Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mizuki Shigeru: Kappa no Sanpei

One of the other books I started during our trip to Japan was Mizuki Shigeru's Kappa no Sanpei 河童の三平. Mizuki's enjoying a boom right now - his wife's memoir has been turned into a TV series - and so most of his stuff seems to be in print for the moment. I picked up a bunch, including this.

I got the Chikuma Bunko version, published in 1988. I have Chikuma's versions of several of his other things, including Akuma-kun, and this, like their edition of that, isn't too careful about telling you when and where the stories were originally published. I think what it is is that these editions date from the years when classic manga were just beginning to be taken seriously - that they were being reprinted in adult-aimed formats was already something of a landmark. Serious bibliographic diligence would have been too much to ask.

But I think what I got here was the version of the story that was published in 1968 and maybe 1969 in Shûkan Shônen Sunday 週刊少年サンデー. That makes it a rewrite of the version he wrote for the kashihon manga. The Chikuma version says it's complete (at least that's what I think that there zen means...), but in fact it leaves out a couple of episodes. Still, it was all I could find....

This is the third of Mizuki's great characters, with Akuma-kun and Kitarô: characters and stories he came back to again and again throughout his career, in every medium he worked in. The story involves a human kid named Kawahara Sanpei who, everybody thinks, looks suspiciously like a kappa. In fact, we soon learn that one of his ancestors was a kappa. Anyway, he ends up meeting a real kappa boy, and they switch places. Sanpei goes to live in kappaland, and the kappa kid, Kanpei, goes to live in Sanpei's home. The joke is that nobody in Sanpei's house or school notices.

The book contains two major story arcs, one a sort of comedy of errors in which Kanpei's skill at swimming gets Sanpei, who can't swim, entered in a national swim meet, and it's only magic farts that save him; the other is an extended quest story in which Sanpei and Kanpei have to track down magic items hidden by a long-ago king of the kappas. But even these two stories are less episodic than they sound - they're united by a long story arc concerning Sanpei's mother, who left him when he was a baby, and by a recurring entanglement with a Death God who's trying to trick Sanpei into coming to Hell with him.

So, like Akuma-kun, this is a character with a story, at least in general terms: in both cases each time Mizuki revisited the character he retold this story, with minor or major adjustments. This doesn't seem to have been the case with Kitarô, by the way; his story seems mostly to be discrete episodes, many of which were retold, to be sure; Kitarô is a character and a milieu more than he is a story. (Except for my favorite Mizuki comic of all, the very trippy Kitarô yawa 鬼太郎夜話: this is one long story.)

I think his treatment of kappa was much more interesting in Kappa sen'ichiya. Here they're much more kid-friendly, and much more just like funny monsters. But that's the book's only real weakness.

Sanpei himself is pretty uncharismatic, but of course, that's part of the point. He's a classic Mizuki sad-sack protagonist, a loser at everything he tries, and plagued by bad luck that actually crosses over into tragedy. My favorite parts of this, in fact, were places where Mizuki made Sanpei suffer the kinds of things kiddy manga don't usually touch on - he's got abandonment issues, poverty issues, and death issues. Jeez, at the end we actually have to watch him die, then watch his ghost wander around trying to convince himself he's not really dead.

And the doubling effect with Kanpei is really interesting - why can't people tell them apart? Why is Kanpei in some respects a better human than Sanpei? And then the whole fart motif is just plain awesome. And then, every time you think it's falling into a pleasant morass of crude humor, we get the Death God, who is himself pretty crude and humorous - but then again, he's Death, and he never lets you forget it.

In short, it's more of Mizuki's patented mix of childlike humor and dark, dark adult metaphysical realism.

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