Shigeru Mizuki is one of Japan’s oldest and most famous working manga artists. He’s best known for drawing yokai—basically, Japanese ghosts and monsters.
But in recent years, the 92-year-old cartoonist has turned to Japan’s militaristic Showa era. The result is a stunning series of graphic novels based on historical research and Mizuki’s own experiences growing up and fighting in Tokyo’s imperial wars.
His latest work, Showa: A History of Japan, is an unblinking recollection of one of the 20th century’s darkest periods.
War interrupted Mizuki’s art studies in 1942. He fought in Papua New Guinea and lost his arm in an Allied air raid. Returning to Japan, Mizuki struggled to find a job. He got work as a movie-theater projectionist until he made his manga debut with Rocketman.
Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly began translating Mizuki’s comics in 2011, starting with Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths, a manga based on his experiences as a soldier in the Pacific during World War II.
Mizuki followed up with Showa, his most ambitious work. The two-volume epic is part history and part memoir. Drawn and Quarterly released the first English volume last year and will release the second volume in May 2014. Volume two begins with Japan attacking Pearl Harbor and recounts Mizuki’s own war experiences fighting in the war.
Showa’s first volume, covering the period 1926 to 1939, recalls a difficult time for Japan. There were catastrophic earthquakes, a crippling economic depression, food shortages and a growing militarist movement that would soon establish a dictatorship.
Mizuki jumps between his family life and effect of politics on everyday people. He is critical of the militarists and their political allies who seized control of the country and led it to war. He is honest about how Japanese nationalists treated their neighbors in Asia.
Mizuki draws Chinese and Korean peasants coping with Japanese imperialism. He documents the invasion of Manchuria and the establishment of the Manchukuo puppet state. The comic shows Japanese troops slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians in Nanjing.
At the end of the first volume, the militarist Hideki Tojo becomes Japan’s war minister. “His time in command is a siege on the Japanese nation,” Mizuki writes. “We would soon learn what it meant to truly suffer.”
This is a personal look at history by an artist who lived it. Nezumi Otoko, one Mezuki’s most famous characters from his popular comic GeGeGe No Kitaro, appears frequently to explain what life was like—in essence, speaking for the author. That’s like Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny popping up in an American history book.
It’s an odd choice, but it works in Showa’s unconventional history. There’s nothing else like it.