Nonnonba

June 7, 2015

Shigeru Mizuki – Drawn and Quarterly – 2012 – 1 volume

I am scandalously behind in my Shigeru Mizuki reading, which is a shame, because his stories are so wonderful.  I frequently tell coworkers and customers about Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, that story made a huge impact on me.  Nonnonba is more my type of story (far less depressing), and I liked this even better, but there are less occasions for this to come up.

Basically, this is an autobiography/slice-of-life story about Mizuki’s childhood in Japan in the 1930s.  Territorial boys stage fights between neighborhoods, Shigeru (called Shige and Gege) gets yelled at by his mom for skipping and being generally bad at school, Shigeru and his brothers run amok through the neighborhood and surrounding areas, everyone loves the stories Shigeru draws, but first and foremost, Shigeru and other neighborhood kids listen to the stories of Nonnonba, a deeply spiritual elderly lady that sorta-lives with Shigeru’s family.

Nonnonba seems to perform various Buddhist spiritual services for people, but doesn’t really get paid for them, and tends to earn a living with housework.  In addition to spiritual advice, she’s great with kids.  Shigeru loves hearing her stories of yokai, and she has a million of them.  Shigeru believes them, but the other kids tend to tell him he’s superstitious… though they kind of believe them in a pinch as well. Nonnonba’s yokai are very much present in the story, and the story tends to tie itself together using Shigeru’s parents, his neighbors, the other children, Shigeru himself, the yokai, et cetera.

In one segment, Shigeru’s father has overnight duty at the bank he works at.  A telephone call at the beginning of his shift about a bank robber heading his way has him paranoid all night, and he winds up leaving 2 hours 30 minutes early from his shift.  A bit later, Shigeru and his brother are hanging out at an abandoned barn, and the bank robber shows up and holds Shigeru’s brother hostage and sends Shigeru for food.  Shigeru thinks he senses something, too, but can’t actually see yokai.  We see a black mist-spirit hanging around the robber.  When Shigeru heads home to get food, his parents tell him his father lost his job.  Shigeru comes back to the barn with food and Nonnonba, who he brought to treat the robber’s wound.  Nonnonba sees the spirit, and they all have a conversation about how real it is, and how to dispel it if it is.  The robber eats, Nonnonba patches him up, then guilts him a little bit about being a robber.  The story ends.

There are lots of threads.  Shigeru befriends 3 young ladies throughout the course of the 400-page volume, and has entertaining interactions with all of them.  He also winds up losing all of them in various ways.  His father is a great character, fickle when it comes to holding down a job, though his family never seems to be struggling.  He encourages Shigeru, and offers him a lot of good life advice throughout.

And… it’s just that.  Shigeru interacting with everyone in his old-timey neighborhood.  It’s set 85 years ago, though the interactions between people that dominate the book haven’t aged a day.  Occasionally the story shows its age, such as when Shigeru and his brothers walk twelve miles for their first taste of a donut, or when many people aren’t good at reading (presumably kanji, though Nonnonba can’t read at all), or, most disturbingly, when a plot point about girls being sold off as geisha comes up at the end of the book.

I like Mizuki’s art style a lot.  He uses a lot of detail for everything but characters, which are very cartoony.  This is driven home within the first few pages of the book, where cartoony characters play with a very detailed mouse against a very detailed background.  His yokai designs are also very fun, though we only see a handful.  My favorite, the red-bean yokai, does recur, and he reminds me very much of a Maurice Sendak Wild Thing.

I know that slice-of-life stories like this are a hard sell, but I’ve read a lot of them, and few of them are as effortlessly charming as this one.  And it’s autobiographical!  Even better!  You can learn while you read!

I’m unsure whether to jump into Kitaro next (which is likely a good follow-up to this), or Mizuki’s history of the Showa period.  I’m leaning towards the latter, if only because I can break those 4 volumes up with Kitaro at some point.