By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazine. A bibliophile, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University, Julio currently keeps the lights on by working at JTB USA while writing freelance in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and comic books on his blog and Twitter @brittlejules.
Welcome to the most difficult book review I have ever written. Not only am I challenged to write something meaningful about a great artist’s work on a very complicated and rightfully vilified man, but I also bear a burden on my heart as I address the passing of said great artist, Shigeru Mizuki.
Last week, the world lost a much-loved cartoonist. Mizuki brought comics into the world that celebrated the strange and mysterious with unique humor and style. He brought joy to generations, young and old, with his ever popular series GeGeGe no Kitaro. He also challenged us to face and remember atrocities of war in his own country, and others, by bringing to life the war he survived through his historical manga Showa: A History of Japan, an epic work available now in English in four volumes, and a manga examination of the life of Adolf Hitler, released in English just two weeks before his passing.
We have been able to enjoy more of Mizuki’s work in the West thanks to the publishing company Drawn and Quarterly and the herculean efforts of JET Alum (and JQ interviewee) Zack Davisson (Nara-ken, 2001-04; Osaka-shi, 2004-06), who translated all four parts of Showa as well as Hitler. Davisson, a great fan of Mizuki, maintains a blog on Japanese tales, monsters, and yokai, where you can find his own work and more about the legendary cartoonist.
Originally published in 1971, Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler is a historical manga portraying the life and contextual history of one of mankind’s most infamous figures. While Shigeru Mizuki is best known for his comical stories such as Kitaro, he has proven time and time again that he is not afraid to use the comic medium to tackle harrowing topics of war and death in the nonfiction genre; in fact, the care with which he renders photorealistic scenes and compiles research into such as works as the Showa and Hitler are often astounding. It is strange for me personally to send him off while talking about one of his darker works, but he would not have created it if it was not important to him. In the introduction to the book, Frederik L. Schodt writes that Mizuki later stated his belief that Japan would never have gone to war with the Allies if not for the belief of Hitler’s success in World War II: “My destiny would have been different. In other words, I would have avoided my wretched life in the military, and I might still have my arm. So how could I not be interested in Hitler, and in knowing what sort of a man he really was?”
One of the most curious and arresting aspects of this manga, and Mizuki’s historical work in general, is the dichotomy of offbeat comedy and funny-looking characters contrasted with serious, and at times, disturbing portrayals of the victims of wartime violence. The narrative tone of the manga is not disparaging or outright aggressive in critiquing Hitler, but from the opening chapter you can tell that it is in no way sympathetic of him as man or as a character. No matter the context, you get an unsettling feeling from him, from the way he carries himself to the way his eyes are drawn—they feel flat, and always narrowed at an angle, with irises partially obscured as if too large or heavy in his eyes. He often has a look of restrained mania waiting to escape.
After a first view of Hitler as Mizuki draws him, the story actually begins with stark pictures of innocent men, women, and children in hiding, piles of skeletons and images from Holocaust concentration camps. The first chapter has a lot of the images that jump to mind when one thinks of Nazi Germany and World War II, but the bulk of the story brings to center stage the life of Adolf Hitler that most do not know about, and how exactly he was able to lead his country to begin a conflict that would change the course of history for generations to come.
This manga examines Hitler’s life, from his early years as an idealistic and starving artist with a lazy streak to his eventual success as a soldier unafraid to loudly proclaim both his patriotism and anti-Semitism. For the most part the tone is neutral, and Mizuki presents him as a man with merits and faults. In portrayals of Hitler, we tend to favor ones that either ridicule him or criticize him, because to sympathize or have admiration for the man is akin to allying with a monster. We do not want to assign admirable traits to villains who disgust us. It feels better, and safer, to make them satirical bumbling idiots. But terrible people do not rise to powerful positions from which they can manipulate a nation’s destiny by falling into it accidentally; they do so by being intelligent, devious, and charming enough to inspire trust and loyalty in others.
I cannot speak for others, but I never learned in any school about Hitler came to be admired in his country, for example, how Hitler was awarded his Iron Cross. In the first World War, as a lowly dispatch runner, he is able to catch fifteen armed enemy soldiers by tricking them into thinking they were surrounded. The story is so reminiscent of a tale one might tell about sly Odysseus that it feels unreal, but surely it was told by many and believed all the same. The political intrigue laid out in this manga and the cleverness that Hitler uses to anticipate and manipulate the people and nations around him are as fascinating as any of the gripping betrayals and subplots in Game of Thrones.
It’s important to have portrayals like Mizuki’s, where we see how successful the man was as an orator, how he could be devious, clever, brave, and even charming. It is important to see the admirable qualities in someone like him because if we fool ourselves into thinking that he was only ignorant and ambitious to the point of foolishness we will never understand the sway he had over people, how he could have achieved such success. Without understanding that, we will never see the similar movements and qualities of such a person in the present day.
Mizuki, who lost an arm in World War II while serving in the Japanese military in Papua New Guinea, did not expect to survive it. His experiences led him to a lifelong philosophy of embracing peace, and he has worked tirelessly to inspire that in others. Mizuki’s Showa conveys Japan’s road to a self-destructive war and the suffering of its people in order to educate generations of children about suffering and senseless violence. In the same way, Hitler is successful at educating us about the danger posed by people who can ride the waves of pain, fear, and anger in others to bring them crashing down onto the world.
Shigeru Mizuki lived a long and full life, one he never expected to have. Like many young men of his generation, he was pressured on all sides to throw his life away if he did not already lose it to starvation, sickness, or battle. The works he has left us are a testament to an admiration of the mysterious and wondrous, and stern reminders to be wary greed and aggression that will survive him forever.
To read more of Mizuki, I recommend starting with his seminal work, Kitaro, which you can expect to see more of in English in the next year. To feel out more of his personal life, I recommend his NonNonBa. If you are interested in Mizuki’s other historical, and semi-autobiographical, works then Showa’s four volumes are an epic journey through one of Japan’s most transformative periods and the author’s own life. Of course, you should also check out his other Eisner award-winning title Onwards Toward Our Noble Deaths. Thanks to Drawn and Quarterly, we can always be Mizuki fans here in America, too.
Read a sample of the book here.
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