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Since 2011, Drawn and Quarterly has published three major Shigeru Mizuki books. The first was Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, a semi-autobiographical comic about Japanese soldiers in a bizarre, existential crisis at the end of World War II, when it was pretty clear they were defeated: continue to fight to the death anyway, or be put to death by their own leaders. The second was NonNonBa, a childhood memoir about the artist’s relationship with his grandmother, and the interest in the yokai of Japanese folklore that became central to the artist’s long life of work.
The third and latest is Kitaro, a 400-page collection of 1967-1969 stories from Mizuki’s Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro manga. Of the three, it’s the book that is definitely the least interesting to talk about, and perhaps has the least literary value, being a more straightforward genre work focused more on entertainment than wrestling with the big issues of national identity that the two previous releases.
It;s also the most fun and easy to read, however, and it bears an important, even foundational, place in the story of Mizuki’s life’s work: This is his signature work, the reason Mizuki is so famous, so beloved and so influential.
And he is influential. Like Osamu Tezuka in manga and Jack Kirby in American superhero comics, even newer or younger readers who might never have heard of those men or never read a single one of their works nevertheless unknowingly enjoy works by artists they influenced. In his introduction to the collection, Matt Alt not only situates Mizuki with a place of honor in the centuries-long history of yokai study and celebration, he also partially credits Mizuki’s comics with paving the way for Pokemon.
Drawn and Quarterly publishes what I think of as “hipster manga” — artsy, bleak, literary titles that are as far as you can get from the boobs-and-battles genre titles that have teenagers clogging the aisles of bookstores — and they have two important manga releases scheduled for next spring.
The first is yet another Yoshihiro Tatsumi title, Fallen Words. Tatsumi’s work, which is in the gekiga (underground) tradition, is relentlessly bleak, and the publisher’s description makes it clear that this book won’t be any exception, despite the promise that it will be “whimsical.” The stories are based on the Japanese tradition of rakugo, a comical form of storytelling that uses lots of wordplay. Despite their wit, the stories seem rather dark:
In one, a father finds his son too bookish and arranges for two workers to take the young man to a brothel on the pretext of visiting a new shrine. In another particularly beloved rakugo tale, a married man falls in love with a prostitute. When his wife finds out, she is enraged and sets a curse on the other woman. The prostitute responds by cursing the wife, and the two escalate in a spiral of voodoo doll cursing. Soon both are dead, but even death can’t extinguish their jealousy.
Sounds like a regular riot. A little Tatsumi goes a long way, in my opinion. But I’m more excited about the other title, Shigeru Mizuki’s NonNonBa, a memoir of growing up with his grandmother in a world inhabited by yokai (spirits). This book won the top prize at Angouleme a couple of years ago — not the top manga prize, the top prize — and I have been hoping someone would bring it over here. This year, D+Q published Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, a relentless depiction of the lives of soldiers in a doomed unit in the last days of World War II; despite the depressing subject matter, it was a great read, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Mizuki can do with something a bit lighter.