Showa 1953-1989: A History of Japan

By Shigeru Mizuki. Released in Japan as “Comic Shouwashi” by Kodansha. Released in North America by Drawn & Quarterly.

This was always going to be the trickiest volume of Showa. First of all, the span it’s covering is a good three times that of the other books. And secondly, the buildup and fallout from World War II, and the War itself, were amazing dramatic narratives. The rest of the Showa period has its interesting points, but there’s a struggle here to make it as exciting as the other three books. This might be why we see so much about murders and scandals, even more than the previous books. There’s also a constant reminder of the economic injustice in Japan, even as the country itself grows more prosperous. Again, having Nezumi Otoko as the narrator (though he’s at his most subdued here) helps. The success of postwar Japan is balanced by failures.

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That cover image, by the way, has changed since its prerelease – the book I have has the bottom image replaced with a drawing of a bustling city with freeways surrounding it. Much of the final volume of Showa deals, in one way or another, with money. Companies get richer, politicians accept bribes, and at one point a man finds 100 million yen taped randomly to a bridge. As for Mizuki himself, we see him at the start just as poor as he’s always been, pawning everything he owns and eating food past its sell-by date. As time goes on, though, his desire to keep the ‘hopeless guy’ caricature starts to fail him, as we do see Mizuki doing better. He gets married in an arranged way, but seems reasonably happy about it, and has two kids. His yokai manga start to sell, and we see (but don’t really hear about) his improving circumstances. He’s even able to return to the South Seas a couple of times to meet the islanders who saved him in WWII.

There are also some highly disturbing fantasy sequences in this volume, reminding us that Mizuki makes his living writing horror, even if it can be goofy horror at times. One sequence where he has his soul stolen by a doppelganger and goes to the afterlife is surreal and cruel, as he narrates aloud that the “replacement” Mizuki has been living his life ever since that day. A funnier bit, but the humor is black as pitch, has a shyster talk Mizuki and his wife into a sort of ‘swingers’ arrangement where they get to choose from various girls-for-hire stacked up like cordwood on a boat. Mizuki asks what happens if the spouse gets cold feet, and we see a shot of his wife getting drugged and flash frozen in the back seat of a car. Mizuki’s sense of humor can be a bit beyond the pale at times, and I am pleased that the sequence sort of petered out after this.

There are many other reasons to enjoy this volume – I liked seeing the real-life visual inspirations for Nezumi Otoko and Kitaro here. And even though the story of Japan’s last 36 years of Showa is not the compelling narrative force of the first 27, this still remains one of his most important books. The final chapter ends with an inspiring rant against the evils of war, and how he hopes this history will show why it’s crucial to prevent it. An amazing series of books.

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