As Shigeru Mizuki’s comical narrator intones in the fourth volume of his expansive chronicle, Showa: 1953-1989: A History of Japan, post-post World War II was a rollercoaster ride. The volume, which concludes Mizuki’s historical-cum-personal memoir of the Showa Era (1926-1989), focuses on the years between 1953 and 1989, and while it lacks the intense military conflicts of earlier volumes, it stands replete with fascinating detail. After shifting away from a post-war economy, Japan suffered a series of booms and busts. The future seemed unstable and unknowable, and Mizuki did an expert job of tracking this instability.
As the legendary cartoonist passed away earlier this week, works like this reinforce the cartoonist’s singular gifts. Few, if any, artists could frame history with the same passion and intimate complexity as Mizuki. His narrative personalizes cold fact, hence absolving him of rigorous objectivity. He didn’t, however, utilize that crutch to any misleading end; any biases in historical representation would be understood—he was writing this for a Japanese audience, after all. Any unwillingness to truthfully represent the wartime atrocities or post-war embarrassments could be glossed over as the work of an unreliable narrator. In a country that actively works to erase World War II from its public consciousness, no one would blame Mizuki. But he did no such thing, and that’s what truly makes Showa so special.
Ever the artiste par excellence, Mizuki managed to avoid the national tradition of historical erasure. He stripped his nation’s history bare. “Fascism” was not euphemized or downplayed, nor was life during the cyclical boom-and-bust periods that followed World War II. There were no “comfort” women; there were women who were sold and traded into sexual subservience. Each beat, each moment receives the weight and import that it deserves. Some of this honesty is accomplished visually, with Mizuki’s illustrative, detailed backgrounds conveying a powerful sense of scale and carnage. While it is important to note that Mizuki could have done a better job of visually exploring some of the atrocities that the Japanese military committed, those moments where the text carries much of the narrative weight are consistent with Showa’s encyclopedic explication. Some events are only given a single panel to breathe, but Mizuki packed incredible detail into each one.
Mizuki’s first-hand experience of events is apparent in his story’s telling, and it’s hard not to let the tone of his reporting affect these experiences. The cartoonist lost his arm in an air raid, and the American forces in Showa assume an abstract quality, rendered as a single mass and referenced mainly through circumlocution and circumspection. Similarly, Mizuki was welcomed into a tribe of Tolai, the indigenous tribespeople of Papua New Guinea, and his representation of them is respectful and nuanced (though, their visual analogues aren’t served by Mizuki’s cartoonish style, which leads to them inadvertently appearing a little too close to caricatures). While a more detached cartoonist, indoctrinated by the imperialist hegemony like everyone else of his generation, might perpetuate stereotypes of tribal uncivility, Mizuki avoided that pitfall. The Tolai peoples are given a rich interiority and a strong sense of personality. Showa offers a nuanced touch to these stories, and readers are treated to a perspective and the events that shaped that perspective.
It’s difficult not to read Mizuki’s willingness to unspool his nation’s history as a part of his own. His own narrative includes a huge range of victories and failures: the moments he should be proud of and the moments he shouldn’t be. While it would be negligent to imply that anything in his life is tantamount to the things Japan did in World War II, there are certainly moments of childishness and pettiness. At points, Mizuki depicted himself procrastinating, forgetting to eat. He espoused an aversion to arranged marriages, but he changed course when his father showed him a prospective bride. He revealed himself as lazy and rude and immature, and he didn’t always hold fast to his avowed convictions—not uncommon traits, but they typically aren’t represented as casually as Mizuki represented them. His parents were equitably lambasted, another conventional “sacred cow.” Mizuki was clear to paint them as products of a culture with different mores and folkways than his own, slow to embrace modernity and clinging to a helicopter-mom style of pestering and nagging. They’re never rendered as anything but products of their environments, but it’s rare for someone to render their family in such a realistic light.
Showa Volume Four Interior Art by Shigeru Mizuki
On both a macro and micro level, Showa represents an aberrant entry in the history of memoirs. Mizuki’s story constantly returns to his hardships—some of them the result of societal failings, others the result of Mizuki’s choices. The pathos of these incidences ranges from the dramatic to the humorous, but none of them serves to idealize Mizuki. While these may be obvious moments to include, it’s unusual for authors to leave themselves so naked. Take, as a topical instance, Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson’s recently-scrutinized memoir, Gifted Hands.
Understood autonomously, the book is about the value of hard work and self-determination. Its lens is Carson’s life story, and its telling exists to illustrate those moral ideas. As a result, the book reads like masturbatory self-aggrandizement. Mizuki’s inclusion of personal moments in Showa, however, is in no way designed to be instructional. Their only purpose is to be. Comparatively, Carson’s anecdotes are calculated to demonstrate the change that Carson was able to bring about in himself through religion and hard work. They are the evidence of Carson’s underlying argument.
Similarly, some American legislators are trying to whitewash America’s history in ways that are no different from the actions of the Japanese. If societal failings cannot be turned into evidence of “American exceptionalism,” then they have no place in the telling of the story of America. Showa argues against the tendency to not only sanitize on a personal level, but on a societal one as well.
Showa Volume Four Interior Art by Shigeru Mizuki
This inability to reckon with the past is something that makes most memoirs pat and inconsequential. While the same can be said of the other end of the spectrum—the sad white boy narratives that have denigrated the genres of autobio comics and literary fiction—neither one is good. Painting your life with only one color does it a disservice. The tendency to lean too heavily in one direction makes Mizuki’s Showa stand out all the more. He refused to fall into this trap, balancing reportage with subjectivity, imbuing a historical narrative with a palpable personality. Maybe that personality isn’t always a likable one, but neither are people. And people—flawed and messy and sometimes alienating—are always preferable to whitewashed lies.