Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: 1926-1939 is a graphic novel that intertwines two stories: 1) the chaotic history of Japan during the 1920s and 30s and 2) the author’s childhood during this same period. The author is remarkable in that he is now 91, but he has a vivid memory of his own childhood during this period. Tragically, he would ultimately lose his arm while fighting for the Japanese army, although this book (the first in a three volume series) does not cover that period in his life. This book is a staggering achievement, both artistically and intellectually, which everyone interested in Asia should read.
Mizuki’s coverage of the history is thorough, and he describes in detail the economic, social and political events that led to Japan’s unraveling during this period, to such an extent that military factions came to dominate the state. In lesser hands, some of the economic details -such as a bank crisis- might have been dry. But these narratives are matched by personal stories of Mizuki’s hapless family, as it was buffeted by one crisis after another. His device of adopting a fictional narrator- a strange creature, of unknown type- also is surprisingly effective. Throughout, Mizuki is critical of Japanese politics and militarism. His depiction of the Rape of Nanjing, for example, is unsparing in describing the horrors perpetrated by Japanese soldiers. As someone who began his career as a military historian, who focused in particular on factional struggles, I particularly liked his depictions of Japanese officers meeting around board tables to try to determine the fate of Asia. Although this is a popular book, it also has footnotes. I found myself diving into the references to learn more about events, factions and figures in Japanese history.
Mizuki has a dry wit, and appears to be happiest when he is mocking himself. He was certainly a child who knew failure, from his father’s inability to serve as a provider, to his own failures in the Japanese school system. It is difficult to finish this book without some sense of empathy for his long-dead teachers. Seldom has such brilliance been so concealed by initial dullness. At the same time, what emanates from the book is a sense of compassion and gratitude. In particular, his relationship with Nonnoba, an older woman in his neighborhood, captures the immense impact that one kind elder can have upon a child, with effects that have endured across generations. This ability to move from the private experiences of one child, to great events of national significance, enables Mizuki to create an account that works on many levels. Mizuki also looks at other figures with the same mocking clarity that he applies to himself, and which exposes historical figures to a merciless light.
While this book works as both a historical study and a memoir, it is the art as much as the writing that leads to its success. Some images -typically historical moments, mainly of war scenes- are captured in realistic sketches that rely on contrast. Other images, usually of his childhood, are draw in a cartoon-line style. Sometimes, the two techniques are combined, to place the hapless Mizuki in a specific local. The overall effect is too contrast images in the same manner that Mizuki contrasts historical events with his memories.
Zack Davidson has done an exceptional job with the translation. The wording is never clunky, and he captures the vitality of Mizuki’s prose. In terms of authorship, translation and art, this is a masterful work, which I strongly recommend to anyone interested in Japanese culture, military history and graphic novels. Books this good come along rarely, and this one is not to be missed.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University