Shigeru Mizuki and Yokai
Jasper Sharp on a manga creator’s love of ghosts
Kasa-obake (“umbrella ghost”), Rokurokubi (“long-necked woman”), Tenjoname (“ceiling-licker), Hyakume (“a hundred eyes”)… If these names don’t seem immediately familiar to you, the outlandish anatomies of this small but illustrative sample from the seemingly endless parade of sprites, spirits and goblins known as ‘yokai’ probably will be.
Drawn from the wellspring of Japan’s folkloric traditions, yokai have appeared in many a comic, anime, live-action film or television series in Japan over the past half century. There have been whole movies dedicated to them, such as the 1960s Yokai Monsters trilogy produced by Daiei studios consisting of 100 Monsters, Spook Warfare and Along with Ghosts as well as cult director Takashi Miike’s 2005 homage The Great Yokai War. We’ve seen both the originals and variants in the anime series Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan (part two of season two out 7th July), Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and many more. There’s even a spotters’ guide available in the English language, Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, compiled by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, with illustrations by Tatsuya Morino.
Michael Dylan Foster notes in the altogether more academic Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai that the term yokai is “variously translated as monster, spirit, goblin, ghost, demon, phantom, spectre, fantastical being , lower-order deity, or, more amorphously, as any unexplainable experience or numinous occurrence.” Indeed, the yokai has many faces, but one can see how such definitions fit comfortably within Japan’s animistic Shinto religion, which sees gods and spirits in everything.
Picture scrolls like the 16th century Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, contained images of these fantastic critters, which often adopted the comical form of tsukumogami – everyday objects such as cooking pots, musical instruments and umbrellas that had sprouted arms and legs and taken on a life of their own.
Before long, lavishly illustrated bestiaries began appearing in an attempt to sort the unexplained and unexplainable, the first of which was the multiple-volume Illustrated Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, published between 1776 and 1784 by Sekien Toriyama, which contained over 200 yokai. As well as such real-life creatures attributed with supernatural abilities as the tanuki (raccoon dog) and kitsune (fox), a panoply of paranormal presences emerged, including other well-known and uniquely Japanese mythical beasties, including the kappa (turtle-shaped river sprites with indented heads keeping their scalps moist so as to retain their powers); tengu (monstrous bird-like spirits often appearing with red faces and large noses) and ubume (spectres of women who had died during childbirth, usually appearing in skeletal form covered in blood and clutching a dead baby).
Additions to the yokai menagerie continued to appear throughout the ages, including late-twentieth century additions from urban legend like Toilet Hanako, a young girl who haunts elementary school bathrooms, and Slit-Mouthed Woman, a vengeful revenant whose face was disfigured by her husband.
In the Studio Ghibli film, Pompoko, directed by Isao Takahata, a group of fun-loving, shape-shifting tanuki join forces with their ethereal forest brethren, the kitsune, and manifest themselves as a monstrous parade through the suburban streets that threaten to spill over into Japan’s natural environment, serving up a ghoulish warning shot against the voracious urban sprawl of the Tama Hills development project. An expert is brought on to a television newsflash to pass comment on this mysterious phenomenon. His name is Mizuki-sensei.
The name would need little introduction for Japanese viewers. Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015) is largely responsible for the modern-day yokai phenomenon, thanks to his enduringly influential Spooky Kitaro manga series and other similarly ghoulish serials like Sanpei the Kappa and Akuma-kun.
Mizuki has even penned his own version of the yokai bestiaries of old, complete with grotesque illustrations of the various fantastical faces and forces of nature familiar within Japan’s popular imaginarium, and a good many more of Mizuki’s invention too, including many of the characters popularised in the Kitaro comics. Mizuki’s stories of the adventures of this young yokai kid remain popular with Japanese readers, existing as well in a 2012 English-language manga translation, published by Drawn and Quarterly under the title of Kitaro (Kodansha also published a bilingual version in 2002).
The final surviving member of a legendary Ghost Tribe, Kitaro’s role is to maintain peace in the age-old conflict between humans and yokai, aided and abetted by his sole family member, the disembodied form of his father, Medama-oyaji (“Eyeball dad”), an eyeball with legs who regularly ends up falling down toilets and into other equally unsavoury environments. Kitaro himself only has one eye, the empty socket of the other kept hidden behind a lock of hair. His other allies Nezumi-Otoko (“Rat Man”), a foul-smelling, cowardly and untrustworthy hybrid of human and yokai, swathed in a white, cowled sheet, and Kitaro’s doting admirer, Neko-Musume (“Cat Girl”).
Kitaro owes much of its popularity in Japan to the television series produced by Toei Animation, directed by Isao Takahata (some 25 years before Pompoko), which first aired in a black-and-white version in 1968, the same year as Daiei’s Yokai Monsters films. There were also two live-action movies, Kitaro and Kitaro and the Millennium Curse, directed by Katsuhide Motoki and released by Manga UK, both of which provide a highly accessible entry point into this bizarre netherworld.
Mizuki’s hometown of Sakaiminato in Tottori prefecture, where he was born in 1922, has honoured his creations with the legendary Mizuki Shigeru Road, which features a procession of 134 of his characters cast as bronze statues. There’s also a more modest Kitaro museum in Chofu in the suburbs of Tokyo, where Mizuki currently resides, in a beautiful wooded area famed for its soba noodles near the Jindai temple and botanical gardens.
Who knows from what dark corners of his mind Mizuki conjured up such phantasmagorical visions for several generations of postwar comic readers? These omnipresent fixtures of Japan’s collective subconscious had remained suppressed in its culture throughout the first half of the twentieth century, and it is undoubtedly through Mizuki that they found their conduit to a supposedly more rational modern age.
Clues can be found in the recently-published translations by Zack Davisson of Mizuki’s four-volume A History of Japan series, which represent another side of Mizuki’s weird and wonderful output as a manga artist. Starting off with the devastation of the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, this chronicle of events in Japan through to the aftermath of WW2 provide an incredibly thorough account of this turbulent period. The first volume details the various elections and assassinations of prime ministers and other political figures, the economic repercussions brought on by the earthquake and the global great depression, several attempted political coups, Japan’s escalating machinations in Manchuria, an unflinching portrait of the infamous Rape of Nanking by the Imperial Army, and much, much more.
If this all sounds a bit dry, there’s also pop-cultural references and recollections from the era in which Mizuki himself grew up; the first time a Japanese flag is hoisted at the Olympic games, with Mikio Oda’s gold in the triple jump in Amsterdam in 1928; the excitement surrounding popular silent samurai films like Tange Sazen as they hit the local cinemas (one of which was managed by Mizuki’s father for a while); the Norakuro comic strip about a black-and-white dog who joins the army, and more generally how Japan’s growing militarisation of this period was regarded through the eyes of children growing up at the time.
As such, the series provides a valuable history lesson into how the country found itself steered towards its ever-increasing madness in mainland Asia. History is after all, not just about facts, but about the interpretation of facts. The various incidents and events that can be viewed in hindsight as to leading to an inevitable outcome are always open to dispute, reinterpretation and misrepresentation.
And so Mizuki’s decision to use the Nezumi-Otoko character familiar from the Kitaro comics is a particularly interesting one – as is explained in the wonderfully informative footnotes in the comic, providing vital background to non-Japanese readers, “his appearance here is as welcome to readers as Donald Duck popping up in a history book written by Walt Disney”, except that the character is well-known as a “conniving con artist”, and not necessarily the informed commentator he is presented as here.
What makes these manga so accessible, given the potentially heavy matter at hand, is that alongside the historical backdrop, these are essential stories of Mizuki’s childhood, growing up in an environment that it is almost impossible to imagine nowadays. Nevertheless, there is a universality to his early years experiences which is especially touching, whether it be the escalating scrapes between the rival gangs of boys in his hometown (an obvious metaphor for the wider world), his first experiences of things that go bump in the night as he walks home one evening by twilight, an epic Stand By Me-like quest just to sample the wares of the first doughnut stall to open in his rural neighbourhood in a town some 20 miles away, or his attempts as a feckless adolescent fresh out of school to land and hold down a job.
But perhaps most valuable as an insight into the development of this preternaturally fantastical imagination is the depiction of his relationship with NonNonBa, the grandmother whose tales of legendary yokai from Japan’s mythic past were to lead him down his future path.
Mizuki is certainly one of the most important manga artists of the 20th century, and it is absolutely fabulous that Drawn and Quarterly have made so much of his work available outside of Japan over the past few years. Whether he’s dealing with demons of the mind or an evil unimaginable in even the wildest of dreams, his ceaselessly imaginative, morbidly witty and yet profoundly humanist tales really deserve to be treasured by a readership stretching far beyond Japan’s shores.
Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa 1926-1939 is out now from Drawn And Quarterly.
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