Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mizuki Shigeru: Nezumi otoko no bôken

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Nezumi otoko no bôken ねずみ男の冒険. Chikuma Bunko ちくま文庫, 1995.

This consists of a bunch of short stories Mizuki wrote, mostly for Garo ガロ, mostly in the mid-'60s; one comes from 1975. I don't think they were written as a series; in fact, I think the only connection is that they all feature the character of Nezumi Otoko (Ratman). He's best known as a regular foil/sidekick/nemesis of Ge-ge-ge no Kitarô, so this collection's main charm is the chance to see Ratman on his own.

Ratman is an interesting character. Occasionally the stories define him as definitely as the Wikipedia article I just linked to does: a human-monster halfbreed. But I wouldn't trust that definition any farther than I could throw it. Usually he's much vaguer. He seems to have some powers, great longevity, and superhuman stench if nothing else; he's also neither dependably good nor evil. He's dependably undependable, but we'll get to that. I think he's best placed in the lineage of the sennin 仙人, the immortal wizard sage of East Asian mythology: marginally or originally human who's made himself unhuman by virtue of long study, not to mention derangement of the senses and body. Usually these figures are associated with superhuman virtue, and so they're sometimes called "Daoist saints" in English, but they're also features of Japanese (at least) supernatural stories, usually have an air of danger about them, and can sometimes be trickster figures.

Ratman (who sometimes makes his home in the scraps of woods behind shrines, significantly enough; sometimes he even poses as a god) is certainly a trickster. His role in the Kitarô series is usually to stir things up: he's nominally Kitarô's friend, but he'll sell Kitarô out for anything. His main goal is always to make a buck - he's poor as a churchmouse (pun intended, but not by Mizuki, I'm sure) - he's always scheming to con someone out of something, always dreaming of getting rich. He'll help Kitarô when it's convenient to him, but the minute something shiny comes along, he's off.

Plus, did I mention his personal odiousness? He hasn't bathed (we're told) for three hundred years, and wears a robe of some sort that hasn't been washed in just about as long. His farts and his breath can knock you out, and when he's rendered robeless (which sometimes happens) his skin is covered with - well, I don't think I want to know.

So why is he my favorite Mizuki character?

Part of the answer is the side of him that's on display in these stories, where he's on his own, left to work his scams on unsuspecting salarymen, samurai, schoolkids, and ninja acolytes. He's indefatigable, for one thing. Which is not to say tireless: he's a lazy SOB just like me, but he has great energy in pursuing his dreams of getting ahead. He never succeeds, but he never stops trying. So there's that.

There's also the eloquence and verve with which he sells his schemes: he's got the gift of gab, and he uses it indiscriminately. He backs it up with an indomitable arrogance that never fails to bring a smile.

All of this is on a character level; but there's also the fact that Ratman's sleaziness gives Mizuki an opportunity to tell stories that play to his deep cynicism about society. In fact Ratman is a secondary character in most of these stories, merely facilitating the sufferings of the protagonists. One story focuses on a monstrous plant that blooms on Yume no shima and threatens to take over Tokyo; Ratman appears in the guise of a city bureaucrat who explains that the purpose of municipal government is not to protect its citizens, but to hire as many people as possible to do meaningless jobs. Elsewhere Ratman appears as a sort of agent provocateur, a kimono merchant (calling himself Cardin, from France) who visits a village and destabilizes it from within, pitting one faction against another, making a profit at every turn. Elsewhere he runs a business that "takes away your worries" - a businessman sends his lazy son to Ratman, who implants a monster-egg in the son, which allows the monster Industriousness to take over the son. The only problem is, the businessman runs a drug company, and the newly-brilliant son starts inventing cures for illnesses - which threatens to put the company out of business, since they depend on illness for their financial wellbeing.

In short, a Ratman story is going to feature broad, wicked social satire combined with gross-out humor and Mizuki's queasy-cute art. What's not to love?

That art. I say "queasy-cute," but the cuteness is usually only in the fact that you can tell the figures are supposed to be humorous. Broadly speaking we're in the realm of the cartoon. But he almost always goes for prickly over cuddly, lumpy instead of symmetrical, ugly instead of beautiful. Take the three yakuza in this last illustration (fighting with a monster Ratman has sicced on them). They look like Mizuki sketched them in about a minute and a half, and yet each is drawn with unerring lines. You get a great sense of physicality and personality from each of them, a sense of yakuza meanness; and yet they're not particularly scary, just kind of pathetic. Pathetic: that's humanity, for the most part, in Mizuki Shigeru.

But those monsters....

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