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Shinpika, by Shigeru Mizuki (2008) Grade: A
Shinpika translates to "Mystery + occupation", so possible choices would be "Mysterist," "Mystery writer" or "A professional investigator of the abnormal." The manga originally ran in Kai (Mystery) magazine between 2006 and 2007, and came out as a hardcover book in 2008. It's more or less an autobiography in manga form. It's divided into 4 chapters, with the typical Mizuki character designs, and absolutely beautiful background art. Because this is an autobiography, there's no story or plotline, per se. Instead, we get various anecdotes that tie together to show how Shigeru's encounters with youkai (supernatural beings) throughout his life ended up turning into a research obsession.
(Shigeru at home with his parents, just another slacker.)
Shigeru Mizuki (Mar. 8, 1922-Nov. 30, 2015) was born in Osaka, but raised in Sakaiminato City in Tottori Prefecture. The book echoes the wiki article. He grew up listening to ghost stories from an old local woman he called "Nononba," while investigating the area around the coastline. Once, after hearing about the Japanese concept of the afterlife, he tried drowning his younger brother to have him visit jigoku and come back with a description of the place, but he was stopped by a passerby. On the other hand, life was short back then, and a number of the locals died young, in places where kids could see the corpses. Another time, a carpet filled with animal bones was found in a river, and Shigeru took the bones home and put them in a trunk, which his mother eventually found and threw out.
Shigeru hated to study, and did poorly in school, but he showed talent as an artist. His father brought home some art materials, and his sketches were good enough to get the school to organize an exhibition, which was then mentioned in the local newspaper. He was also fairly rough-and-tumble, leading a neighborhood gang of kids against rival groups from other blocks. At one point, he was about to start a fight with another gang when an adult complained about how rude they were being - they were on the docks and a ship filled with soldiers was just pulling out to go to war. When the radio announced the attack on Pearl Harbor, he asked his parents what the commotion was all about, and when his teacher talked about the need for brave warriors to join the fight, he asked him "why?" (resulting in his getting beaten and sent to the principal's office). After finishing high school, he lounged around the house, not bothering to find work, and unable to get into a university with the grades he had. His only interests were drawing, and reading books. One night, he dreamed he was having tea with Napoleon and Beethoven, discussing Goethe, when he woke up and ran into the living room demanding to know where his guests had gone. When he turned 20 in 1942, he had a required physical, and a few days later he received his draft notice.
(Shigeru claims to have seen skeleton people in the City of Despair as a teenager.)
In boot camp, the draftees were allowed very specific, short times for going to the toilet. One morning, Shigeru was feeling constipated and spent more time in the latrine than he should have, and he got punished by having to be the one to call reveille for the rest of his time in camp. Before being shipped out to fight, he was allowed to visit his parents for a couple days. Although they were on tight rations, his mother prepared fancy dishes for him, without really talking to him. After that, he was shipped down to New Britain Island in Papua New Guinea to serve as a grunt. Mizuki has written about his experiences in the Imperial Army before, and he limits his stories here to a couple incidents. One, he and one of his compatriots went to a bay to get fish for the camp for the day. They threw grenades into the water and tried to gather up as many stunned fish as possible before they recovered. The other guy put one fish in his mouth to carry it, and it wiggled into his throat. Mizuki was unable to pull the fish out before the guy suffocated to death. Another time, Mizuki was stationed as a spotter. Nothing was going on, so he was using his telescope for locating tropical birds. He was so wrapped up in this activity that he didn't notice the approaching American fighter planes until they were already opening fire on the camp. Later, he came down with malaria, and had to be taken to the medical bay. While he was there, in the middle of the delirium, there was another air raid and one of the bombs hit the building, blowing off part of his left arm. He took to walking around the camp after that, waiting for the wound to heal, and was befriended by a native boy, Topetoro, who gave him fresh fruit, and brought him to his village. The natives gave him the nickname "Paulo."
After the war ended, the villagers offered to give him a home and let him marry one of their daughters, Etoro Lily (sp?), but a Japanese doctor talked him into returning to Japan first. Once back home, there was little for Shigeru to do, and he spent most of his time sponging off his parents, and trying to find a good art school to enroll in. (He had one older, and one younger brother. The older one was imprisoned for war crimes. When the older one got out, both he and the youngest brother found jobs, bought houses, got married and raised children.) Eventually, Shigeru found work with a kamishibai publisher, making paintings for street storytellers to use. One of the other men in the company disappeared, and was rumored to have tried poisoning himself in Hokkaido. This guy came back after Shigeru moved to Tokyo, and gave him a hard luck story, so that Shigeru had to pay his former publisher living money. He switched over to drawing manga for various rental book companies (like a for-profit lending library), but again, the industry was in a decline and the publishers rarely had enough money to pay him for his contracts. The fact that he kept drawing unpopular dark horror stories didn't help. He did get lucky, in that a magazine that carried war stories liked his artwork, but he wasn't happy at having to draw planes and weapons and all the fighting stuff.
During this, he imagined that the "god of poverty" was living in his room, and that this was the root of his problems. He also took to hanging out at cemeteries in the middle of the night, where the youkai were his friends. When he turned 40, his parents got desperate and found a woman that was willing to marry an under-employed one-armed man in an arranged marriage.
(Ceremonial dance in New Guinea.)
With a wife, and a baby daughter on the way, Shigeru's finances got even tighter. However, in with the homeless guy-looking poverty god hanging out in his mattress closet, he spotted a little gray-haired figure that he thought was a mouse. He moved to Chofu, at the west side of Tokyo, and started drawing stories for Garo magazine in 1964. He appeared in nearly every issue up until 1970, starting with horror stories, then getting around to serializing a Hakaba no Kitaro (Kitaro of the Graveyard) story. There was still little money coming in, until he was approached by an editor for Weekly Shonen Magajin, who wanted him to do a pre-defined short story. Mizuki wasn't interested and turned him down. Two months later, the editor was back and in a frenzy - Shigeru could have a contract and draw anything he wanted. The first story out was "Terebi-kun" (TV Boy). The money started coming in and he decided to put some of the cash away in the mattress closet. That's when he noticed that the poverty god had disappeared and the little gray-haired guy announced himself as the "god of good fortune." Shigeru made extra room for him in the closet to stay if he wanted to.
After this, he opened up his own studio, Mizuki Pro, and hired several assistants, including Yoshiharu Tsuge and Ryoichi Ikegami. They moved into a larger building, with the family living next to the studio. He had a second daughter, and then Toei Animation announced that they wanted to turn Hakaba no Kitaro into an anime, but the title was too dark for children. Shigeru suggested using "Gege" instead, since that's the sound he and his friends used when they were scared as kids. The Gegege Kitaro anime became a big hit, and he started getting a lot more interested in researching local youkai. He returned to Tottori, where he claimed he'd actually seen youkai running in the streets. He bought some hibiscus flowers and placed them in front of his house, which attracted one butterfly that kept returning at specific times of the day during the week. He was reminded of his friends in New Guinea, so he wrote a letter to Topetoro, who wrote back that Etoro Lily had passed away the month before. Shigeru figures that Lily had turned into the butterfly and had come to visit him to say goodbye.
Soon after this, one of his former soldier buddies contacted him to say that he and another friend were going back to New Guinea to hold a wake for the other soldiers that had died in the fighting. The three of them flew to New Guinea, and created a wooden grave marker to place in the jungle. As they were drinking sake as part of the wake, another butterfly flew up, and they considered it an omen. Shigeru located Topetoro, and the villagers held a mask dance ceremony for him. He had to film it secretly with an 8mm camera. Back at the studio in Chofu, he showed the film to his assistants, but there was stuff on the camera that he didn't record, and he suspected youkai again. Another time, he and a friend ended up spending a winter night in a haunted inn, and were visited by a large youkai that pressed down on their chests until they panicked, woke up and ran out of the building into the snow.
(Shigeru enjoying himself as he gets older, because of Kitaro and friends.)
From here, the stories intertwine between his growing success from the Kitaro anime and manga, and his travels around the world to visit monster sighting sites and talk to other experts in the supernatural. Locations include Ireland, Mexico (Day of the Dead) and the U.S. west (Navaho Indians). Time passes - Topetoro dies, the New Guinea village is half-destroyed in a volcano eruption, and both his parents pass away. Conversely, Tottori Prefecture opens up "Mizuki Road," a street lined with bronze statues of the Kitaro characters, and youkai he'd drawn. He starts having bouts of dizziness, and passes out a couple of times during his travels with his wife and one of his daughters. But, life is still good, and he goes on a cruise boat that's painted with the Kitaro characters, and his former assistants throw him a party when he decides to move some of his stuff from the studio into the house, carrying in 79 masks and totem figures to create a youkai exhibit room for him. His book, "Nononba and Me" comes out, then someone starts defacing the Kitaro statues near his house in Chofu. The book ends with Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths!! being turned into a TV drama, and Shigeru saying that this is all 96% true.
Summary: If you want to get a closer look at one of the seminal figures in manga history, this is one of the better books to start with. I'm pretty sure there are no plans to translate it into English (at least, I can't find anything indicating that it hasn't happened already), but even so you can still appreciate the artwork and get some kind of an idea of what's going on even if you can't understand the text. I do hope Shinpika does get translated someday soon, because I do recommend it highly.