Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mizuki Shigeru and the kashihon manga

(The subtitle of this here blog lists books as first among the Tanuki's interests, but I haven't written about any yet. The one I'm in the middle of is kind of taking a while to finish; when I do, I'll write about it, but in the meantime here's something about the last book I finished. Purely for personal reference--if I don't write it down, I'll forget everything about a plot within a couple of months--I've been writing up books I read for a while now.)

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Kaiki kashihon meisakusen 怪奇貸本名作選 (Weird tales from the rental manga) and Kyôfu kashihon meisakusen 恐怖貸本名作選 (Scary stories from the rental manga). Shûeisha 集英社, 2008.

Mizuki Shigeru is my favorite manga author/artist. Born in 1922, he's still around. His most experimental work is probably his wartime memoirs--he served in Rabaul, lost an arm there, and drew some startlingly vivid manga about his experiences--but he'll always be thought of mostly as a horror writer. He specializes in traditional Japanese ghosties and ghoulies--he's more or less solely responsible for the images modern Japanese have of traditional monsters. Poke around here or here and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about (sites in Japanese).

This is a two-volume collection of early horror stand-alones that Mizuki published in kashihon manga mags in the early 1960s. The kashihon were a phenomenon of the immediate postwar period in Japan: they were manga magazines or books that were published expressly for the rental market. Most kids couldn't afford to buy manga in those days, so they rented them on the cheap; the rental market died out in the '60s as the economy boomed, and most of the kashihon titles were forgotten until recently. Now, as part of the eternal manga boom, some are being rediscovered (the originals are scarce) and republished.

Most of Mizuki's work, even in this period, was in series centered around popular characters: Ge-ge-ge no Kitarô, etc. The stories in these two volumes contain early versions of Nezumi Otoko (from the Kitarô stories), Mizuki's version of the kappa, and some of his other later characters, but they have no actual connection (that I’ve noticed) with his famous later series. They’re just stand-alone creepy stories. Here they’re divided into “kaiki” (weird) and “kyôfu” (scary) but that’s just an arbitrary categorization, I think. No real difference in tone or subject matter between the two volumes.

They vary in quality, but the best of them are quite creepy, with that sense of homely gloom that he does so well—horror paired with poverty, monsters in patched clothing. Against this backdrop the protagonists/victims generally display some ostensibly admirable quality such as ambition, self-respect, or rationality, but Mizuki always shows this to be pathetic. In their own way, these stories are a potent counternarrative to the risshin shussei (work hard and succeed, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, make something of yourself kid) model of modern Japan, as well as the shiny new Tokyo of the ‘60s.

Some deal with traditional monsters or legends; some just with ghosts. One is a really weird sci-fi tale about a kid who agrees to be turned into a cyborg so he can become an astronaut—he loses all his humanity in the process, turns into a green monster, and ends up killing the scientist who made him. Haunting. Others are about people who explore remote corners of Japan and find…horror!

The art varies widely. Some of it is fairly polished, some is almost amateurish, and it all looks kind of rushed. This is the first I’ve read from his kashihon period, so I don’t know if it’s a factor of his age or the industry. The art isn’t as beguiling as Kitarô, but then there’s also a kashihon Kitarô, so I should compare it with that. It works, though.

Special mention should be made of the story “Haka o horu otoko” (The man who dug up graves) It’s about Yukio Mishima stealing skulls from a graveyard so he can give them to Jean Cocteau. A wicked little satire of the great novelist and his Western pretensions.

I’m fantasizing about someday translating a bunch of Mizuki stuff, and if I do, a selection of five or six of these would not be a bad thing to include.

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