This week’s guest blogger is Francisca Goldsmith, who will be reviewing and posting about graphic novels here every other week.
With more awareness about Japan’s geography and history being in the news after its calamitous earthquakes last month, it’s a good time to look at manga’s more literary sides. Both Oji Suzuki, born in 1949 into a Postwar Japan struggling to digest the ghosts of its recent past while moving toward a hopeful future, and Shigeru Mizuki, who was a disinterested servant of the Emperor during the war, have given us accessible and artistically narrated fiction that invite contemporary American readers to see this pivotal era through Japanese eyes and experiences. Just as their ages differ, the two artists offer different sides of other coins as well: Suzuki approaches his telling through surreal and fabulous characters, while Mizuki hews close to the realism of his own military and native comrades; Suzuki’s imagery tends toward the black and white, with emphasis on the former, while Mizuki works in gently detailed fine line that shows the subtlety surprisingly possible while staying within the Japanese cartooning tradition.
In both cases, these storytellers show how manga can be counted as a literary form, as well as a popular format for serials, and how Japanese cartoonists, and the manga form in particular, can provide reading experiences as deep and evocative in sensibility and expressiveness as recent Western comics works like those of Emmanuel Guibert (The Photographer; Alan’s War, both from First Second) and Joe Sacco (Safe Area Gorazde; Palestine). War and comics are a natural combination: seeing can help the reader understand and believe in the need for changes and renewals of commitment to life. These two books, in particular, belong on the summer reading lists of high school curriculum planners working with World Lit and History courses that need updating and refreshing with works that are relevant to teen readers as well as respectful of their subject matters.
Adult/High School–An award winning Japanese cartoonist offers his own story of service in the Emperor’s army. Apolitical and at first disinterested in the required military service, Mizuki quickly came to develop a sense of personal offense at how his comrades were treated with disrespect by their commanders. Originally published in Japan in 1973, this memoir shows the decline of Japanese bravado in the face of troop losses and Allied bombs. Mizuki differentiates each of his characters here, not only physically but in displaying and relaying temperaments in word and action. This is a war story that gives ready access to American readers who know little of Japanese foot soldiers’ experiences during World War II; the medium of classic manga is just right for the content.–Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA
Adult/High School–Interconnected short stories feature children and adults both coping with ghosts from their past and serving as apparitions to others in the present. Suzuki’s narrative style features the viewpoint of each main character as well as omniscient long views of landscapes that open from broad rural or small-town normalcy to the minute details of interpersonal interactions that, although outwardly often bizarre–a headless boy, a recently raped woman–forego cheap shock and instead direct readers to what it must be like to think and feel in the aftermath of personal trauma. The human condition as it is realized in individuals is at center stage and the stories serve as much as parables as fiction. This is an ideal choice for older teens who are looking for deeper reading than soap-opera or action manga and can serve as a foreign selection in course work on literary fiction. An awareness of postwar Japan’s own self perception can assist in unfolding the many layers these apparently simple tales possess, but is not required to gain access to them.–Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA