by Andy Wolverton
Before last month, I had never read any manga whatsoever. None. Also, my knowledge of Japanese history and culture comes largely from watching Akira Kurosawa movies. So what possessed me to pick up Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan?
I could say I have a burning desire to expand my reading horizons and learn more about other cultures (which is true more often than not), but to be honest, I took one look at the sample pages while perusing the Drawn & Quarterly website and was hooked. Go ahead and click on the link. Even if you know nothing about Japanese culture or manga — remember, I’m right there with ya — these images are simply stunning. If you’re not impressed, there’s probably nothing I could say to persuade you to read further. But if you are interested, regardless of your knowledge of Japanese history or manga, please read on.
Showa 1926-1939 is the first of a four-volume set from Shigeru Mizuki (Kitaro, NonNonBa, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths), one of Japan’s most recognized cartoonists. The story is told from three different points of view: first through fairly traditional text boxes, then from Shigeru’s own coming-of-age narration, and finally from Nezumi Otoko, a cartoon character as recognized in Japan as Donald Duck is in America. The text boxes serve as a good introduction, narrating the images of the Great Kanta Earthquake, which serves as the foundation for Japan’s economic collapse, creating an awful and often horrific chain of events. Most of the images depicting historical episodes are drawn in a jaw-dropping realistic style approaching the quality and clarity of photographs. Shigeru’s story, in contrast, is drawn in manga, sometimes superimposed over the more realistic representations. One of the many strengths of Showa is the way this contrast of historical fact and personal narrative affects the reader. This isn’t just a dry historical account; it’s someone’s life. You might say Showa is full of contrasts: one man’s story in the midst of objective history, humor and frivolity in the midst of war and poverty, clear thinking in the midst of the insanity of conquest, humanity and inhumanity, and much more.
Nezumi Otoko is the bridge joining the larger and smaller pictures together, narrating and providing historical details about how events and people relate to each other. Yes, he gives us an awful lot of names and places, but he also entertains and moves us. I was amazed at just how quickly I traveled through this 500+ page book.
Yet the work is also challenging. Thirteen years in the life of a country covers a vast amount of territory, and not all of it moves in a linear fashion. Unfamiliar names and places mount quickly. My suggestion is to try not to get too bogged down in the names and places, but to follow the big picture as much as possible. I definitely plan to read the book again, focusing more on names, places and timelines. I think most readers will feel the same. You’ll be drawn to know more. This is a book to read multiple times, not so much as work, but to marvel and wonder at the enormous scope and majesty Shigeru Mizuki has created.
Drawn & Quarterly’s decision to publish explanatory notes is both helpful and frustrating. Many pages contain asterisks leading to “See Notes, page ___” prompts which provide good information, but constantly keep you flipping to the back of the book. Some explanatory notes (and sign translations) are provided in the bottom margins of the pages where they appear. Why not do the same for all the notes?
That nitpick aside, Showa 1926-1939 is a monumental volume in a work that deserves to be read widely. Please do not let any reservations about a lack of knowledge in the areas of manga or Japanese history keep you from such an incredible reading experience.
Showa 1939-1944 is scheduled for release on May 27, 2014.
Get your copy of Showa 1926-1939 as well as other books by Shigeru Mizuki: