Books

Shigeru Mizuki's Stories of Yokai: 'Nonnonba'

Gege is passionate about art. Drawing and telling stories brings Gege closer to the spirit world.


Nonnonba

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Length: 432 pages
Author: Shigeru Mizuki
Price: $26.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-05
Amazon

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.

9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7
Music

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Kehr was one of the best long-form essay writers people read for clear and sometimes brutally honest indictments of film.

It's perhaps too trite and rash to conclude that the age of good, cogent film criticism is over. They still exist out there, always at print publications such as The New Yorker and at major newspapers like The New York Times. An argument can be made that the late, legendary film critic Roger Ebert became a better writer when he departed from cinema and covered literature, book collecting, or even the simplest pleasures of life. If we look at the film criticism of James Agee from the '40s, or even the short but relevant stint of novelist and short story writer Graham Greene as a film critic, we come to understand that the greatest writing about film went beyond the spectrum of what they saw on the screen.
Keep reading... Show less
8

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image