Japan’s beloved one-armed cartoonist, social critic, and war veteran Shigeru Mizuki, died Nov. 30 of multiple organ failure at a Tokyo hospital.
He was 93. He was most known for his Japanese horror comic books (manga) about GeGeGe no Kitarō (Spooky Kitarō). The series starred a traditionally clad Japanese monster boy as the hero, who with his motley crew of friends—Ratman, Cat-Girl, The Sand-Throwing Hag and other characters drawn from traditional folklore—protected Japan from indigenous and foreign evil monsters.
However, Mizuki also tackled a motley of taboo subjects in his comics that make him difficult to categorize as a simple cartoonist. Imagine if Walt Disney had been a wounded war veteran, who after creating Mickey Mouse later became a social critic of the Vietnam War, atomic energy, and the treatment of Southeast Asian prostitutes by U.S. troops. You would have, essentially, an American version of Shigeru Mizuki.
Mizuki was born in the Tottori Prefecture and his birth name was Shigeru Mura. He started his career as a cartoonist after barely surviving World War II. During the last stages of the war he was sent to Rabaul, in what is now Papua New Guinea, and participated in ferocious, desperate fighting. While there, he contracted malaria, suffered heavy wounds and eventually lost his left arm in a U.S. airstrike. Malaria and the loss of his arm saved his life, because it kept him out of commission when his brigade was sent on a suicide mission.
Mizuki, in his later writings, often reflected on how the sad fate of his fellow soldiers, together with his time wondering on the brink of death, gave him inspiration to draw the strange creatures which exist between the spiritual and physical world in his comic book universe.
Spooky Kitarō, the patient, brave, and stoic hero of many of his works, almost seemed to be an alter ego of the author—a character who tries to keep the peace between humans and monsters. The antics of Kitarō were repeatedly made into animated series for television and successful live-action films. The theme song to the series is now a karaoke classic; it is as familiar to the Japanese as is the Mickey Mouse Club Song is to many Americans.
Culturally speaking, in Japan and all over the world, Mizuki popularized the strange creatures and spirits of Japanese folklore known as Yokai (monsters) and Yurei (ghosts), while encouraging the preservation of oral traditions and myths all around the world. He was the Joseph Campbell of spooky creatures.
Roland Kelts, an expert on post-war Japanese culture and author of Japanamerica, considers Mizuki a cultural icon.
“I’ve always thought of Mizuki as an innovator and something of an outlier in the history of modern manga—a striking combination of a cartoonist in the more conventional manga-ka mode, largely established by Tezuka (creator of Astro Boy), and an illustrator more akin to Dickens’s Boz or Hogarth, incorporating their stinging critiques of societal hypocrisy and historical violence. His backgrounds are often meticulously detailed and almost photorealistic, while the main characters, or narrative witnesses, are drawn in more simplistic outlines and minimalist designs.
I attended an exhibition of his World War II works in Yokohama a few years ago and came away feeling that he was sui generis—there’s simply no one like him, in Japan or elsewhere. His obsession with spirits and the supernatural can be found embedded in later manga and animation like Pokemon and (Hayao) Miyzaki epics like Totoro and Spirited Away. And his recently translated magnum opus, (which chronicles Japan’s history up to and after World War II) Showa: A History of Japan, will likely remain unsurpassed as a graphic storytelling document of an entire historical epoch.
Mizuki rose to fame through his popular comics, but starting in the ’70s, he created a variety of controversial works which looked at the brutality of Japan during the Second World War, press censorship, and even such issues as the terrible working conditions at nuclear power plants.
His influence on Japanese culture will probably haunt Japan—in a good way—for years to come.
For the highly conservative Liberal Democratic Party of Japan and Japan’s right wing, Mizuki was always something of a living yurei, a ghost from the past that couldn’t be exorcised.
In his writings and as a veteran, he constantly challenged the revisionist history the right-wing elements of the party have put forward. He has taken on taboos that many people in Japan avoided in the past and still avoid.
In 1979, he worked closely with undercover investigative journalist Kunio Horie to produce the exposé The Darkness Of Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant: The Real Life of The Contract Laborers. Mizuki’s illustrations combined with the reportage of Horie depicted a dank, dangerous, power plant where accidents happened often and safeguards were poorly enforced, or simply ignored. In many ways, read now, it seems to be a prophecy of the triple nuclear meltdown that would happen there in March of 2011. The book, which had been out of print for decades, was finally republished the year of the accident.
Because of his wartime experiences, his most critically acclaimed book, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (Soin Gyokusai Seyo!), published in 1973, is considered a masterpiece of wartime literature. The work was awarded the Heritage Essential Award of the Angouleme International Comics Festival in France in 2008 and was reportedly his first book to be translated into English. It also won the equivalent of the comic book Academy Awards, the prestigious Eisner Award, in 2012.
It is a nearly autobiographical account of the desperate final weeks of a Japanese infantry unit in the South Pacific at the end of World War II. The soldiers are given orders that they must go into battle and die for the honor of their country; they will be executed if they return alive or try to escape. The Japanese Imperial Army officers, of course, do not join the enlisted that are sent out on their suicide mission.
The absurdity of Imperial Japan’s war have probably never been depicted more aptly; while still a comic book it comes very close to being the Catch-22 of Japan’s wartime literature. It is a far cry from the kamikaze worshipping novel The Eternal Zero, a book and film much beloved by Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his cabinet.
While Mizuki kept a low profile on the political scene, he participated in exhibitions and programming that strongly challenged revisionist renderings of the war, including a dramatization of his Onwards Towards Our Noble Death in 2007 broadcast on NHK, the PBS of Japan.
In August this year, Chofu City held an exhibition that he created “Mizuki Shigeru’s War and the Newspaper Coverage,” which had 90 of his illustrations depicting the horrors of war posted next to the state-approved newspaper articles published at the time. The contrast between the reality of the war situation and the lies being told to the public now seem to be a quiet criticism of Japan’s diminishing press freedom. (Japan was ranked 11th in the World Press Freedom Index in 2010. It is now 61st).
Mizuki even took his examination into the horrors of war outside of Japan, sending his most famous creation, Kitaro, to examine the conflict in Vietnam.
However, his death has also brought back some of his more obscure works into the public eye, including his writings on the comfort women issue. “Comfort women” is a euphemism for the women who were treated as sex slaves by the Japanese military before and during the war. He touched upon it in past works but also in an 8-page comic book essay called Jugunianfu (The Comfort Women Of The Military) in which he depicted his own recollections of the “comfort stations,” their brutal conditions, and stated that Japan should compensate the women for putting them through “hell.”
Matthew Penny, a specialist in postwar Japanese history, in his essay, War and Japan: The Non-Fiction Manga of Mizuki Shigeru, notes that Mizuki’s work poses a problem for the far right.
“Not only has Mizuki avoided significant criticism by the rightwing, possibly due to his iconic status and personal war experience, but he has also been the recipient of some of the Japanese government’s most prestigious awards—the Shiju Hosho (Purple Ribbon Medal) in 1991 and the Kyokujitsu Sho (Order of the Rising Sun) in 2003.”
Japan’s most conservative newspaper, the Sankei Shimbun, in its front-page obituary for the cartoonist, neglected to touch upon Mizuki’s highly noted works depicting the horrors of war. It’s not surprising when one of the Sankei group’s former executives was involved in the recruitment and degradation of comfort women, including putting a price on the women depending upon how “used up they were.”
This is how the right wing generally deals with Mizuki’s writings: They ignore them.
There is a certain comic irony in modern Japan that the truth about World War II and the brutality of the Japanese Army during the war is a subject that can only be told in comic book form.
In an interview in 2006, Mizuki was asked what he thought of the beautification of the Second World War in popular culture and comics. He replied, “They’re written by people who have never experienced war. It isn’t like the movies. This is why, as a war-veteran, I felt it was my job to write (the realties of war) in Onwards Toward Our Noble Deaths and Showa History ... (to depict) the terrible sadness of those who die. The downfall that comes with defeat. The modern age where we have enough to eat and some luxury is heaven. War is not something we should do.”
Kaori Shoji, a veteran bilingual journalist and longtime film reviewer for The Japan Times, points out that Mizuki held up a mirror to Japanese society that it often didn’t want to see.
“Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy) put the cute in his criticism of modernized Japan, but Shigeru Mizuki wanted it gross and ugly. His depictions of Japanese monsters (yokai) and the Japanese themselves—were dark and filled with mistrust. And who can blame him—as a foot soldier in WWII, Mizuki-san lost an arm in Papua New Guinea and he spent the latter half of his youth recuperating in hospitals or scrambling for food and cash. He was one of the manga giants of post-war Japan and kept doing his thing even after he hit 90—which was to hold up a mirror to the Japanese. We could see that all the glittering technology and abundance hasn’t done much to change the inherent greedy, narrow-minded smallness which he felt was the defining factor of (modern) Japan. His work always made me uncomfortable, and somehow grateful for being around to put us in our places. Rest in peace, Mizuki-san. No doubt your lost arm’s been waiting for you.”