Recently, the world lost one of its greatest manga artists. Shigeru Mizuki, whose career spanned roughly seven decades and included some of the most prestigious international awards, died on 30 November at the age of 93.
The scale of Mizuki’s contributions will only continue to become evident to western readers with time, as more and more of his massive oeuvre is translated into English. The latest offering – released by Drawn & Quarterly a little over a week before his death – is the first ever English translation of Mizuki’s fascinating and engaging manga biography of Adolf Hitler.
According to Frederik L. Schodt, who penned the introductory essay to Zack Davisson’s English translation of Hitler, Mizuki held Hitler personally responsible for the war in which he lost his arm. Schodt says that Mizuki considered the Pacific War inevitable, but that it was Hitler who inspired the Japanese to attack the US. “My destiny would have been different,” wrote Mizuki. “In other words, I would have avoided my wretched life in the military, and I might still have my arm. So how could I not be interested in Hitler, and in knowing what sort of a man he really was?”
The book focuses especially on Hitler’s early life, and in particular key incidents that might not be familiar to the general reader: his obsession (and possessive, abusive relationship) with his young niece Geli (who committed suicide in 1931), and the internal organizational struggles within the Nazi party as it strove to achieve national recognition and critical mass in the German elections. Hitler’s early days as a poor, unemployed artist also span a great deal of the first part of the book. In the end, World War II only comprises the final 80 pages of the book, and much of that is narrated from an omniscient author’s perspective.
What’s particularly unique about Mizuki’s take on Hitler is that unlike most presentations of the Nazi leader, there’s nothing innately monstrous about the man at the beginning. Yes, the consequences of his actions are horrific, and this is reflected in some of the abstract chapter art depicting him marching over fields of corpses and the like. But Mizuki is quite clear in his portrayal of the man: this was just a man, torn by the same feelings and motivations as many of his fellows — yearning for love and respect, lured by jealousy and resentment. What distinguishes him is that almost despite himself he actually stumbles into power (through a confluence of historical events and the support of a team of like-minded comrades) and then winds up in a position to actually enact his horrific fantasies and delusional ideas.
The manga (first published in 1971) was originally intended to introduce young Japanese audiences to a historical figure many of them were not familiar with, but it offers potent parables for the present day. During a time of socio-economic uncertainty and hardship, a group of extremists we now know as the Nazis preyed on the most base fears and resentments of those who felt disenfranchised and found themselves catapulted to power. In a contemporary political arena which sees western democracies – from the US to Europe and beyond – also facing increasing socio-economic pressures, and in which political aspirants make equally provocative calls for patriotic fervour, ‘traditional’ values and scapegoating of minority targets like Muslims and Jews, the ease with which dangerous right-wing extremists can win democratic elections should be a conscious concern of all of us.
Written from a Japanese perspective – and Mizuki has written extensively on World War II and militarism in the Japanese context – it also offers interesting historical parallels. Hitler’s trajectory and ultimate undoing is interpreted through a lens that draws a close parallel with Japan’s own militarist history. Hitler and his gang of Nazis were always outsiders, looked down upon by the elite German classes even as they courted each other and forged fatal alliances through which both groups sought to promote their own interests. The result: an escalation of militarism and political posturing that reaches breakaway speed and is eventually uncontrollable by either side.
Similarly, the rise of imperial Japan was in many ways spearheaded by industrialists and military actors whose rise to power shook traditional social hierarchies and whose actions eventually led to a critical mass of military escalations beyond anyone’s capacity to stop. In both cases, Hitler and the Japanese Imperial Army officers determined to march onward to their ‘noble’ deaths, preferring death over defeat, while their hapless populations either fled or marched to slaughter, and while the few realistic-minded officers among their ranks struggled against their own chains of command to bring the slaughter to an end and salvage what was left of their respective nations.
The lessons Mizuki paints are clear: militarism and the celebration of patriotic glory are fatal dangers which, if allowed to spread unchecked, will eventually destroy whichever nation gives them free reign. Wars are launched by fallible human beings who somehow stumble into power and then allow their base ambitions free range, and who remain detached, ignorant and oblivious of what horrors their actions bring upon their peoples.
Hitler as Protagonist
It’s decidedly odd to read a book with Hitler as protagonist. There’s an automatic sympathy one develops for the lead character in a novel or manga, however repulsive and unlikeable that character might be; even if it’s only a morbid curiosity about what will happen to them next. One develops a familiarity with their quirks and their mannerisms; and in manga that includes the unique look in each character’s eyes; the particular way they have of flapping their arms or stamping their feet; the tilt of their head. In this bubble of familiarity that envelops reader and character, it’s easy to develop a focus on the personal relationship one develops with the protagonist, and to allow to slip from one’s mind any sort of meta-villainy perpetrated by that character. This is both the danger and the strength of dramatizing the lives of villains.
It forces one to reflect on the uses and purposes for dramatizing such characters’ lives. What motivations drive us to depict villains as fallible, everyday characters? Is it a desire to understand what went wrong, and what drove them to commit heinous acts? Is it simply morbid voyeurism? Or is it a nascent fear that whatever combination of forces and personalities brought Hitler into existence and into power, could happen again at some point?
From that vantage, a dramatized character portrait which depicts as human someone who’s normally depicted as an inhuman monster, can in fact be quite useful. It reminds us that Hitler was not necessarily born evil; he became that way. The bumbling art student who just wants to read in cafés and to make friends seems like a harmless and everyday caricature of youth. The idea that any such bumbling, everyday youth could eventually orchestrate mass genocide is a frightening one indeed. But it’s one that we need to remain cognizant of. Evil doesn’t rise out of Mount Doom to the sound of pounding drums; it emerges in the everyday, if we do not work to recognize and thwart it at every opportunity.
Mizuki’s life’s work spanned a broad range, but much of it was dedicated to confronting the evils of militarism and the glorification of war. He witnessed the consequences firsthand, fighting in some of the most horrific arenas of the Pacific War and losing his arm to Allied bombs. His struggle against militarism and the patriotism which inspires it marked some of his finest work, and his presentation of Hitler offers an important effort to situate these themes in a broader, universal historical context.
In an era when it’s frowned upon to draw parallels between contemporary politics and the actions of Hitler or the Nazis, Mizuki’s work sends very much the opposite message. It says that the horrors of Nazi Germany were not a historical exception but rather a set of horrors driven by very normal, everyday human actors and which could very easily be repeated today. Hitler was not a born monster, but a very common man with some very nasty motivations and unpleasant ideas whose fellow Germans, through a combination of resentment and fear, allowed to assume power – to their eternal regret. The story of Hitler is not a horrific quirk of history, but a very real lesson for the present, and Mizuki succeeds most ably in conveying his warning through this incredibly powerful work.