8b. Mizuki Shigeru’s Manga Surreality

Like any good hermeneutic circle, there is no good or even better point of entry when it comes to discussing Mizuki Shigeru; all topics are equally limiting.

Mizuki painting from the introduction to Nonnonbā

Mizuki painting from the introduction to Nonnonbā

So, I’d like to begin today somewhere in left field and by degrees inch into a comfortable barcalounger between the short stop and second base.  I recently picked up the Drawn & Quarterly translation (by Jocelyne Allen) of Mizuki’s Onward towards our noble deaths (Sōin gyokusai seyo!) not, as one might expect, so as to actually read the manga but rather to get a sense of what an introduction to Mizuki might look like, since I was at a loss.  Aside from the translations of Gegege no Kitarō (Creepy Kitarō) Kōdansha published in Japan for people learning to speak English, Onward was the first of Mizuki’s works to be published for an English-speaking readership.  When you consider the manga for which Mizuki is best known in Japan, KitarōOnward seems like an odd choice for a first entry.  However, given the recent spate of comic memoirs/autobiographies that have appeared in the Anglo-American comics market, it’s not all that odd.  It also makes sense, then, that the next text D&Q would put out would be Mizuki’s Nonnonbā, a healthy mix of the autobiographical elements that would fit with current market trends as well as the supernatural yōkai elements for which Mizuki is justly famous.

Schodt’s introduction in Onward hits most of the right notes: Mizuki’s anthropological interest in supernatural folktales from around the world, his time in the Japanese army during WWII, his kamishibai work prior to working in comics, etc. There are a few things, of course, that bug me, and not just because I am always on the lookout for things that annoy me, but because Schodt’s glosses and omissions–and this is a problem with his critical writing generally–speak to the heart of certain dangerous omissions from manga historiography.  Bug #1: “[Mizuki’s] debut work, published in paperback form in 1957 when he was already thirty-three years old, was titled Rocketman.”  Nothing Schodt says is inaccurate, so why does it bug me?

Superman Rocketman shows Dorai-kun the secret of his strength

SupermanRocketman shows Dr. Dorai the secret of his strength

Now, dear reader, you might be forgiven for mistaking Rocketman for some minor American superhero, but what you fail to realize is that the capital letter on this man’s chest comes from the pre-modern Japanese spelling of Rocketman, which begins with a silent S.  Now, it should be obvious to anyone who has ever thrown away a comic book that this is a Superman ripoff.  It would be lovely if all the manga that have come down to us were the pure wellspring of original genius, but we should keep in mind that mid-century comics history, both within and outside Japan, is awash in poaching and ripoffs.  This fact is a central plot point in Will Eisner’s The Dreamer, and it’s a testament to Tezuka’s whitewash of his career that the many who denounced Disney’s pilfering from Janguru taitei (Kimba the White Lion) in The Lion King were completely unaware of Tezuka’s own history of ripping off Disney.

Two pages from "Tezuka's" Shirayuki-hime (Snow White)

Two pages from “Tezuka’s” Shirayuki-hime (Snow White)

I am more willing, though, to give Mizuki a pass than Tezuka, for the latter, especially in the above, is not really doing anything with that which he appropriates.  Mizuki, on the other hand, has done something rather interesting in Rocketman: he has transformed that perfect example of the Übermensch icon of truth and justice into an oddity, as if Superman himself were Bizarro.  In the third panel (center right), Rocketman says to Dorai that his strength is the same as that of the hydrogen bomb, which perhaps explains why there is a mushroom cloud erupting over his bicep.  This allusion to American military power in the form of nuclear weapons is made even more eerie by Rocketman’s sudden, swift arrival at Japan in the last panel on the page.

Mizuki's Purasuchikkuman

Mizuki’s Purasuchikkuman (Plastic Man)

In Mizuki’s “ripoff” of the then-Quality-Comics-now-DC character Plastic Man, the superhero as Bizarro-in-himself is taken one step further toward those denizens of the ikai (the “other world” or “spirit world”) that would become Mizuki’s hallmark.  If you think about it, there really isn’t much to distinguish a superhero who can stretch and twist himself into any shape and a yōkai that can, well, stretch and twist itself into any shape.

This is, how do you say, like, totally different.

This is, how do you say, like, totally different.

Which brings me to bug #2: “Mizuki stands out not only for his longevity, but also for his originality.  When discussing him, critics rarely talk about how he resembles other artists because it is difficult to compare him to anyone else.”  Are Mizuki’s stories a joy to read? Sure.  Is his style of cartoonish characters against highly detailed backgrounds quirky and fun to look at? Sure.  Is he super special original (or extra crispy)? No.  In fact, if anything, his “originality” stems directly from how he appropriates other material, be it in his series of parody woodblock prints or the “superheros” above.  This makes for, I will assert, a bold but rather implicit claim running throughout his work, that the worlds of manga–perhaps even manga itself–are, if not identical to, then roughly synonymous with the “other world” that features so prominently in his narratives.

Nonnonbā and the manga ikai

Mizuki’s seminal yōkai manga, Hakaba no Kitarō (Kitarō of the Graveyard, later Gegege no Kitarō), which, for those unscrupulous readers out there, can be found here, seems the most likely starting point for broad claims about Mizuki’s manga oeuvre, yet I intend, for now at least, to overlook it.  Its own history of movement from kamishibai to kashihon manga to magazine serialization is a ball of wax I simply do not want to touch.

Nonnonbā p. 20

Nonnonbā p. 20

Nonnonbā, on the other hand, represents a far more circumscribed depiction of many of the central “oddities” of Mizuki’s style that, when unpacked, reveal as much about what has been marginalized in manga historiography as about Mizuki himself.  The autobiographical nature of the text is perhaps the easiest thing to latch onto, how he grew up hearing tales of supernatural creatures from his grandmother, the eponymous Nonnonbā, which would have a profound influence on his life’s work.  Also at the forefront in this text is one of the more salient features of his illustrative style: cartoonish figures against detailed, nigh photorealistic backgrounds.  I would argue that this aspect of Mizuki’s manga doesn’t simply come out of nowhere but is a direct reflection of the manga scene he entered into as the whole kamishibai thing was winding down.  I have written previously about the rather arbitrary distinction between manga and emonogatari that nowadays, more or less, holds and how those two “distinct” forms were part of the same print media, the weekly and monthly magazines of the ’50s and ’60s.  What I failed to note then is how the illustrations in emonogatari tend to be far more detailed (and anatomically correct).

A page from Fukushima Tetsuji's Sabaku no Maō (Magic Desert King)

A page from Fukushima Tetsuji’s Sabaku no Maō (Magic Desert King)

Manga, not exclusively but for the most part, tended toward more cartoonish forms of representation, in line with the late 19th century sense of manga as caricature.  What’s novel about Mizuki’s work is a refusal to make this distinction, to blend these two styles in one plane, to, if not remind, then allow for and encourage a reading of his work in which lumping these “two things” into two separate formal categories can be recognized as a critical fiction.

p. 9

Nonnonbā p. 9

Moreover, the character Chigusa brings into focus 1) how Mizuki’s depiction of characters is not uniformly cartoonish and 2) how Shige’s experience of her death, both as vision and as illustration within the text, brings to the fore an uneasy but meaningful non-distinction between one’s lived experience of “this” world, really real reality, and its other, in which yōkai and other supernatural oddities dwell.

Nonnonbā p. 95

Nonnonbā p. 95

Watanabe Masako's Tōi hi no yume

Watanabe Masako’s Tōi hi no yume

It’s telling that Shige’s first reaction to seeing Chigusa closely mirrors his encounter with various yōkai.  At no point does the text ever suggest that she is a supernatural being (well, Shige thinks she’s a ghost), but she is an oddity for other reasons.  First, she comes from the city, where everything is modern and new and whose innovations perplex Shige just as much as the fantastic creatures of Nonnonbā’s stories.  Second, the way she is drawn is not quite like the other people among whom she comes to live.  In fact, the way Chigusa is drawn closely resembles the way in which girl characters were depicted in the ’50s and ’60s.  Chigusa is drawn as much from an illustrated world contemporaneous with when Mizuki began to work on manga as she is from Shige’s life.  Her manga-ness is again reinforced in her long death sequence, in which she and Shige travel through exotic locales on their way to the Hundred Thousandth World.  Along the way, they encounter many fantastical things, things which Shige, even as he “experiences” them, is drawing into one of his illustrated stories.

Nonnonbā p. 199

Nonnonbā p. 199

It would be quite easy–and I think we ought–to read this blending of graphic storytelling with Shige’s lived experiences back onto the Nonnonbā manga itself.  It’s not really a stretch to say that Mizuki’s life has been one very much of and in manga, and so I can’t help but see Shige’s merging of the supernatural ikai with that of his own mundane existence as idiomatic of a potentially useful nondistinction between the reality of our own lives and the surreality of the things we read.

Of course, if you go too far down that road, you might end up like Alonso Quijano.

Next week: wrapping up this venture into manga/comic hybridity, Miller’s Ronin and Mack’s Kabuki.

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com


  1. adonisus · · Reply

    I thought it was fairly well known that Tezuka drew a few unauthorized Disney manga in his early career. He also did manga of Bambi and Pinnochio, as well as an unauthorized biography of Walt Disney himself. They’re even listed on the offical tezuka website.

  2. I would say it’s more like an open secret. Some people assume that all his Disney stories were licensed, even when in some cases, like Snow White, which he did in ’55, that simply isn’t possible. In the end, I think Tezuka can be judged on the quality of his work, some which is very good. It’s more a dig at Schodt and people like him who are so heavily invested in the Tezuka manga no kami-sama mythos.


  4. As far as I know his Bambi is authorized. Don’t know about the others!

  5. […] It’s not really a stretch to say that Mizuki’s life has been one very much of and in manga [sic], and so I can’t help but see Shige’s [(Mizuki’s childhood avatar in Nonnonbaa)] merging of the supernatural ikai with that of his own mundane existence as idiomatic [sic] of a potentially useful nondistinction between the reality of our own lives and the surreality of the things we read. (Theisen, “8b. Mizuki Shigeru’s [Manga] Surreality”) […]

  6. […] A good article on Mizuki’s superheroes is here. Additionally, Ryan Holmberg gets into some of Mizuki’s American pulp inclinations at the […]

  7. […] A good article on Mizuki’s superheroes is here. Additionally, Ryan Holmberg gets into some of Mizuki’s American pulp inclinations at the […]

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