Imagine you’re in your bed, alone at night. Maybe you’ve just woken up from strange dream, or you’ve tossed and turned all night. Then, you hear a noise. It’s the house settling, or a branch scraping at the window, but you close your eyes tight just in case. You feel motion, something moving, in your room, but when you open your eyes there’s nothing there.
Or maybe there is. In the eyes of Shige, also known as Gege, the protagonist of Shigeru Mizuki’s semi autobiographical NonNonBa, our world is constantly visited by yokai, spirits, from other realms. Nonnonba is an elderly woman in Gege’s life, a grandmother figure, who’s his guide to all the things creeping in our rooms at night, possessing hungry travelers, and taking the souls of the young out to sea. Her stories are often instructional, like the importance of keeping a home clean to ward off the “dirt licker” akaname.
Mizuki has dreamed of other worlds since he was young, and his lifetime passion for yokai is the basis for this book. He’s considered a master of stories of yokai, but his work remains largely untranslated into English.
His previous work, 2011’s Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths is a semi autobiographical work based on his time in the Japanese army during World War II. Though that book’s title sounds grand, it’s actually sarcastic. Mizuki’s portrayal of his fellow grunts during the war shows a group of bored and exhausted young men who believe in the fight, though mostly because they have no other choice. Their lives are filled with bad weather, dwindling rations, and long lines at the brothel. There are moments of tragedy and gore, all of which show war as an equally routine, pointless, and alarming part of life. For American readers, we get to see the other side of a story we’ve been telling ourselves for generations. It’s virtually the same: a bunch of young men who’d rather be somewhere else.
Of course, that’s a defining characteristic of the young, and Gege is no different. He runs around the neighborhood fighting with rival gangs, playing games, and fighting with his brothers. He’s a country boy fascinated with things city folk find common, like elevators and doughnuts, but it’s the spirit world which most fascinates him. Nonnonba nurtures this side of Gege, telling him tales of the seemingly infinite yokai which occasionally inhabit our world.
NonNonBa is more than just a coming of age story, it’s a portrait of the artist as a young yokai enthusiast. To Gege the yokai are real, and his interactions with them increase the more he learns about them. A wart on his hand gives him answers to a math test, and another gives him tips on how to draw. Gege’s no good at math without the wart, but he’s passionate about art. Drawing and telling stories brings Gege closer to the spirit world.
In the book’s most moving sequence Gege illustrates a journey through the hundred thousand worlds of the Buddhist paradise for an ailing friend. When he’s finished drawing his friend is dead. The deaths of schoolmates and neighbors from accident or illness has a profound effect on Gege, and through art and the yokai he learns to deal with these tragedies.
Nonnonba fuels Gege’s interest in yokai, but he inherited his father’s love of stories. Gege’s father runs a local movie house and dreams of schooling the bumpkins of their town in the art of cinema. Though he’s mostly portrayed as a pretentious goofball, Gege’s father offers him incredible storytelling advice. Gege is concerned about getting a drawing as close to reality as possible, and his father says, “…it’s not just the reality of things that moves people.” Straight facts can drown out the poetry, the beauty of a great story. It’s clearly an idea Mizuki too to heart.
The characters in the book are strange and expressive, none more so than Nonnonba herself. She’s wrinkled and hunched, with giant eyes and a tiny pursed mouth. Mizuki’s backgrounds are realistic and precise, a sharp contrast to his characters. This brings forth the power of place in one’s memory, the sense of placing oneself somewhere specific in a time that’s long passed. Mizuki does this beautifully, creating a whole world on the page, just like his counterpart, Gege.
During an encounter with the yokai Azuki-Hakari, Gege asks the spirit why he scares people. The yokai answers, “It is what I’m destined to do. Why were you born into your family? Why do you draw stories that no one has asked for?” Nonnonba answers this question with humor and heart, that delicate combination which works only in the hands of a very few.