The Life and Death of Shigeru Mizuki, 1922-2015

Courtesy Mizuki Productions.
Courtesy Mizuki Productions.

Our father is dead.”

“I still can’t believe I am saying those words.”

Shigeru Mizuki’s daughters echoed the shock felt by all who knew him, either personally, professionally, or those who had come to love him through his works. His immortality was taken for granted. We all knew Mizuki would live forever, or at least for a ridiculously long time. Mizuki himself joked that he would make it to at least 120. After all, starvation, malaria, and bullets hadn’t killed him. Bombs had failed to blow him up. For Mizuki fans his longevity had become an inside joke; we secretly thought we would be long in our graves while our yokai professor was still grinning away over his stack of hamburgers.

But then he tripped. And he fell. And he died. And proved what he had been trying to say all along—that he was only human.

Mizuki’s death brought instantaneous, worldwide attention. Along with the expected comic sites, obituaries appeared in venerable publications like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and a spot or two on NPR. A few stumbled over the details; Mizuki wasn’t well known in the West, and skimming Wikipedia to meet tight deadlines only gets you so far. But the affection and attention was genuine. And the recognition appreciated. I saw many in Japan writing that they were moved that the world cared enough to acknowledge the passing of their beloved icon.

Most obituaries focused on Mizuki Shigeru the comic book artist. And with good reason—he was one of the greatest, most important cartoonists to ever put pen to page. With a 60+ year career, the weight of the awards he received would shatter any normal artist’s shelves. Amongst his various accolades he won were the prestigious Kodansha Manga Award and the Grand Prix for Best Comic at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, the first Japanese creator to take the honor. He also collected a pair of Eisner awards, one of which I helped win for my translation of his magnum opus Showa: A History of Japan. (I’m hoping to add more to his pile in the future.)Showa 1926-1939 A History of Japan

His influence on pop culture is so ubiquitous as to be invisible. His immensely popular Kitaro series introduced the world of entertainment to yokai and their realms of spirits, gods, and monsters. If you’ve ever seen a kid throw down a Pokémon or Digimon card, or watched films like My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away, then you have seen the hand of Mizuki. Those giant monster versus giant robot battles of Pacific Rim, Godzilla, and Neon Genesis Evangelion? It happened first in the pages of Kitaro. And his influence wasn’t limited to toys and cartoons. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Takashi Murakami—perhaps Japan’s foremost modern artist and creator of the Superflat Manifesto—said that reading Mizuki’s work as a child “formed the basis for the rest of [my] life.”

However, Mizuki was much more than a comic artist. He was a philosopher. A visionary. A bon vivant of the everyday. Japan’s most important folklorist since Yanagita Kunio, Mizuki wrote and illustrated an 12-volume series of world folklore called Mujara that earned him membership in the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology. As an advocate of the Shōkeikan archive-museum, he changed the way disabled and wounded servicemen are viewed in Japan. And he was a defiant political radical who used his fame like a weapon.

Mizuki never failed to wave the missing stump of his arm at any right-winged politician who wanted to whitewash over Japan’s role in WWII. He wrote honest, heartbreaking accounts of comfort women and wartime prostitutes. He published the condemnatory Japan and War comic in Shogaku rokunen-sei aimed at educating Elementary school children on the sins of their country. He dropped the scathing Showa: A History of Japan like a bomb in the middle of Japan’s Bubble Era when the whole country was just trying to be rich and happy and ignore all the bad stuff that came before. His criticism was not reserved for Japan alone—in Kitaro’s Vietnam War Diary he used his popular characters to attack the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

It is difficult to sum up exactly who Shigeru Mizuki was and what he meant. In a touching farewell, Tokyo-based journalist and author Jake Adelstein called him the Voice of Japan’s Conscience. Author and political commentator Roland Kelts said Mizuki was a true sui generis—an artist unique unto himself, who defines his own genre and is beyond comparison. The government of Japan considered him a Person of Cultural Merit, an official title granted in 2010. I usually describe Mizuki as an eclectic mix of Walt Disney, Howard Zinn, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Charles Addams, and Mike Mignola, but that is at best a cumbersome approximation. He was an extraordinary person who lived an extraordinary life. And because he was an extraordinary artist, we were fortunate enough to share it with him.

Mizuki’s own story starts in 1922 in an isolated fishing village in rural Tottori prefecture. He was born in a hospital in Osaka, but raised in Sakaiminato. Named Mura Shigeru, everyone called him “Gege,” a nickname he gave himself when his infant mouth was unable to pronounce his own name. Young Gege had three things to set him apart: he had a cast-iron stomach that could digest anything, was possessed of a natural artistic ability and sensitivity, and he was tough as hell.

Mizuki as a "scrapper".
Mizuki as a "scrapper".

As a kid, Mizuki was the opposite of the lazy intellectual that was the image of his later life. He was a scrapper. Eager to prove his worth, he fought as an able soldier for the Boy General who commanded an army of local punks in neighborhood battles. Mizuki’s stories of that time are outrageous, full of rock battles, stick fights, and gang warfare. On his first day of Elementary school, Mizuki purposefully picked out the toughest looking kid in his class and beat him to a pulp so that everyone would know who was top dog. He was able to eat literally anything—in a famous anecdote he once consumed a gold-painted wood ball because he thought it looked delicious. This toughness and freakish digestive tract served to keep him alive decades later on the island of Rabaul during WWII.

Aside from being a neighborhood terror, Mizuki could draw. He was an untaught yet, like Picasso, was able to render art with uncanny ability almost before he could read. None of his art survives from this time but his skills were reportedly phenomenal. When asked in an interview about his artistic influences, Mizuki answered that he didn’t have any, because he had never seen anyone who could draw better than him. From anyone else this might have been bragging—Mizuki was just being honest. (Although I don’t believe him completely. His art shows the clear influence of German artist Albrecht Dürer, and Mizuki owned several of Dürer’s prints.) Whatever his true level, Mizuki’s teachers suitably impressed to arrange a solo exhibition of his works while he was still in Elementary school, and he was featured in the Mainichi newspaper as an artistic prodigy.

His greatest mentor also came from this time, an old woman named Fusa Kageyama whom Mizuki immortalized as NonNonBa. She is often misidentified as Mizuki’s grandmother, but NonNonBa wasn’t related at all. She was a lifelong servant of the Mura family, who cared for the children as a governess in her later years.Mizuki_Shigeru_and_NonNonBa

NonNonBa was a phenomenon. Like Dorothea Viehmann for the Brothers Grimm, NonNonBa was a living repository of forgotten folklore and legendary stories. Mizuki was fascinated by the magical world that NonNonBa wove around him, and could never get enough of her stories. In return, NonNonBa found a receptive audience in the little boy. The two spent happy years together walking in the woods, performing rituals on the beach, or staring at the walls of old houses where NonNonBa would recite the secrets of the invisible world to her young apprentice. Several of Japan’s most famous legendary creatures—like the bakekujira ghost whale—survive only through the transmission of NonNonBa to Mizuki Shigeru to the world.

Mizuki lived in a kind of dream world. His father was an eccentric as well, a supporter of film and theater who was happy to indulge his little artist with an oil painting set and art magazines. Both parents thought Mizuki would never amount to much; Gege was a lost cause, so they counted on his brothers to carry on the family. Eventually reality caught up with him, and like his brothers Mizuki was drafted and sent to war.

The draft notice was a psychological shock. A few months before his death in June of 2015, Mizuki’s daughters rediscovered diaries he had kept as a young man facing down his imminent death. On October 6th, 1942, a 20-year old Mizuki wrote:

50-100,000 men are dying in this war every day. Of what point are the arts? Of what point is religion? We aren’t even permitted to contemplate these things. To be a painter or a philosopher or a scholar of letters; all that is needed are laborers. This is an age painted with the earth tones of graveyards. An age of buried humanity, where people are just lumps under the earth. I sometimes think being alive at this time is the only thing worse than death. Everything of worth has been discarded. What remains is violence; political authority; that’s what kills us. I have no more capacity for tears. My only relief is to lose myself in music, in painting. I turn pale at the thought of war, but that’s how I win.

Before shipping out to boot camp, Mizuki was desperate to find some meaning in his life. He poured over works of philosophy by Goethe and deep dove into religion. He wrote:

I learn morality through philosophy, through art, and religion like Buddhism and Christianity. But nothing strengthens me to face my own death. The philosophy is too wide.

To no one’s surprise, he was a terrible soldier, completely unfit for duty. His commanding officer recognized this, and tried to save his life by assigning him to the bugle corp. But Mizuki hated playing the bugle. In what he called the greatest mistake of his life, he demanded to be released from trumpeting duty and sent “somewhere warm.” He got his wish. Shigeru_Mizuki_Playing_War

There’s really nothing I can say about Mizuki’s wartime experience that he hasn’t said better himself. Mizuki wrote multiple accounts about life on the front line in the South Pacific theater, full of honest horror and humanity. Two are available in English: the fictionalized Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths and the autobiographical, four-volume Showa: A History of Japan. They are tremendous works of art, both Eisner winners, and stand tall with any war story ever written in any medium. I encourage you to let Mizuki tell you himself about those years. But I will expound on two events during his time in Rabaul.

The first—and most obvious—was the loss of his arm. At the time he was out of his wits with malaria, recuperating in a military hospital. The doctors recommended stopping his food and medicine, since no one as ill as Mizuki could possibly survive. When he heard this, he rose from his sick bed like a zombie and proceeded to eat everything in sight, convincing the doctors to give him another chance. But his supernatural stamina couldn’t help him from the bomb dropped on the hospital. Accounts differ as to which Allied force dropped it—most say the U.S., but the majority of the Battle of Rabaul was lead by Australian forces. Either way, the result was the same. Mizuki lost his arm. His drawing arm.Shigeru_Mizuki_Loses_Arm

The next event was Mizuki’s befriending of the Tolai tribespeople. In an unlikely addition to an already unlikely life, Mizuki wandered starving into a local village and started eating all their food. Instead of being angry, the family was bemused and adopted the strange soldier, naming him “Paul” after a character in the Bible that missionaries had told them about long ago. One Tolai, Topetoro, would become Mizuki’s lifelong friend, a friendship he recounted in his 1995 comic 50 Years With Topetoro. Mizuki was so important to the people of Papua New Guinea that they named a road after him, so today there are two islands—Rabaul and Japan—with streets bearing the name Mizuki Shigeru Road.

Shigeru Mizuki with the Tolai. Courtesy Mizuki Productions.
Shigeru Mizuki with the Tolai. Courtesy Mizuki Productions.
Shigeru Mizuki meeting the Tolai.
Shigeru Mizuki meeting the Tolai.

Mizuki loved the jungles of Rabaul. Following Japan’s surrender, he planned to live out his life with the Tolai people, but a doctor told him that if he did his life would be short. Mizuki’s amputation had been performed by the only person nearby with medical training—a dentist. The botched saw job would require numerous more operations to stabilize, and that meant modern hospitals. Reluctantly, Mizuki returned home.

One back in Japan, Mizuki predictably drifted. He stayed at the military hospital while getting his arm repaired, and took odd jobs as random as pedicab renter to fish monger. He took some formal art classes at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, but, as Fred Schodt points out in Dreamland Japan, “since formal art training can destroy the originality required for good cartooning, he fortunately was not ruined by the experience.” On a trip he fell in love with an apartment building in Kobe, and bought it with a loan from his parents intending to become a landlord. The Mizuki Apartments—still a landmark in Japan—would not only give him his nome de plume but also set him on his course as one of Japan’s preeminent manga artists.

Mizuki was no more successful as a landlord than he was as a fish monger, but one of his tenants was a kamishibai artist—a pre-TV form of entertainment that was also the foundation of Japanese manga. With this connection Mizuki began his career as a professional artist, cranking out hundreds of cheap, fast illustrations to feed the stories of kamishibai storytellers. One of his favorite series to work on was Masami Ito’s Hakaba Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro).

Time passed, and Japan’s mass entertainment shifted from kamishibai to rental manga to magazines to television. Mizuki went with it. In 1957 he published his first comic book, Rocketman, at age 35. Like many of Mizuki’s earliest creations, Rocketman was a blatant rip-off. He copied Superman down to the ”S” on the chest. Mizuki’s father worked at the American Consulate and brought home American comics left behind by G.I.s to pass on to his illustrator son. Mizuki copied Superman, Plastic Man, Bugs Bunny, and anything he could get away with. But his favorite were the horror comics. He carefully copied EC panels from comics like Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horrors, giving each comic a Japanese spin.

His early rental manga work is crude, and shows little of Mizuki’s amazing talent. But as he learned his craft he transitioned from imitation to innovation. After getting permission from MBirth of Kitaroasami, in 1960 he reimagined Hakaba Kitaro as a world that mixed humanity with yokai. He gave the titular Kitaro an original cast of characters, including his eyeball father Medama Oyaji and the covetous Nezumi Otoko that served as Mizuki’s mouthpiece. Whenever asked about his favorite character Mizuki Shigeru was quick to answer Nezumi Otoko: "Kitaro is actually kind of dumb. He’s like Superman, giving everything he has to random strangers without hope of reward or happiness. That’s boring. If I don’t put Nezumi Otoko in there to mess things up a bit, I don’t have a story."

Hakaba Kitaro didn’t sell very well. It was too dark, too political. And it was weird. From an early stage Mizuki inserted himself into the stories. While financial success eluded him, he managed to get married in 1960 in an arranged marriage to Nunoe. She would become his life partner, invaluable manager and assistant, and star in her own right when she wrote her memoirs Gegege no Nyobo in 2008.

Shigeru Mizuki and his Family. Courtesy  Mizuki Productions.
Shigeru Mizuki and his Family. Courtesy Mizuki Productions.

Mizuki tried different things. In 1961 he revived another kamishibai character, Sanpei the Kappa about a kappa with powerful farting ability that helps him swim. In 1962 he adapted HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror as Footsteps from the Depths of the Earth. Mizuki finally had a hit in 1965 with TV Boy (Terebi kun), a fantasy of a kid with magical powers that could reach into televisions and pull out all the amazing things advertised there and distribute them to poor children who couldn’t afford them. Sensing his potential, a television connection convinced Mizuki to lighten up Hakaba Kitaro and change the name to make it more sponsor-friendly.

Taking the advice, in 1967 Mizuki took his own childhood nickname and reimagined Kitaro and his gang as Gegege no Kitaro. There series was a breakout hit, igniting the Showa era Yokai Boom that saw Japan fall in love with monsters. Kitaro was adapted to animation and live action, and his one-eyed face was plastered on every product imaginable. Mizuki kept the comic running for a few more years before he decided it was time for something new.


Since 1957, artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi had been moving Japanese comics in a different direction with his gekiga (dramatic pictures) movement. Tatsumi and other artists pushed the boundaries of the medium, which opened the doors for mainstream artists like Osamu Tezuka and Mizuki to create more challenging works. In 1971, Mizuki published his biography of Hitler, called Gekiga Hitler. He next began to examine his wartime experience in 1973 with Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths and in 1975 with For my Daughters: Stories of Papa’s War Experience. Also in 1975 he resurrected his childhood companion and told her story in NonNonBa, a story he would tell again in 1992 with the acclaimed NonNonBa and Me.

Whether Mizuki was a “gekiga artist” or just rode on their coattails is in dispute. Gekiga expert Ryan Holmberg does not consider Mizuki as a true gekiga artist, although others do. I personally hold no opinion, but am just amazed by the power of the art that came from Mizuki incorporating gekiga styles and themes into his repertoire.

Confident in his abilities, Mizuki followed some strange and wonderful paths. In 1974 he wrote The Witch Marilyn about a supernatural Marilyn Monroe. In 1977 he again relaunched Kitaro as a teenage sex comedy with Kitaro Continues. The little boy Kitaro was magically aged and went off to college for naked hijinks. 1994 saw the charming cat tales of Nekogusa and 2010 he returned to folklore with the epic Tono Monogatari. While this could easily devolve into a tantalizing list of (yet) untranslated works that you can’t read, I’ll just say that across his career from 1958 to his final series My Days in 2015, he wrote a lot of amazing comics. As a tribute, in 2013 Kodansha began releasing the 33-volume Shigeru Mizuki Complete Collection spanning almost 17,000 pages of comics across 60 years.

Monsters were paramount in Mizuki’s work. He always drew monsters: human monsters, like Adolph Hitler and Hideki Tojo; traditional folklore monsters, like the walking wall nurikabe or shape-shifting tanuki, and monsters of his own creation like the American yokai Backbeard or the lascivious Nezumi Otoko. Since he was a child going on walks with NonNonBa he was obsessed with gods and monsters, and related to the world through them.

He explored humanity through his monsters. In an NHK interview when he was 80 years old, he said that he purposefully designed his yokai to be of no specific ethnicity or nationality. To him, they represented aspects of humanity—and its potential. No matter how fantastic the creature or sublime the deity, they were driven by earthly concerns and desires. And bodily functions. Mizuki was a human who lived in a body, and wasn’t ashamed to show it farting and pooping. The same held for his monsters. He once dedicated an entire work to diagraming the inner digestive systems of the many monsters that he drew (Hitler not included, thankfully).

Kitaro peeing.
Kitaro peeing.

Mizuki was profoundly spiritual, and believed in an invisible world that surrounded us. Many of his stories encouraged people not to fret too much about this transient life. In one strip he had two cats telling the reader “After all, we’re only passing through this world. It isn’t worth making a big fuss about.“ The afterlife was as real to him as the physical world. He commissioned his own tomb in his 60s, and referred to it as his new home. He often joked about looking forward to moving into his new home—but not too soon.

He felt life was precious, and happiness was the only thing worth living for. An Epicurean through and through, to Mizuki the seven deadly sins were only signs of a body in good working order. Also in Dreamland Japan, Schodt recalls seeing Mizuki in San Francisco in 1993 returning from an arduous research trip in Hopi Indian territory in Arizona. Already in his 70s, Mizuki exuded vitality. While his younger companions were exhausted by a late night of dinner and drinking, Mizuki wanted to go to a porn store and check out girly mags. As someone who had cheated death so many times, Mizuki didn’t want to waste a minute of being alive. In his 90s, his Twitter feed was full of pictures of himself sucking down McDonald’s french fries like he was receiving communion. If there was pleasure life could give, he would take it.

His body ultimately failed him. He didn't make 10.He fell down, hit his head, and died.  I don’t think he would have seen that as an indignity, or an ignoble end. It was just how things were supposed to be. As his daughters said:

“The gods decide when the end is, and we must abide by that,” Mizuki would tell us. He thought the best thing was to go peacefully without pain, and surrounded by family. When he fell at his house, it was devastating. But perhaps that was the gods’ decision as well.

Mizuki lingered about a week in the hospital before dying of multiple organ failure. Towards the end he could not speak, but his daughters said that he could make eye contact, and was aware that he was in the company of his loved ones and family.

To our father, his family was the most important thing in the world. Even now he will continue to watch over us and protect us. And perhaps he is in the company of his old comrades-in-arms who have welcomed him home.

After Mizuki died I went and scarfed down a bagful of french fries in his honor. He was right; they were damn good.

I will miss him terribly.