History through manga- Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa Japan

A while ago I had written about how I’d visited the Aquincum museum at Budapest and how impressed I was with their exhibition “Dark Spells at Aquincum” which brought the history and lore of curse tablets and other dark rituals from Ancient Roman times to the visitors in a simple and easy to understand and retain format- namely a graphic novel.

On finishing the Shigeru Mizuki’s four-volume ‘Showa: A History of Japan’, I wondered why history wasn’t always taught in schools through the graphic novel format. Thinking of my own childhood and those of thousands of other kids growing up in India around that time I’m pretty sure that the stories we absorbed and retained were the ones we read in comic magazines like Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha. So why was history not given to us as a comic book and instead given to us in boring texts where the only thing that was expected of us was to rote learn a veritable litany of dates and names?

Shigeru Mizuki's last volume of Showa history books
Shigeru Mizuki’s last volume of Showa history books in manga format

Mizuki’s four volume graphic novel series is essentially a chronicle of events that happen in what is the Showa era (the reign of Japanese emperor Hirohito from 1923 until 1989). However, the book works on a multitude of levels. The first is the official history book version that starts with the Kanto earthquake and ends with the death of the Emperor and everything in between including the second world war and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The second and more engaging and personal narrative is the autobiography of the author Shigeru Mizuki (born Mura) from his time as a curious child in the Japanese countryside, to his personal harrowing experience in the war (where he loses an arm), his return to Japan post-war and his struggle to earn a livelihood finally becoming a manga artist. Then there are the stream of supernatural Yokai- Japanese folkloric monsters who come in at various points of the story. Mizuki himself had a deep interest and believed in the existence of Yokai even to the point of insisting that they had saved his life a few times. And then there is the narrator Nezumi Otoko (Rat man), one of Mizuki’s creations for his better known GeGeGe no Kitaro manga.

The multiple layers are actually very effective because just when you think the history and the facts are getting too much for you, the narrative moves to Shigeru Mizuki’s own story and that is always far more interesting.

Shigeru fainting during the war out of fatigue and starvation
Shigeru fainting during the war out of fatigue and starvation- the illustrations are not in colour but the final book had a few special panels

What I found most fascinating was trying to understand what an ordinary person living in Japan felt and went through during the war. What were their opinions? How did they put up with it? Mizuki himself was drafted as a soldier during the war and narrates his tales of privations and horrors with a strange detachment. Over the last couple of years I have also watched a number of Japanese historical drama TV series and some of them touch upon how the ordinary people of Japan suffered during the war. Starvation was a major problem because of naval blockades and people were always scrambling for food. The end of the war actually came as a relief to most people.

In fact Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast announcing the end of the war was the first time the ordinary people of Japan heard the emperor’s voice. His address was couched in such high language that most people did not understand what was being said. In one of the TV series (carnations), the heroine, who doesn’t have much of an educational background, asks what was said and when told that Japan has been defeated and that the war was over, she actually exclaims in relief at the prospect of no more bombing. The Jewel Voice broadcast as it is called was an iconic moment in Japanese history and I myself have now heard fragments of this in many of the historic TV series that I watch. Although parts of the military were opposed to the ending of the war as this was a dishonourable move in their eyes, the Emperor of Japan had had enough of the suffering that his people were going through. All of this is also depicted in Mizuki’s comic.

The atomic bomb
The atomic bomb- apparently people described it as Pika (the flash) and don (the thunderous noise that followed)

One of the other eye catching aspects of the manga books are the sometimes etching of photographs that make their way beside the illustrations. This gives an eerie sense of somehow the past making its way to you, leeching out from the pages.

An important thing that I learnt and had never realised before was how strong a role the US had played in the post war resurgence of Japan. I mean we all know of the Marshall Plan and what happened in Europe and something very similar (and yet not) was happening in Japan though as Mizuki outlines it, a lot of the development in the 60s and early 70s was because Japan was being used as a manufacturing base to support military campaigns for the US. As Mizuki says at one point (and I paraphrase)- the Japanese people loved their peace, they didn’t mind producing supplies for other wars as long as they were not asked to go fight in it.

In the end, Shigeru Mizuki sincerely implores all of humanity about the futility of any war. It is an important lesson delivered in a medium that is unassuming and accessible to all.

Who recognises the etching of Oshin?
Who recognises the etching of Oshin? Oshin was an iconic series that was made in Japan in the 80s and broadcast to many parts of the world including India where I have memories of watching it as a 7 or 8 year old.

Interestingly enough, another graphic novel that I read recently was the classic Maus by Art Spiegelman which chronicles the travails that his father had to undergo as a Polish Jew during the time of the Nazis. Once again the humble graphic novel that acts as a more powerful medium to convey history than conventional textbooks.

I wholeheartedly recommend Shigeru Mizuki’s manga on Showa history to everyone. It may feel like a trudge to go through four books but it’s a fascinating insight into a slice of history.

Do you know other historical graphic novels?


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Nirmala says:

    Yes,it would be very interesting and absorbing to give history in the form of comic! My father in the 70 s had given me Bible in the form of comic!

  2. Daniella Romano says:

    Wow this looks amazing, I’ll definitely read it.
    I think teaching history via manga is a great idea- kids seem to get bored of the traditional way of teaching quickly, but this makes it much more real and emotional.

    1. Sukanya Ramanujan says:

      Hi Daniella, I think engaging methods are needed to reach history out to new audiences and I think manga/ graphic novels are fantastic for that

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