about Kitaro and the vast supporting cast of odd cretaures, like Kitaro's constant companions, Nezumi-Otoko (Rat Man) and Medama Oyaji, a small eyeball creature, who is actually Kitaro's father. Other famous creatures of Japanese folklore, like kappa (water sprites) and rokurokubi (a female monster with a long, flexible neck) also appear, as well as even stranger creatures.

As with the folk beliefs of the natives of Papua New Guinea, there is a feeling in this of a world in which everything has a spirit, and in which the spiritual 'life force' is polymorphous, taking on a multitude of forms. Whether consciously or not this is an expression of a Shinto animist worldview.

But whatever philosophical implications it has, this richness of subject matter is also vital as a driving force behind the artistic style of Mizuki. The only way to convincingly portray a universe in which every inch is spiritually alive is to draw it with intricate, detailed, and lifelike precision, something that Mizuki has done with great application, inspiration, and humor over the years, making him a true giant of the manga world.

International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbin
17th December, 2004
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