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Friday September 27, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday September 27, 2013 MYT 8:05:03 AM
By DAVIN ARUL
The godfather of ghostly manga weaves a spellbinding tale in this memoir in graphic novel form.
THERE’S a fine line separating fantasy from reality in the world inhabited by young Shigeru and his friends in this chunky graphic novel. So fine, in fact, that it disappears without warning and with great regularity.
That’s when the two realms of fact and fancy come together seamlessly and magically, with no attempt to explain away the sudden merging of the two, which just goes to make this semi-autobiographical tale all the more beguiling.
You either gleefully participate in the escapades unfolding over NonNonBa’s 400-plus pages, or you should go look for something else to occupy your reading hours instead.
If you can accept that Shigeru lives in a land where someone can be recovering from food poisoning one minute and then talking to Azuki-Hakari the red-bean-throwing demon the next, or attacking enemy “strongholds” with the local kids’ “army” in the day and chasing fairy lights at night, you will find a wealth of entertainment in these tales.
Writer-artist Mizuki is known as one of Japan’s foremost creators of supernatural manga stories, most notably the sub-genre concerned with yokai – a kind of catch-all term for anything monstrous, ghostly or demonic.
His most famous work is perhaps Hakaba no Kitaro (Kitaro Of The Graveyard) or better known as GeGeGe no Kitaro as the anime adaptation was called (and also the 2007 movie), about a ghost boy with one eye who protects unsuspecting humans from naughty yokai.
NonNonBa is Mizuki’s memoir of his childhood, set in his little hometown of Sakaiminato, and the title character is a kindly old woman who is a “prayer hand” – someone whose job it is to pray for the sick to get better.
After her husband dies, she comes to live with Shigeru and his family, much to the lad’s delight – because NonNonBa is a fountain of information about his favourite subject, the spirits and goblins of the netherworld.
The episodic tale, originally published in 1977 and only just translated into English and published by Drawn & Quarterly last year, is filled with yokai encounters and childhood adventures. It’s a more innocent, pre-war time of boy generals, rival “armies” and largely carefree days.
There’s death, young love, spectral visitations, shady neighbours – in fact, so much is crammed into its pages that I found myself frequently having to flip back to earlier chapters to refresh my memory about earlier events the characters are talking about.
Besides Shigeru and NonNonBa, we meet the lad’s somewhat eccentric father and proper (as in “prim and”) mother, his unimaginative brothers, pretty but sad-eyed cousin Chigusa, and wide-eyed little Miwa, the child (or so everyone thinks) of the abovementioned shady neighbours.
Mizuki renders his human characters in as exaggerated and cartoonish a fashion as his yokai – one of the rival kids seems to have one of those ’toon doggy-bones in place of a chin – while keeping the environments realistic and appropriate to the mood (serene, agitated, urgent, etc).
When Shigeru’s father tries his hand at scripwriting, for example, the establishing panel shows him seated at his work desk with an idyllic garden in the background; then, a panel of the man with his mostly blank, elongated face (it’s almost as long as his torso!) conveys the hopefulness of the situation – and it is followed by a drawing of a finely-detailed wicker wastepaper basket that tells the observer a lot about his progress thus far. (And these three panels speak volumes without a single expository caption.)
NonNonBa herself lives in perpetual poverty, yet is never short of a comforting word or a nugget of information ... and certainly not kindness, to the point of putting her own safety on the line when (human) transgressors threaten the people she loves.
And Shigeru himself is a sympathetic central figure, so typically ... Japanese in the way he resolutely goes on with his life through all kinds of experiences, ranging from the joyful to the intriguing, from mildly disappointing moments to crushing heartbreak.
It’s a testament to Mizuki’s storytelling skill that the so-called “slice of life” aspects of this tale are no less fascinating than the many supernatural entities that go bump, Psssh, Klatter, or Waargh in the night.
In fact, as bewitching as the scenes featuring these unnatural beings can get, it’s the human tales that are the most memorable. It’s the people who bring joy and suffering in seemingly equal amounts to one another, not half-glimpsed shadow creatures (which on almost all occasions can be explained away as the product of hyperactive imaginations ... I say again, almost).
After all, with Shigeru’s family dependent solely upon the meagre earnings from his father’s cinema, it’s not yokai but nasty thieves who steal their only projector.
Nor is it Azuki-Hakari who sells little children into slavery, but an unsavoury man who has just moved to town.
Yes, you’ll find Shigeru’s more mundane-seeming exploits to be as captivating as his more out-of-this-world experiences, and certainly more poignant – well, except for the trippy sequence where he attempts to accompany Chigusa to the “Hundred Thousandth World”.
The factual and the fantastic. One exists, undeniably so; one is there to complement the other, occasionally enriching it and at other times serving as a bizarre reflection – both realms wonderfully woven into a fascinating shared existence by this veteran storyteller.
I’m almost tempted to go out and look for Mizuki’s other works, but get the feeling that I’ve already come in at the top level.
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Lifestyle, Reads, NonNonBa, Shigeru Mizuki, yokai, manga, book review
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