This week, Japan lost an iconic artist of the 20th century. Shigeru Mizuki (水木 しげる), best known for his series GeGeGe No Kitaro (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎), died on Monday at the age of 93. Mizuki, whose real name was Shigeru Mura, barely survived World War II, during which he was sent to Rabaul — a scene of fierce fighting — in what is now Papua New Guinea. He suffered from malaria and lost his left arm in a U.S. airstrike, but went on to become one of the father’s of modern Japanese cartoons and animation.
Mizuki was originally named Shigeru Mura (武良 茂 Mura Shigeru). While in a Japanese field hospital on Rabaul, he was befriended by the local Tolai tribespeople, who offered him land, a home, and citizenship via marriage to one of their women. Mizuki, later shamed by a military doctor into returning home, then returned to Japan first to face his parents. His older brother, an artillery officer, was convicted as a war criminal for having prisoners of war executed. He remarried in Japan and from his return until 1956 he worked as a movie theater operator, until his first break as a cartoonist. In 1957, Mizuki released his debut work, Rocketman.
But Mizuki’s most famous work soon followed. The title of the original story was Hakaba no Kitarō (墓場の鬼太郎), literally meaning "Kitarō (of the) Graveyard". This story was based on an early 20th-century Japanese folk tale performed on kamishibai, illustrated story boards used by traveling storytellers. The story centers around Japanese Yokai, which are supernatural beings in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for "bewitching; attractive; calamity" and "apparition; mystery; suspicious". They can also be called ayakashi (妖), mononoke (物の怪), or mamono (魔物). Yōkai range eclectically from the malevolent to the mischievous, and occasionally bring good fortune to those who encounter them. Often they possess animal features (such as the Kappa, which is similar to a turtle, or the Tengu which has wings), but other times they can appear mostly human, while others look like inanimate objects and still others have no discernible shape. Yokai are still popular today, and the anime series "Yokai Watch" is currently one of the biggest commercial successes in all of Japan.
In Mizuki’s story, Kitarō is a yōkai boy born in a cemetery and, aside from his mostly decayed father, the last living member of the Ghost Tribe (幽霊族 yūrei zoku). He is missing his left eye, but his hair usually covers the empty socket. He fights for peace between humans and yōkai, which generally involves protecting the former from the wiles of the latter. The work Hakaba Kitarō was published as a rental manga in 1960, but it was considered too scary for children. In 1965, renamed "Hakaba no Kitarō", it appeared in Shōnen Magazine and ran through 1970. The series was renamed "GeGeGe-no-Kitarō" in 1967 and continued on Shōnen Sunday, Shōnen Action, Shukan Jitsuwa and many other magazines.
The manga became immensely popular and soon became an anime as well. Six anime adaptations were made from the original GeGeGe no Kitarō manga series. Gegege no Kitarō was broadcast on Fuji Television and all of the adaptations were animated by Toei Animation. The opening theme to all five series is "Gegege no Kitarō". As recently as January 2008, an all new anime (also produced by Toei) premiered on Fuji TV.
It was only recently that Mizuki has become recognized in the west. In 2011, his semi-autobiographical war story "Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths", which he wrote in 1973, won an Eisner Award. In the story, he tells of the day-to-day trials of soldiers as well as the horrific incompetence of their leaders: The unit survives an attack, but because their deaths have already been announced, their commander tells them to go on a suicide mission and not to return alive. The book is fictionalized but based on his own experiences; Mizuki was the only survivor of his unit and was ordered to die by his commanders. Soon after, his two volume history of the Showa period, Showa, won the 2015 Eisner award.
Mizuki’s own life became the subject of a popular NHK drama, NHK’s morning asadora Gegege no Nyobo (ゲゲゲの女房), which is based on the autobiography of Mizuki’s wife, Nunoe Mura, and details their early life together and their struggle against poverty.
The tiny port town where Mizuki grew up, Sakaimoto, on the coast north of Hiroshima, has even embraced Mizuki’s legacy and,in the process, and has become a major tourist attraction. The town built 153 bronze statues of Yokai throughout the town and established a museum in his honor. The train from Yonago to Sakaiminato Town is painted with the artwork of Mizuki and called the Nekomusume Train. Even the taxis and the police koban box have images from GeGeGe No Kitaro. Believe it or not, Yonago City airport is even now renamed Yonago Kitaro Airport. In 2010, a record 3.72 million tourists visited the area.
“I’m the type of person who doesn’t do anything he dislikes. Because I did only what I liked, I’ve been able to work until now.” The theme song he wrote for the animated version of “GeGeGe no Kitaro” goes: “GeGeGe no Ge, Yokai have to do nothing, No school and no tests.” In his final years, Mizuki’s favorite saying was “be lazy.” Nevertheless, Mizuki touched the lives of generations of Japanese people and his legacy will live on for many years.
The Japan News
The Japan Times
The Asahi Shinbone