Whenever yôkai are mentioned, it is nearly impossible not to refer to Mizuki Shigeru’s work, where they feature prominently. Whether in his magnum opus GeGeGe no Kitarô or in the multiple “encyclopaedias” he has published on the subject, the current president of the Sekai Yôkai Kyôkai (“World Yôkai Association”) has dedicated most of his career to expanding in his own way Toriyama Sekien’s works.
Debuting in 1957 with Rocketman and quickly taking his distances with the Tezuka school of thought, he remains in the kashibonya circle until 1964, when he participates to the first issues of Garo (of which he will remain a regular contributor until 1979). It is notably in the March 1966 issue that the future GeGeGe no Kitarô is introduced, in the short story Hakaba no Kitarô (“Kitarô of the Graveyard”). Uncontested master of manga (a street bears his name in his hometown of Sakaiminato, in the Tottori district), the list of his former assistants holds some impressive names, with the likes of Tsuge Yoshiharu, Tatsumi Yoshihiro, or Ikegami Ryôichi.
An autobiographical story, NonNonBâ also exposes the construction of Mizuki Shigeru’s fictional universe, against the background of pre-war Japan. NonNonBâ quietly progresses at life’s pace, without striving to tell something at all costs. With the taste of childhood memories, be they sweet or sour, remembered without any urgency because, after all, we all know what followed — and it’s more important to explore this past rich with stories.
The book is structured in two parts, each following friendships that are not yet love until their tragic conclusion. Knowing how to mourn those who have left us — growing up is also about this, this is life too. But it would be a mistake to limit NonNonBâ to those two passings, as touching they might be.
This would be leaving aside the aspect of initiation that lies at the heart of this work, from the full-fledged entry of NonNonBâ in the Murata’s daily life, and the last discoveries alongside Miwa. Indeed, Mizuki evokes this sequence in the opening color pages of this story, stressing the importance of those experiences on his artist career, and giving hommage to those two guides of “the things that we do not see, but which also exist”.
Thus, NonNonBâ is inscribed in a sort of oral tradition, playing on complicity to better surprise or amaze, with the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the other, NonNonBâ’s wisdom responding to Shige’s imagination. Far from being a mystical experience, knowledge of the Yôkai is grounded in pragmatism and little recipies, in order to ensure an harmonious cohabitation between the two worlds — the fantastical stopping being horrific to become familiar, close and sometimes even friendly. Here, there is no contradiction between reason and fantasy — yôkai exist, without a doubt.
Also strongly influencing the young Shige, is the second guiding figure of the father, dilettante and epicurian, fascinated with another fantastical realm — modern progress. Filled with incredible inventions (like this “train that runs underground”), but struggling to reach the countryside, progress will see the modern mythology of movies vanquished (by a stroke of fate ?) by the projector’s theft. But beyond this window on the world and his stories worthy of Marco Polo, the father also appears to be a tranquil counterpart to the worrying mother, and encourages Shige towards creation.
And, as (almost reluctantly) the book comes to its conclusion, those two figures will in turn give a present to the young Shige — two essential presents in the shaping of the artist, which feature prominently in the introductory color sequence (bringing closure to this story’s voyage), further stressing the importance of this period in his life.
Like the narration, built on a mix of humor and human drama, the drawing style is both naturalist in its re-creation of pre-war Japan with a precise line, dark and detailed, while prefering a more free-flowing approach close to caricature for his very expressive characters — another way of reaffirming the reality of the yôkai, represented on the same level as humans. On the large expanse of the page, the line lives and moves, crickets chirp and the wind whispers through the branches of trees.
With this modest autobiography (no imposing first-person discourse, but a story that reveals itself little by little), NonNonBâ offers an exceptionnal voyage to the inspirational sources of an author.
Post-Scriptum : One should note the quality of Cornélius‘ adaptation, facilitating the reader’s discovery with an introduction and translators’ notes. The choice of “subtitling” onomatopeoeias and other Japanese texts included in the drawings might be the lesser evil to an unsolvable problem.
Eventually, for those who would complain about the price (29€ for over 400 pages), I would like to point out that the last book to receive the Goncourt Award is in a similar range (25€), such as the “collector” edition of the Da Vinci Code DVD (27€). Simply a question of perspective.
- Name used to describe the creatures of Japanese medieval mythology, which includes animals, monsters and other surnatural beings.
- Like his Nihon Yôkai Taisen (“Japan Yôkai Encyclopaedia”), Yôkai Daihyakka (“A study of Yôkai”) or Yôkai Daizukai (“Anatomy of Yôkai”).
- Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788) is an ukiyo-e artist who produced the Hyakki Yakô series, a four-volume encyclopaedia of Japan’s surnatural beings. Excerpts from this work can be found on this page (in Japanese).
- Kashibonya were rental libraries, popular in the post-war Japan. They are the forerunners of today’s “manga kissa”.
- There is also the recurring theme of the children “playing” war, in which the young Shige will come to the same pacifist conclusions as the adult artist.