Recovery and Renewal: Showa’s Magnificent Epic History of Japan Continues to Deliver

The third and latest edition of Shigeru Mizuki’s acclaimed history of Japan chronicles the pivotal period of 1944-1953, in which a shattered Japan began its rebirth into the form we know today.

Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan

Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Author: Shigeru Mizuki
Price: $24.95
Format: Paperback
Translator: Zack Davisson
Length: 536 pages
Publication date: 2014-11

“It was the summer of 1947, and the citizens of Tokyo, already crushed with grief and shock over the loss of the war, were further debilitated by the languid heat. The city was ravaged. Seedy-looking shacks had sprung up on the messy sites of bombed-out buildings. Makeshift shops overflowed with colorful black-market merchandise, but most people were still living from hand to mouth.”

So begins a famous novel published in 1948 by Japanese author Akimitsu Takagi. Takagi’s book went on to win the Mystery Writers Club Award of Japan: its title was The Tattoo Murder Case and it’s a detective novel. Yet the striking opening – which continues for some pages, with its evocative description of the traumatic aftermath of the war and its effect on the city and its people – reveals the extent and depth of the war’s impact on Japanese society. It shaped every aspect of life for years to come: from detective novels to education and foreign policy.

The third volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s masterful Showa epic tackles precisely this period. Showa: A History of Japan is the voluminous manga history of Japan’s Showa era which spans the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926-1989). The period corresponds closely to Mizuki’s own life, and his approach is to combine sweeping historical storytelling with autobiographical memoir.

Only now appearing in English-language translation almost 25 years after its Japanese publication, the latest and third volume actually combines what were two separate volumes in the original Japanese release. The first half deals with the end of the second world war. Like its predecessors – Showa 1926-1936: A History of Japan and Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944 – it’s a powerful and poignant protest against the futility and horrifying destructiveness of war. Mizuki is unabashedly critical of militarism, and much of his work has been dedicated to conveying the message of war’s evil to Japanese youth (and adults), and to countering the resurgence of right-wing nationalism and its glorification of military might.

He would know: he served in some of the most hellish battlefields of the war in the Pacific and suffered horrors that would make any reader shudder. His very survival was the result of a recurring series of miracles, which he recounts in riveting detail. He lost his arm to an allied bomb and spends several chapters recovering, drenched in malarial fever, starving, and infected with maggots. But his endurance and unique character pulled him through; he even became friends with a nearby village of Pacific islanders, and his relationship with them offers another of this volume’s remarkable stories. In the end he returns to a shattered Japan. His brother is jailed as a war criminal and Mizuki himself wanders the streets, half-starved and occasionally homeless.

The second half of this volume offers detailed insight into a fascinating period of Japanese history that’s less well known to western readers: the occupation of Japan by US troops and its gradual reconstruction and emergence as a revitalized and transformed nation. This period also introduces Mizuki’s turn to art, and to the career he would eventually become known for throughout the world. But his struggle to survive in the immediate post-war period demonstrates the brutal hardships and privations that were the legacy of the war. He squats in abandoned, bombed-out buildings; tries his hand in the black market; even joins some of the strange new cults that emerged in the wake of Japan’s defeat.

It was an era when former admirals now begged on the street; where drug-addicted and murderous soldiers were repatriated and turned their aggressions on their own people; where a starving populace joined churches because they offered hot potatoes after worship services. The depiction of war in Showa is destructive and horrifying; but the cruel aftermath of war is equally heart-rending.

Showa’s style demonstrates a mastery of the ability to use manga not only to entertain but to educate. Mizuki chronicles the historical events unfolding across the world, placing the Japanese experience in its broader historical context (first, the end of World War II, and then the emergence of the Cold War). Events are, as in previous volumes, narrated by ‘Rat-Man’ (Nezumi Otoko), a character from Mizuki’s other famous series GeGeGe No Kitaro (a recent translated collection of which has also been published in English by Drawn & Quarterly). Heavily referenced with explanatory footnotes, these beautifully illustrated sections of the book – many based on artistic renderings of actual photographs – provide the ‘History’ alluded to in the series sub-title.

It's Mizuki’s own autobiography, however, that provides the compelling and riveting human interest story. Here too we start to see him emerge from the self-deprecating image of the youthful Mizuki we saw in Volumes 1 and 2 – bumbling, lazy, perpetually hungry – into the increasingly confident, inspired and hard-working comics artist the world now knows him as. This part of the story also chronicles the emergence of comics and manga in Japan out of the disappearing kamishibai storytelling traditions, in which Mizuki began his first work as an artist.

Showa is a tremendously important series, for many reasons. Mizuki’s dedication to ensuring we learn from history’s follies drives much of the series: his anti-militarism and his dedication to humanity offer powerful moral lessons driven deeply home by the incredible and horrific depiction of World War II. Yet it also demonstrates the sweeping literary and artistic potential of comics and graphic literature. This is a series that shifts effortlessly between historical realism and cartoon adventure; drawing on folklore, culture, politics, and sheer human interest to drive the storyline. Complemented with Mizuki’s incredible artwork, the result is a true masterpiece and an inspiration for the growing number of writers, journalists, academics and comics artists who seek to emulate the style.

The series is best read in order, and publisher Drawn & Quarterly deserves kudos for the rapid pace at which it is releasing the English language translations. Translator Zack Davisson also deserves credit for his talented work in rendering Showa accessible to an English-speaking audience. Originally published in 1988 in Japan, it’s been reissued numerous times in that country and the first translated English volume was nominated for both Harvey and Eisner awards in 2014. Educational, profound, riveting and beautiful, Showa is a must-read.

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