Japanese cartoon artist and writer Shigeru Mizuki (1922–2015) was one of the pioneers of manga (comics) and one of the genre's most prominent artists from its beginnings all the way up to his death. His artwork, marked equally by a deep engagement with the supernatural and by his criticism of war and militarism in Japan and elsewhere, ranges in focus over an astonishing variety of subjects.
Shigeru Mizuki's most famous creation was Kitaro, a zombie-like boy who encounters supernatural figures called yokai as well as other ghostly beings. First appearing in 1960, Kitaro continues to be a major presence in Japanese popular culture today. Mizuki's introduction to yokai stories was provided by an elderly woman whom he immortalized in comics as the character NonNonBa; he also spent time diligently researching Japanese folklore. The interaction between the human and spirit worlds that occurs in his stories exerted a strong influence on contemporary Japanese anime (animated cartoons), particularly the films of director Hayao Miyazaki.
Mizuki was born Shigeru Mura on March 8, 1922, in Osaka, Japan, and he grew up in the seaside city of Sakaiminato. His father, an employee of the U.S. embassy, enjoyed art and film and supplied his growing son with a set of paints and several art magazines. What Mizuki enjoyed most, though, was taking walks with Fusa Kageyama, a female family servant who told him stories about ancient Japanese gods and monsters. He adopted the pen name Mizuki to share his own stories; it was taken from a guest house he would operate after World War II.
As a boy, Mizuki was an indifferent student. “I missed the first class every day, because I couldn't get up early in the morning. So I scored zero in math tests, because math classes were held the first thing in the morning and I skipped virtually all those classes. So I was called an idiot all the time,” he recalled to Tomoko Otake of the Japan Times. In the streets, however, he was renowned as a brawler with superb martial talents.
In 1943 Mizuki was drafted into the Japanese army and assigned to a bugle corps in Tottori Prefecture, where he had grown up. An indifferent musician, he was forced to run laps by a commanding officer. Eventually, he requested a transfer to the infantry and was sent to Rabaul on occupied New Britain Island, now part of Papua New Guinea. “If I had played the trumpet without complaining, I could have stayed on in Japan. Because I was a whiner, I was sent overseas,” he wryly recalled to Otake. While nearing Rabaul, Mizuki's ship was torpedoed and sunk by a submarine and most of its crew killed. He narrowly escaped death yet again during an ambush attack by American machine gunners. He dove into the sea to survive and, after making his way back to camp, his commanding officer disapprovingly stated that he should have died with the rest of his platoon.
That was not the end of Mizuki's wartime difficulties. He contracted malaria, was hospitalized, and lost his left arm—his drawing arm—when the hospital where he was staying was bombed. With Japan's forces surrendering and in disarray during 1945, Mizuki wandered into a village inhabited by members of the Tolai people and asked for food. Instead of sending the stranger away, the villagers took a liking to him. He was able to communicate with the Tolai because he now spoke some English and their language, Tok Pisin, had its roots in that tongue. Offered a local bride and a small farm, the traumatized Mizuki considered spending the rest of his life in Papua New Guinea. Ultimately, however, he decided to return to Japan, reunite with his family, and receive treatment for his amputated arm.
Mizuki's wartime experiences would eventually inspire various aspects of his artwork, but in the meantime, he sought the means to survive in a devastated Japan. He first worked at a variety of jobs, including fishmonger and bicycle taxi operator. His parents loaned him enough money to buy a small guest house called the Mizuki Apartments; this small resort inspired his pen name and has since become a major tourist attraction.
While Mizuki showed no talent at running a guest house, a meeting with one of his tenants set him on a new course. The man was an artist in a genre called kamishibai, a form of street storytelling accompanied by illustrations. Mizuki took a few art classes at a local university but was otherwise self-taught as an artist. He tried his hand at kamishibai and by the early 1950s had turned out hundreds of the action-packed drawings.
In 1957 Mizuki became award of the Japanese storytelling comic books known as manga and began to work in that genre. His first efforts consisted of crude imitations of Superman and several other American comics given to him by his father. He especially liked enjoyed horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt, and in 1960 he created a manga series called Hakaba Kitaro, which was first serialized in a boy's magazine. Based on an earlier Japanese manga, Hakaba Kitaro was populated entirely with characters drawn from Mizuki's imagination and from the fund of folklore he heard as a child. The series created a template for countless manga to come with its mix of human and supernatural characters. The title character is a young zombie with a talking eyeball for a father, and he encounters various human and yokai figures during his adventures. Hakaba Kitaro marked the development of Mizuki's characteristic visual style, which featured comically exaggerated characters set against a detailed, realistic background.
Mizuki's popular manga series spawned several animated and live action films as well as a bumper crop of merchandising tie-ins. After finishing the Hakaba Kitaro series he revived it several times in new guises, producing Gegege no Kitaro (1967), which ignited a lasting yokai craze, and Kitaro Continues (1977), in which a collegeage Kitaro embarks on sexual adventures. This manga series only marked the beginning of Mizuki's creative output, however. In 1962 he produced Footsteps from the Depths of the Earth, a manga adaptation of the short story “The Dunwich Horror” by American writer H.P. Lovecraft. Mizuki's 1974 comic The Witch Marilyn starred a supernatural rendition of actress Marilyn Monroe, and his childhood mentor Kageyama was fictionalized in 1975's NonNonBa as well as in a 1992 sequel, NonNonBa and Me. Even in lighter stories, he remained fascinated with the inner workings of the frightening monsters he created.
Despite his love of the supernatural, many of Mizuki's stories explored serious themes and topics. In his 1991 manga Gekiga Hitler, he presented a biography of the German Nazi leader. His antiwar attitudes encompassed both Japanese militarism and Western military aggression, and in his booklet Japan and War, he addressed Japanese elementary-school students and aimed to educate them about Japanese brutality during the war. He reintroduced his Kitaro character in Kitaro's Vietnam War Diary, which criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In 1979 Mizuki illustrated a magazine story highlighting problems at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Mizuki was his most unsparing in his autobiographical writings highlighting his wartime experiences. These included the graphic memoir Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, his eight-volume Showa: A History of Japan, and stand-alone comics such as The Comfort Women of the Military, which depicted the ordeal faced by women in Japanese-occupied countries. Although conservative, more nationalistic Japanese readers were uncomfortable with such themes, Mizuki's harrowing wartime experiences largely insulated him from criticism.
Both Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths and Showa were nominated for a Harvey Award, a top honor in the comics field, in 2012 and 2014, respectively, and two installments of Showa earned Mizuki prestigious Will Eisner Comic Industry awards in 2012 and 2015. His knowledge of Japanese folklore was so extensive that he was inducted into the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology. A genial and energetic man who outpaced his younger colleagues during research trips, Mizuki became a popular and revered figure in Japan during his later years.
Mizuki had entered into an arranged marriage with Nunoe Mura in 1961; the couple would raise two daughters. He remained vigorous and active into old age, attributing his health and energy level to sleeping ten hours a day and giving colorful interviews to journalists. He completed his autobiographical manga Watashi no hibi in May of 2015; although it ended abruptly, the ending was reportedly unrelated to the health problems faced by its creator. Mizuki died months later in Tokyo, the result of complications from a fall. At his death at age 93 on November 30, 2015, much of his work remained untranslated and thus inaccessible to non-Japanese fans.
Mizuki, Shigeru, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (originally serialized in Shūkan Gendai), Drawn and Quarterly, 1973.
Asia-Pacific Journal, September 1, 2008, Matthew Penney, “War and Japan: The Non-Fiction Manga of Shigeru Mizuki.”
Daily Beast, December 6, 2015, Jake Adelstein, “Goodbye to Japan's Manga King.”
New York Times, December 4, 2015, Jonathan Soble, “Shigeru Mizuki, 93, Known for Kitaro and War Stories,” p. B10.
New Yorker, December 10, 2015, Matt Alt, “Shigeru Mizuki's War-Haunted Art and Life.”
Anime News Network, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2015-11-29/kitaro-nonnonba-manga-creator-shigerumizuki-passes-away/.95919 (November 17, 2017), “Kitaro NonNonBa Manga Creator Shigeru Mizuki Passes Away.”
Comics Journal, http://www.tcj.com/the-life-and-death-of-shigeru-mizuki/ (November 17, 2017), Zack Davisson, “The Life and Death of Shigeru Mizuki.”
Japan Times, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2005/02/06/to-be-sorted/drawing-on-experience-2/#.WgeTg4a1tE5 (November 17, 2017), Tomoko Otake, “Drawing on Experience.”
Tor.com , https://www.tor.com/2015/12/01/japans-folklore-chronicler-shigeru-mizuki-1922-2015/ (November 17, 2017), Ada Palmer, “Japan's Folklore Chronicler, Shigeru Mizuki (1922–2015).”□