by Shigeru Mizuki; adapted by Jocelyne Allen
published by Drawn & Quarterly; $26.95 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Shigeru Mizuki is a cultural icon. His manga GeGeGe no Kitaro is credited with igniting the modern day fascination with Japanese folktales. Mizuki is recognized as a expert on yokai (supernatural beings) and was one of the first people to attempt to catalog all the local legends of yokai throughout Japan. He has truly helped the Japanese people connect with and appreciate their own cultural heritage.
I discovered Mizuki when I attended an exhibit for his Fifty-Three Stations of the Yokaido Road. There I was introduced not just to Kitaro, but to Mizuki’s legacy in Japan. Mizuki has written works about World War II, Hitler, and other subjects. He’s considered to be one of the great masters of manga and was quickly added to my list of must-read Japanese authors.
Drawn & Quarterly partially answered my prayers last year when they published Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. Finally, an English-speaking audience was getting access to this great manga creator! However, I was still waiting for a chance to read the yokai stories that made him so famous to begin with.
Finally, the wait is over. Drawn & Quarterly listened to my prayers and just recently published NonNonBa. Like Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, this book is a work of fiction based on Mizuki’s own experiences. It takes place in the rural Japan of the 1930s. Like the rest of the world, Japanese culture was in flux as it began the transition to a more industrial economy.
NonNonBa is nostalgic, but not sentimental. Mizuki is certainly looking back on his childhood with great fondness. However, he is also willing to be honest about many of the brutal realities that existed at that time in Japan. During the course of the book, one of Mizuki’s friends drowns, another dies from illness, and a third is sold to a geisha house. Local kids form gangs and have brutal fights over honor and territory rights. It’s a sober reminder that the good ol’ days had their dark moments, too.
His family isn’t spared from criticism. His father is shown to be shiftless and a bit of a dreamer. His lack of ambition means the family is always just one step above the poverty line. His father is a Tokyo University graduate in the days when having a college degree was rare. He’s able to exploit this fact when looking for work. Otherwise, his resume of failed jobs would keep employers from even considering him.
The person treated with great kindness is the title character NonNonBa. The term refers to elderly women who served at the local Buddhist shire. Specifically, she is the person who introduces Mizuki to the world of the yokai. She is part grandmother and part wise woman. Mizuki does a brilliant job of making the reader as fascinated with and enamored of her as he was and still is.
At the same time, Mizuki show us that she was a woman out of place. She lived and breathed the old, pre-modern world, filled with yokai, both benevolent and malicious. They were as real for her as any other forest creature. Most people have written off these spirit beings as superstition. Mizuki finds himself attracted to this older world view and quickly adapts it for himself. His own experiences seem to reaffirm the existence of yokai and their influence on our lives.
Artistically, this book is more accessible than Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. There isn’t the jarring juxtaposition of hyperreal backgrounds and cartoony figures. The characters and their backgrounds blend naturally in this book. The designs for the yokai are delightfully imaginative. They can be terrifying or simply strange beings. I break out in a smile every time Azuki-Hakari shows up; he looks like a dwarf with a huge grin.
NonNonBa is an engaging book. Mizuki perfectly captures the realities of both being a child and the rural past. There are the joys of being young and discovering the world and yourself for the first time. There are heartbreaks as you discover death and betrayal, too. Technology brings new wonders, but also brings a separation from nature. Trying to find a way to navigate in all this chaos is difficult for the young and old alike. Mizuki makes us feel that struggle so poignantly.
This is a book that richly rewards those who read it slowly and thoughtfully. I’m not saying you’ll start believing in yokai. You will begin to appreciate the past, and your own past, better. Mizuki does what all my favorite writers do. He takes me to a new world and gets me lost in it. He makes it a place I want to visit again and again. Anyone that enjoys a finely crafted story and characters so real you’ll swear you’ve met them yourself will love this book. I can’t wait to reread it.
A fitting epilogue to this review is Drawn and Quarterly’s recent announcement that in 2013 they will be publishing the GeGeGe no Kitaro series under the title Kitaro. I’ve very excited to finally get to read such an influential and beloved series. I’ve already put in my pre-order with Amazon.