Amid the closing pages of Tono Monogatari, illustrator Shigeru Mizuki — functioning as both narrator and main character — visits the home of the late scholar, Kunio Yanagita, whose foundational text has been masterfully transformed within the pages of this graphic novel adaptation. Called Kidanshoku, or “The House of Joy of Literature”, it’s fitting that the comics ends with Mizuki visiting this site. For it is there that the artist dozes off and meets Yanagita in his dreams, who is chatting with the author about the significance and implications of the work.
Though only a few panels in length, this scene perfectly captures the reading experience of Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari. At times reading the graphic novel feels like you are sitting in someone else’s home, encountering the past through their words, peering into their eyes to see those stories unfold.
Translated by Mizuki scholar Zach Davisson, the graphic novel begins with an introduction to the cultural significance of Tono Monogatari, a collection of yokai stories originally published in 1910. As Davisson explains, “Kunio Yanagita, a minor bureaucrat in the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, became alarmed when he saw his country’s native myths and legends vanishing in the face of industrialization and modernization.” What was at stake in the face of all these changes “were yokai and kami, the traditional gods and monsters of Japan, the stories and beliefs of which had bulwarked the country for millennia.”
Convinced these beliefs were an integral part of Japanese culture and history, Yanagita sought to document the stories of the Tono region, a rural area surrounded by mountains in the north of Japan. With the help of Kizen Sasaki, a native of Tono, Yanagita spent months exploring the region. He met with locals, joined festivals, and jotted down the oral histories Sasaki shared, all the while discovering the natural landscapes that served as backdrops for countless legends about spirits, monsters, deities, and at the core of it all, human nature.
More than 90 years after Yanagita first published Tono Monogatari or Tales of Tono, Mizuki revisited the text, adapting its stories into a series of comics originally published in Japanese. The culmination of his work, this collection is divided into 29 chapters containing a handful of stories tied together loosely around themes like nature, family, labor, and animals. While not all of the original 119 stories from Yanagita’s collection were adapted, the dozens of stories readers encounter cover everything from ghosts and giants to magically appearing bowls that bring with them endless supplies of rice.
The stories are brief — reflecting Yanagita’s sparse writing — but they are filled with rich texture and emotion. This is largely due to Mizuki’s illustrative style, through which intricate cross-hatching conveys the rough surfaces of mountains and meticulous black marbling coalesce to form rustling leaves. These exquisite renderings of pastoral scenes are at odds with the cartoonish figures that inhabit them, but this delightful contrast only adds to the humor and excitement of the stories.
Yet, the most extraordinary feature of Mizuki’s work is one that would perhaps go unnoticed: sound.
In a medium that relies on the interplay of text and image, it’s astonishing how much Tono Monogatari engages with our other senses. Sound effects fill the panels, sometimes stretching the length of the page or filling the panel’s gutters. Representing the noises of wind, rain, and crunching leaves, as well as fuming breaths and cackling laughter, Mizuki’s depictions of sound fill every page, like sheet music for the graphic novel’s unique soundtrack.
In one of my favorite stories, friends and family gather at the home of a girl who had gone missing 30 years prior. Heavy rains pummel the ground, violent winds sway the trees, and loud rumbles of thunder fill the page diagonally, represented as thick white letters in opposition to the black scene: “KRAKKOWW.” We follow a group of people inside the house, where an even larger congregation is seated around a hearth. Their chitter-chattering floats up toward the ceiling as a cacophony of YADA YADA’s.
At the end of the story, the missing girl reappears, knocking on the door as horrified guests take in her untamed tresses, clawing fingernails, and wrinkled flesh. With some hesitation, the people invite her inside the house, but she declines: “No, I only wanted to see everyone’s faces again Now I must go.” She turns around and disappears into a crash of thunder and lightning.
At the end of this story, as in many of the others, Mizuki appears, drawn into the story as a plump figure with thick round glasses and white tufts of hair. “That’s a sad story,” he says. “Even now, when the storms rage, they say the old lady of Samuto is coming home.”
Breaking both the third and fourth walls, Mizuki makes visible his own hand as illustrator. At once he becomes a narrator, illustrator, reader, and contemporary participant, explaining the story’s connection to legend and belief while also sharing his own emotions, experiences, and revelations.
To quote from Davisson’s wonderful introduction once more, “Mizuki cannot resist adding his own personal touches to the stories.” In addition to inserting himself into the narrative, Mizuki also plays with narrative gaps. While in Yanagita’s original story, a character breaks off from a larger group for seemingly no reason, in Mizuki’s retelling, the character is actually sneaking off to poop. These interjections, revisions, and gap-filling make stories that are both culturally specific and almost a century old, relevant and timeless.
In the face of a shifting culture, Yanagita memorialized the stories passed down through generations within the pages of Tono Monogatari. These yokai stories continue to live on in spite of active efforts to undermine their power, and with Mizuki’s adaptation of this enduring text, the stories have gained new life.