COMICS ART: Shigeru Mizuki's Spirit Manga Exhibition

Yokai. More on this later.

Manga has some towering figures, Osamu Tezuka being one whose name is common knowledge in Japan. Shigeru Mizuki is certainly in the discussion, though I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough about manga to rank him on a Tezuka-scale. He created a breakout character with Kitaro in the '60s that is still pretty much a household name, if less so for the younger generation. I first noticed him when he died in 2015, and it was front page on the newspapers in Japan.

Drawn and Quarterly have been publishing his work in English over the past decade, but like a lot of pre-2000 manga, its release in English has been spotty. Compared to manga currently in production or linked to current TV series, “classic” manga has less of an audience in the West.

A self-portrait of Mizuki surrounded by his creations, brought to life

Myself, I’m only a casual reader of his work, specifically I've read Showa, his history of the Showa Era, and Tono Monogatari (Tono Stories), a book released this year about yokai stories of the Tono region.

It’s impossible to talk about Mizuki without introducing you to the concept of yokai: traditional Japanese supernatural spirits and creatures. Mizuki had a diverse career, but a lot of the work centered around yokai. In many ways, the success of his yokai-themed series helped keep the idea of this folklore alive in Japan, as the country underwent rapid change.

For the past few years, an exhibit of his work intertwined with a history of his life has been shown in museums in Japan, and it is currently appearing at a museum a 15-minute walk from my in-laws' house. I had to check it out, despite only a limited knowledge of his 50-year catalogue. A creator that has the success he had is worth taking a look at.

Beyond here, no photography allowed unfortunately. Most images here are from the exhibition program or related materials

I’ve never read any of Kitaro. I’ve heard it’s a classic, and my bookshelf of hardcover Carl Barks Duck comics is proof I’m not opposed to comics aimed at kids, but I just have never made the effort. Approaching the exhibition, I had some worry that it was going to be mostly a feature of Kitaro stuff, but the fear was unfounded. In the way than an exhibit of Dr. Seuss would probably put The Cat in the Hat front and center, the exhibition is a business, and they put what is his brand up front.

Walking in, the exhibit starts with blown-up images of landscapes of the rural town he was raised in. While Mizuki wrote a lot of fiction, he also wrote a number of stories that are either autobiographical or that inserted himself in the story, giving the exhibit lots of opportunities to let him show his life with his own pen.

A landscape by 14-year-old Mizuki, in 1936

The exhibit is broken up into eight sections.

The first is a number of his works from his youth. There are newspaper headlines from the 1930s proclaiming him as a creative prodigy. Some of it was certainly just a small town newspaper lacking news, but he definitely had an ambitious eye by the age of 16. There are landscapes in watercolor or pencil, and all manner of illustration.

Japan had had a European influence since the Meiji era, but nowhere near what it would post-war. One of the more incredible pieces from his youth is an illustrated scroll telling the story of a colony of ants. It’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before. Conceptually it's like Edo era scroll art, but has some debt to 20th century European commercial illustration as well.

Actually pieces of one long scroll that tells a story from right to left. The white characters in the lower left read, "end".

The second section is about his studio and how he made his work, and while his youth work was interesting, some of the work in the second area blew me away. For years I’ve seen these in-depth backgrounds in manga work, and never given too much thought to the process behind it, especially with the knowledge that mainstream manga is made in a factory style way, with any number of assistants doing the tedious work.

One album from of a wall of photo albums he kept as image files for his art

Here, we can see examples of the dozens if not hundreds of photo scrapbooks that Mizuki kept to render scenery, and also examples of how he used them in his work. There are image upon image of cards with lovingly drawn scenery, each with blank spaces where he could insert characters.

There's a ridiculous amount of these that he amassed over the years

The section also shows the nibs and brushes, and the jars he kept his paints in. It’s an amazing look into the process of a man who lived to make art.

The third section is about Kitaro (numerous Kitaro books have been published by Drawn & Quarterly since the 2010s), and had dozens of comic pages lined up around the room. You can see where he pasted things together, where he left space for narration, and his technique in general. He tends to have one or two highly detailed scenes, then a number of more animated figure panels. The heavily detailed panels ground the story, while the ones focused on figures help propel it along.

An Akuma-kun page from around 1970

Unfortunately, I personally have never read Kitaro, so it doesn’t have resonance for me as a series, but it’s still pretty gorgeous to look at, and a chance to see the production process of Showa era manga.

They also throw in a number of illustrations he did for covers and magazines, which use different coloring processes, but generally use ink as a base. One illustration for a Japanese TV magazine featuring the character Akuma-kun uses a dizzying variety of textures to render the scales, fur, shadows and flame, water and air.

As incredible as this looks, it's far more incredible in person. c. 1986

The fourth section of the exhibit is a selection of work from Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths (Drawn & Quarterly, 2011), an autobio manga he did in the '70s about his time as a soldier in Papua New Guinea in World War II.

The manga is dense and the pictures on display often violent. In the war, Mizuki lost his left arm and was the only survivor of his unit. The pages show explosions and maiming, with Mizuki using splotches of ink and correction fluid to capture the chaos.

Mizuki watched his entire unit die, and it's amazing that his work for the rest of his life isn't haunted by trauma. c. 1970

At the same time, he draws these pages with a lot of love, and one picture in particular (which I couldn’t take a photo of) shows the silhouette of a hundred men marching on the beach under a canopy of palm trees, with islands and further islands off in the distance, their silhouettes rendered in degrees of hatching to create atmospheric perspective. It’s both harrowing and beautiful to look at.

Walking toward death, c. 1986

This part of the exhibit includes a number of paintings and sketches he did about the Pacific War.

c. 1960

The fifth section covers biography works he did. In English, one of his earliest translated works was a book on the life of Hitler, but he also did biographies of the Swedish philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, Japanese philosopher Inoue Enryo, and Heien figure Abe no Seimei, among others. Beyond being passionate about creating images and stories, this section of the exhibit shows his curiosity into the thought and direction of history.

The sixth section covers numerous short stories Mizuki worked on. Much like the sections for Kitaro and Onwards, these sections are a great opportunity to see how his pages were constructed, and how tightly he was able to ink a page.

That's some big yokai

The seventh section was the most gob-smackingly beautiful section for me though, a section of his yokai illustrations. It was accompanied by bronzes and sculptures of many of his characters and designs, but I’m not as appreciative of that kind of work myself. The illustrations here though were the work of a mature artist applying every skill he’d learned.

The wall was lined with image after heavily rendered image, populated by yokai of Mizuki’s design. Yokai are traditional folklore, and to the best of my knowledge, he was just interpreting stories he heard as a child or that he heard about in his years after becoming renowned for drawing them. A lot of these were his own way of interpreting them, not some image ingrained in the cultural consciousness.

It’s probably easiest to see with his kappa images. Kappas are very well-known yokai, a beaked turtle figure, and Mizuki’s kappas are his own.

What a cute little kappa

The eighth and final section of the exhibit is titled: "An expert on life". It shows work from his late years. Some of the work here uses characters and themes from his career, but filtered through more traditional Japanese calligraphy and brush work. Having seen this overview of his career, so many ideas raced through my head in the course of the afternoon.

Some more calligraphic work, c. 2009

The first was some sadness at the current digital age. The work Mizuki was doing at as a teen still carries quite an impact today. In theory, digital tools should let us do more, but I think for most people, they let us do less. Mizuki developed skills that made him like a magician, and I think the lack of tools was a big part of that.

Looking at the sheer amount of pages over five decades, I thought of him in comparison to a creator like Jack Kirby. They both produced a staggering amount of work, and it reflects a passion for creation. As much as art was a job for Shigeru Mizuki, it’s clear that art was a joy to him as well.

By the end, I had seen so many incredible images in the course of a few hours, it was hard to take it all in. It was like trying to enjoy all of the food at a five-star hotel buffet. A person just isn’t meant to take in so much at once.

I would really like to see it again a few more times, but that window is closing. Instead, I’ve ordered a Kitaro collection to see what that book is all about.

If you want to read some good Shigeru Mizuki, I heartily recommend Tono Monogatari (Drawn & Quarterly, 2021), a collection of over 100 folktales from the Tono region of Japan. It’s beautiful and weird, and likely different from anything you’ve ever read. Japanese folktales are a lot more "neutral" than European ones, which often had a moral or at least a conflict resolution. Japanese folktales are more like a weird story someone told you in the schoolyard that got enshrined into legend. For example, in one story from Tono Monogatari , a fisherman is coming home late at night and sees his wife out on the road. He knows his wife would never be out late, so he kills her, assuming it was a fox. The body remains his wife’s, so he runs home in fear, only to wake up his wife, sleeping in bed. Perplexed, he runs back and sees the body has now turned into a fox. The end. The point of the story is that sometimes foxes can inhabit people’s dreams.

Great little book!


Ian McMurray is a Canadian, now settled and working as an educator in Sapporo, Japan. Starting with Uncanny X-Men #200 in 1985, an unreasonable percentage of his income has gone toward purchasing the sequential arts. He is a lifelong comics proselytizer, yet is genre agnostic, and makes comics under the name Ian M.

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