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.


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.

Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan

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

I was somewhat deceived by the cliffhanger in the last volume, where I felt that I’d gotten to the incident that caused Mizuki to lose his arm. In fact, it’s yet another breathtaking escape from the jaws of death, and the arm is lost much later in the narrative, when he lies delirious from malaria in the camp hospital. It’s fascinating how often he was nearly killed – indeed, it’s especially amazing given how often his squad was sent on suicide marches. He was the only survivor from his original squad, and this is looked upon as extremely shameful by the officers – why didn’t he die nobly? As ever, though, Mizuki seems not to think too hard about all of this, and is mostly concerned with food. At least, the Mizuki we read about here. The author knows very much what he’s saying in this volume, condemning the Japanese higher-ups for needless sacrifice.


The story continues to shift back and forth between Mizuki’s account of his own experiences during and after the war and the historical narrative being presented by Nezumi Otoko (who is briefly joined by two other yokai from the Kitaro series, possibly as Mizuki wanted to distract from some especially dry history). In the earlier volumes, I was more riveted by the history than I was my Mizuki’s biography, but here my interest began to shift, and I found myself wanting to learn more about this man and his determined survival traits, which again are consistently portrayed as being due to happenstance rather than any cunning or intelligence. Mizuki drifts through life during and after the war, and his creation of Kitaro – then known as Graveyard Kitaro – doesn’t even merit a panel, instead being framed as part of the larger narrative of his inability to succeed – Kamishibai, the style he’s trying, is on its way out, and manga is the brand new thing that may actually work out.

This is not to discount the history, of course, which remains excellent. Mizuki is very good at showing multiple sides of each situation, being sure to mention the heroic moments in the Pacific War along with the atrocities, and pointing out how the occupation post-War did help the economy recover (mostly due to the Korean War) while noting how hypocritical and unrelenting MacArthur and the GHQ could be in their promotion of democracy and search for communists. There’s a scene where the students are reading a book talking about the freedoms of Western capitalism which is heavily censored with black magic marker to remove references to Japanese patriotism. It helps to raise a generation of cynics.

As this volume ends, things are looking a little better for both Shigeru Mizuki and the people of Japan. The last volume, due out in the spring, will take us to 1989, the final year of Showa. I look forward to it greatly, but hope it will be a bit less harrowing than this one, which does not flinch in its portrayal of Japanese commanders sending their troops towards “noble deaths”, and one man’s ability to drift through life allowing him to survive that conflict – though not without sacrifice.

Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan

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

As you may have gathered from the dates, this volume covers the majority of World War II – referred to by Mizuki as “The Pacific War”, as it is in Japan. While we don’t neglect the average Japanese civilian back home, there is definitely more of an emphasis on battles, troop movements, and the machinations of war here, with so many Japanese general names flying past you will be grateful there are endnotes explaining who they all are. Interwoven into this is Mizuki’s own storyline, as he continues to fail at most everything he tries until the day he is drafted into the army… and manages to fail there as well, leading to a horrifying cliffhanger.


The narration of events continues to be done mostly by Nezumi Otoko, Mizuki’s filthy coward character from Gegege no Kitaro. He’s a bit less noticeable here, as the narration has to move so quickly it doesn’t allow time for anyone to make yokai jokes. Still, only Nezumi Otoko would stand behind Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo and wrap his arms around them in a ‘we’re buddies’ hug. This isn’t to say his narration is biased, though – Nezumi Otoko is quick to point out the lies and deceit that Japan uses to advance its own thirst for power. In addition, the fact that he is sort of ‘out of time’ means that he can have the occasional chat with Mizuki the artist, appearing as himself in a slightly less exaggerated version of the Mizuki we see living though his late teenage years.

General Yamamoto is mentioned early in the book, right around Pearl Harbor, that if he can turn the tide in 6-12 months, everything will go Japan’s way, but if it takes longer, America will end up winning. Most of the focus of this book is that extended narrative, as we see battle after battle where Japan marches in and takes over… and then the tide begins to turn, more men are lost, less land is gained, and the Japanese government decides to start lying to its people about what’s going on – the Battle of Midway’s true casualties weren’t known publicly till well after the war.

And then there’s Mizuki himself. As I said in my first review, I suspect that he is exaggerating his past self for comic relief, but there’s still a sense that this is a young man who cannot stop aimlessly drifting through his life, and is easily influenced by those around him. He’s also beaten, a lot – those who recall Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths will see a number of similar scenes here. The reward for the beatings seems to be rising in rank so that you can beat others in turn, but Mizuki never even gets that far. The most tragic part of the entire book for me when when, assigned to the bugle corps, he finds the job boring and demands a transfer. His superiors try to talk him out of this THREE TIMES, but to no avail. And so he’s sent to the front, and ends up fighting for his life as we get yet another amazing cliffhanger ending.

A whole lot of this book continues to be a history textbook of sorts. But then again, this is a manga written for Japanese people, telling them things that, at the time of its publication (and indeed to an extent today) the government was not comfortable with admitting. As a result, it can be a bit didactic. Mizuki is not entirely condemning Japan – he discusses the Bataan death march, and notes what little choice the Japanese military had there given the climate. But certainly this is more critical than we’re used to seeing, and the facts are so riveting that you’ll find you can’t stop turning the page. Add to this the art style, which continues to shift between photorealism and goofy sketches, and you’ve got a second volume that’s just as essential as the first.