Shigeru Mizuki’s ‘Showa’ Series Is a Sweeping Epic of Life, Death and War

This work offers an indelible and engaging combination of storyline, riveting life-and-death plot twists, historical education and passionately conveyed moral messaging on the horrors of war.

Images from Drawn & Quarterly.com.

Controversy erupted earlier this summer when the Japanese government announced a review of the Kono Statement – an apology issued in 1993 acknowledging the coercive use of ‘comfort women’ by the Japanese military during the Second World War (without admitting the government’s direct complicity, nor the scale of the sexual slavery described by survivors and researchers).

Ultimately, Japan upheld the statement (along with all its ambiguity in terms of scale and blame), but the controversy – which prompted protests throughout Asia and as far afield as The Netherlands – demonstrates the lingering power and presence of the war’s legacy even today.

This impact manifests in other ways, too. Controversies over the depiction of the war in Japanese school textbooks continue to rage with renewed vigor every time a new textbook revision is announced. And inevitably, purveyors of popular culture are drawn into the mix. Japanese manga artist Yoshinori Kobayashi stoked furious debate with the publication of his right-wing, revisionist series On War in the ’90s, and he hasn’t been the only one.

In the face of such controversies, renowned manga artist Shigeru Mizuki has been waging a tireless and awe-inspiring war against … war … of his own. It’s not the only topic he writes on, of course. An expert on ‘yokai’ (a legendary type of Japanese spirits), he’s better known to some of his fans as the brains behind GeGeGe no Kitaro, a fantasy-horror series based on these spirit-monsters which has sparked numerous spin-offs, an animated television series, and even live-action movies. (Drawn & Quarterly also released an English-language version of this series in 2013)

But it is World War II, which for Asia began with Japanese aggressions in China in 1931, that Mizuki returns to in the second volume of his sweeping epic Showa.

The work – the first volume of which was originally released in Japan in 1988 – was conceived as a massive multi-volume history of the Showa Era, which refers to the reign of Japanese emperor Hirohito (1926-1989). It’s told from the perspective of Mizuki himself, who lived through the key events of this era.

The newly-released Volume II covers the period 1939-1944, and thus takes in most of the period of the Second World War. But it’s more than just an autobiographical account: Mizuki uses a variety of narrative devices to interject authorial commentary and flag the significance of events whose importance might not be apparent (especially to readers outside Japan), and to broaden the scope by explaining what was happening politically in other parts of the country or world at the time.

Many of the historical events are narrated by ‘Rat Man’, a character from the GeGeGe no Kitaro series. It’s an effective technique, alternating between historical narration and first-hand dramatized action. While the reader is thus able to follow the broader history of the period, the emphasis remains on the personal story of the Mizuki-character. Master storyteller that he is, he strikes the perfect balance in combining these techniques to carry the story along.

While the Japanese version is now over 20 years old, this is the first North American release, with English translation deftly provided by the talented Zack Davisson. Drawn & Quarterly, the venerable Montreal-based publisher which has brought other works by Mizuki (and so many other important artists) to North American audiences, is planning to release the entire series in four massive volumes (the first two were over 500 pages each).

The book also intersects with several of Mizuki’s other autobiographical works, excerpts of which appear in Showa as well (but there’s plenty of original material, don’t worry). Showa draws from stories recounted in both Nonnonba (a semi-autobiographical account of his childhood encounters with the yokai spirits, and the elderly village woman who introduced him to them) and Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths (a more complete – and even more brutal – semi-autobiographical account of his military experiences in World War II). Both of these works have been recently translated and published by Drawn & Quarterly, as well.

Showa is a powerful work, and its power is unexpected, given the bumbling and self-deprecating impression Mizuki paints of himself as a character. Showa: Volume I presented Mizuki’s childhood, wherein he depicts himself as a lazy, underachieving kid whose only real interests are eating, sleeping and now and then making some art. He gets fired from jobs, fails his exams and picks his nose in far too many frames to possibly be healthy (all this takes place against the backdrop of a dramatically changing Japan: the juxtaposition between Mizuki’s prosaic and boring behaviour; and the drama of rapid military and political change in the country, makes for an unexpectedly effective, riveting and very human depiction of alienation and rootlessness during a time of turbulent social transformation).

Showa: Volume II picks up as the conflict gathers steam: politicians are assassinated, coups organized, war declared, Mizuki’s friends and siblings deploy to the battlefronts, and eventually the orders arrive calling him up for active military service, as well.

He turns out to be just as bumbling a character in the military as in school, and the regular beatings he received from superiors, which are depicted with a cartoonish humour in the book, left him with very real lingering health ailments in real life.

But the beatings pale by comparison to the horrible mass slaughter of the war. Mizuki holds nothing back, depicting these horrors with a power born of actual experience. After basic training in Japan, he was eventually posted to Papua New Guinea, which was initially occupied by Japan and became the site of some of the most horrific battles in the Pacific.

The land battles are presented in greater depth in Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths (“noble death” was a euphemism for suicide attacks; towards the end of the war Japanese forces would be ordered into hopeless battles with instructions not to return alive). What distinguishes Showa visually is, in particular, the air and naval battles. Every battle is concluded with a tally sheet of the injured and dead on both sides; the astonishing numbers convey a true sense of the scale of slaughter in this war (whose total casualties were in the tens of millions).

The battle scenes themselves are riveting (even for someone who is not normally at all interested in war stories). The tension and anticipation of the naval battles is palpable; large, dense scenes that incredibly manage to convey the sense of chaos and destruction being played out on the oceans. The Japanese and American fleets hunt each other in the Pacific Ocean, and when they find each other, they engage in clashes whose outcomes are often unpredictable.

The narrator chronicles the shifting fortunes of each fleet: the ragtag Allied forces, initially battered and on the run, slowly begin to gain the advantage as Japan makes a few costly mistakes and then starts discovering the consequences of its overstretched supply lines and low manufacturing capacity. One of the remarkable things about the book is how Mizuki manages to succinctly chronicle a war that is playing out across the globe (and whose ultimate outcome is, for contemporary readers, already known), and yet manages to keep the reader hooked and flipping pages to find out what happens next. But succeed he does.

The visual and narrative format of manga, which allows the author to rapidly shift between storylines, locations and scale of events, enables the author to depict a naval battle in the Pacific, followed by a series of frames depicting how Japanese government officials react to the defeat in Tokyo, followed by a series of frames depicting the reaction of everyday citizens discussing the war in their homes. In this sense, the author is able to present a much broader scope of action and engagement than either prose or film would allow. An award-winning manga author like Mizuki is intimately aware of the advantages the manga genre offers, and he uses them to full and powerful effect.

The war left an indelible impact on Mizuki, as it did for many. In Mizuki’s case, an older brother was convicted as a Class B war criminal following the war. In the final stretch of the war, Mizuki himself was caught in the middle of an Allied bombing attack and lost his left arm. This is in part what has made him such a powerful figure in the peace movement. Unlike younger activists, he actually saw combat in some of the most deadly and nightmarish battles of the South Pacific; his physical presence is a potent reminder of the horrors of war.

It’s strange to think that the awkward and bumbling space cadet he paints himself as in Showa would eventually become a renowned artist and recipient of some the greatest awards offered to artists both in Japan and abroad (including the Purple Ribbon and Order of the Rising Sun in Japan, the grand prize of the Angouleme International Comics Festival, considered Europe’s highest comics honour by many, and much more). Yet it turns out to have been this spacey, aimless quality which saved his life on at least one occasion.

In the book he tells the true story of how, while he was on sentry duty early one morning, he got so absorbed in watching a pair of colourful parrots that he lost track of time. When he realized he was late and his shift already over, he started to return to camp, but before he got back the camp was stormed in a surprise dawn attack. Had he not dawdled and been late, he would have been caught in the attack and killed with his comrades. Instead he escaped and, famously, received a chewing-out from his superiors for not having died ‘honourably’ with his squad-mates.

Incidents like this are remarkable (and horrific), but it is in fact the bumbling, prosaic nature of Mizuki and his comrades which has the most powerful effect in countering the revisionist image of the heroic warrior. The soldiers depicted in Showa sit around picking their noses, try to get out of tiring duties, and are often more interested in scamming extra snacks than they are in fighting the enemy. They are, in other words, depicted as perfectly normal human beings; far from the heroes neo-conservatives sometimes romanticize them as.

Indeed, this has been one of Mizuki’s achievements in his war stories: conveying the honest truth that soldiers on both sides of any conflict are usually not monsters (or heroes), but simply ordinary normal human beings put in horrific and inhuman situations by their military leaders and politicians. (In Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths, he chronicles bitterly the fact commanding officers who led suicide charges would sometimes excuse themselves at the last possible moment, ‘postponing’ their own demise in order to take news of their soldiers’ ‘honourable deaths’ back to HQ.)

Of course, Mizuki is a uniquely powerful character, even if his true talents only emerged after the war. It’s a testament to his inquisitive and open nature that native inhabitants of one island where he was stationed have named a street there after him (he spent time during the war visiting the native villages and making friends there; they even invited him to settle amongst them when the war ended). It’s probably one of the only examples in history of a street being named after a soldier of the occupying army after that army’s defeat in war.

Passionate and meticulously researched (with copious explanatory footnotes and endnotes) Showa is an astounding and sweeping epic, and a must-read. It offers an indelible and engaging combination of human storyline, riveting life-and-death plot twists, historical education and passionately conveyed moral messaging on the horrors of war. Do go out and read Volume I first, but do it right away: Volume II is waiting, and you won’t be disappointed.

RATING 10 / 10
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