Through Concentrated Breath

making images from memory


02 December 2015 by Rey Armenteros


Two days ago, I wrote this: “Today, Shigeru Mizuki died,” and I didn’t know what else to say to follow it up. Words were not coming to me. What stunned me was that I am now in the process of reading the Showa series, and I was elated by the fact that he had been able to survive an incredible number of life-threatening moments and that he was 93 and still a practicing cartoonist. The very fact that Mizuki as an infantryman survived World War IIĀ is nothing but a miracle.

Showa is a series of books that tells the history of the Showa Era of Japan (1926-1989) through all of its tides and developments done in comic book form. It employs Mizuki’s signature style of having simple, cartoon figures populating realistic backdrops. The backgrounds are so realistic that they do nothing to assimilate the simple line drawings of characters. This is important because it may say something about Mizuki’s approach and why he has chosen to work this way in many of his books. The gritty realism is obviously pulled from photo references, and they exhibit a labor-intensive rendering approach that must have been an uphill battle, panel by panel. However, the pages flow quickly for the reader as Mizuki moderates the speed not by the elaboration of the drawings but by how much narrative he places per page; often, there are few words, and the detail of the photo renderings are not enough to slow you down to admire all the work. In fact, these pictures of WWII planes blowing up over rough waters and important leaders signing documents act in the opposite manner: they show familiar pictorial archetypes that can be glanced quickly. These images are covered in crosshatched textures that provide a surface “grime,” that also serve to push the reader back. It is a use of detail made to be ignored rather than pull you in.

Showa 2
The general narrative begins with a plain, third-person treatment that is translated here in present tense. I don’t know if this were the verb tense the Japanese was originally written in, but in English, it feels quick, simple and current. It is one of the reasons some fiction writers use it, so that the events feel as if transpiring right now. This general narrative soon reveals itself as the words of Mizuki’s Rat Man, who eventually comes in to lace the events with a deadpan tone of incredulity. He serves the reader in ways that would show a sardonic, questioning attitude to the decisions made by the Japan’s leaders. At times, the Rat Man interacts with the powerful people, making comments or asking questions, and these historical figures either ignore him or answer his comments with their own cynical replies. The other narrative voice is that of Mizuki himself. In Showa, we have not just a rendition of a chunk of history but a personal account of Mizuki’s life as they were shaped by the times. Mizuki enjoys a special place in that he was a witness to the entire period, and the story of his life and family are interweaved with the larger events.

In the art, the cartoon characters serve as counterpoints to the realistically-drawn movers and shakers that seem so distant by comparison. However, when a famous leader is shown saying something, his physiognomy is reshaped into simpler lines showing bonehead expressions. These moments are interspersed with photo imagery culled from history. Replete with cold, photographic impressions, the series’ use of this strategy is not as effective throughout the work. At its worst, you get nothing more than an image that goes with the text, as when the narrative mentions a return trip for Mizuki that he did by train and it is accompanied by the mundane, redrawn photo of a train doing its thing.

However, as I get to the last book, these techniques begin to feel mechanical. If you read all four books, you will have read 2,000 pages, and it is difficult to sustain interest for that long. In this last book, the war is finally over, and we get snippets of Japan’s rise from the ashes as it climbs into the status of a global economic powerhouse. The episodic nature of events in this book is fragmentary with the only real cohesion being Shigeru Mizuki’s own personal life trials. It feels like now that the war is over, it is more difficult to coalesce a suitable narrative for all the various things that happen over the next thirty to forty years. A much larger timeframe is enveloped in this book than the other three put together. It makes me wonder if tackling on the entire Showa period may have been more than anyone could have worked with and still maintain unity in the work. When the narrative breaks down into one unrelated event after another, I feel that Mizuki is striving to catch up with the rest of the era and end it already.

As I was reading this last book, I was also wondering if he had only shown those aspects of the later Showa period that he happened to have focused on when they were transpiring in his life. There were several bizarre murders that he might have brought up to show the changing psychology of a modernized Japan. The deaths of a couple of famous actors are mentioned. World events are brought in to show how they influence Japan. All of these episodes felt sporadic, and the art did not help. By now, all this grainy photorealism begins to raise ideas in my head that he and his assistants were likely working from photocopies of photos, which would have made the decision of where to place the blacks, for example, already delineated by a machine. Indeed, some of these historic moments were nothing more than a grainy snapshot of the moment without even bothering to copy them in a drawing. A great amount of these images do possess the mark of degenerated photocopies. They’re quite ugly, and I felt in the first couple of books that this was a strength since it was counterpoised with the cartoon drawings. As I’m nearing the 2,000-page mile marker, I’m not even looking at these pictures anymore. It’s just too much of the same process of a very long work.

In sharp contrast, Onward to Our Noble Deaths is a work of his that uses the very same techniques but succeeds on every level. It is a unified story that is a fraction of the size of Showa. There may be something in the respective sizes of these two works and their respective successes; any theme, any technique can overstay its welcome.

One saving grace in this last volume of Showa is the creative way he incorporates fantasy or dream elements into the general line of events. There are moments in his life where he dreams of situations that at first seem real but soon reveal themselves to be dreams or otherworldly moments. Since Mizuki is tied to the world of yokai (ghosts from Japan), this fits with the work he is doing on his yokai manga and the interests he has had in ghosts since childhood. In one inspired moment, he has a writer acquaintance of his who has shown up in the narrative suddenly take over the narration from the Rat Man and claims that he can do a better job. It suddenly brings you out of a stupor and makes you realize that this is a living, breathing account instead of a mere recording of history. In the end, Mizuki’s playful treatment of the material and his warm outlook on the era make these four volumes of his work a notable reading experience and an artistic account of a remarkable life.

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