7 Unique Phrases to Understand Shigeru Mizuki

The origin and life philosophy of the unique genius Shigeru Mizuki

Mizuki Shigeru Museum, GalleryOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015) was the author of the manga masterpiece "GeGeGe no Kitaro" and "Akuma-kun", amongst many others. We aim to discover the man behind the imagination - from his wartime past to his beloved wife - by touring the Mizuki Shigeru Museum with 7 phrases in mind.

Nononbaa and OreOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Phrase 1: The Youkai revival

Mizuki is most famous as the pioneer of Youkai-related manga. Youkai are creatures drawn from Japanese mythology, spirits that have many shapes and may be evil, or kind, or a little of both. Although Youkai are part of Japan's folk history, the image of Youkai that most Japanese have nowadays is heavily, if not entirely, influenced by Mizuki's art. "By the 1960s, Youkai was becoming a lost word, used only within the fields of folklore or anthropology", says Yukio Shoji, the director of the Mizuki Shigeru Museum. "In the Edo period, when people knew little of science, Youkai were used as an explanation for natural phenomena, or a way to keep children away from danger. It is no exaggeration to say that Mizuki has entirely revived the word, which would otherwise probably have disappeared from everyday use".

The character of Youkai reflects Japan's unique attitudes towards the natural world. Youkai are intrinsically neither good or bad, and although they might play pranks on humans, or even set out to harm them, they generally live freely, in a parallel world of their own. According to the lyrics for the title song of the "GeGeGe no Kitaro" animation (Mizuki himself participated in writing the lyrics), Youkai have no school, no exams, no career, no work, no death, and no illness. Many modern people would probably look with envy on such a way of living.

Sakaiminato City, Tottori Prefecture Fishing HarbourOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Phrase 2: the two sides to this world

What, then, piqued Mizuki's interest in Youkai? One factor is the quite spectacular scenery of Sakaiminato, his hometown in Tottori prefecture. Near his home was the sea, and over the sea, the Izumo mountain range, long seen as a divine place. From this scenery - resembling the Sanzu river, the Japanese equivalent of the Styx - the young Mizuki would have felt the presence of a world other than the human one.

Permanent Exhibition "Nononbaa to Ore"Original Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Phrase 3: lessons from Nonnon-ba

A key figure in Mizuki's life was Fusa Kageyama, known to Mizuki as Nonnon-ba. In his later life, he published an autobiographical novel, "Nonnon-ba and I" (Chikuma Shobo, 1977), that depicted the time he spent with her. He met her as she worked for his family as a housemaid, and she not only taught him about Youkai, but, according to him, they actually encountered some together. The name "Nonnon" comes from "Nonnon-san", the name for a follower of a folk religion that would worship the gods near Sakaiminato.

Permanent Exhibition "Nononbaa to Ore"Original Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

The Mizuki Shigeru museum appropriately has a space dedicated to Nonnon-ba, where you can see the Youkai that she introduced to Mizuki. If you have an eerie sense that somebody is following you at night, it might well be Betobeto-san (pictured), and Nonnon-ba even taught Mizuki how to react if he should encounter him. Other Youkai that originated from Nonnon-ba are the popular Nurikabe, and Otoroshi, a Youkai whose job it is to look after the Gods.

Permanent Exhibition "Nononbaa to Ore"Original Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

You are invited to the invisible world

The infant Mizuki was taken by Nonnon-ba to Shofukuji Temple in Sakaiminato, to see a picture depicting heaven and hell, and the experience gave him a lasting interest in the notion of parallel worlds. Her lasting words for him were "it's a mistake if you think there is nothing there, just because there's nothing for you to see".

Mizuki Shigeru Museum ExhibitionOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館

Phrase 4: what was learned on the battlefield

"No one is looking at me... nobody will remember my words... I'm just going to be forgotten..." is the sad monologue of a soldier facing death on the battlefield, taken from Mizuki's "Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths" (Kodansha, 1973). The work, which Mizuki described as "90% factual", is his autobiographical manga. He received a call-up paper to the army in 1943, at the age of 21, and fought on New Britain Island (Rabaul), a fierce South Sea battlefield.

Mizuki Shigeru Museum, GalleryOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

His unit was annihilated in the battle, with Mizuki the only man to survive. He then lost his left arm at the shoulder in an air raid, while recovering from Malaria. The paper-thin line between life and death that Mizuki observed had a profound influence on his subsequent style. He continued to draw manga with just a single arm, and his old shirts - on display at the museum - illustrate how difficult this was, with ink stains on the left shoulder, where Mizuki was using what little remained of his arm to keep his desk in place.

Adventurer Mizuki ShigeruOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Phrase 5: adventuring his way around the world

We should not forget Mizuki's self-proclaimed "adventurer" persona. He had a great curiosity about the world, but was only able to start travelling properly from the relatively late age of 59, when he had the means to be able to take a few breaks "for the sake of his health". At that time, he visited places he had dreamed of and learned about for many years in Africa, Europe and elsewhere.

Adventurer Mizuki ShigeruOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

With his fun, irreverent personality, Mizuki enjoyed interacting with the local people wherever he went. On the many photos of him on display in the museum, he inevitably has a cheerful, enthusiastic smile on his face.

Adventurer Mizuki ShigeruOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Wherever he went, Mizuki was welcomed by the local people - even on Rabaul, during wartime, he was greeted with kindness and became a "brother" to the local tribe. Mizuki considered continuing to live with them after the war, and thought hard about whether he should even return to Japan. 26 years later, he was able to make a promised re-union with the tribe for the first time, and he visited them regularly from that time onwards.

Adventurer Mizuki ShigeruOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Travelling with infinite curiosity

Mizuki's holidays were not holidays from Youkai, and he conducted research on the mythology of everywhere he went, carefully seeking out local artifacts such as spirit masks and indigenous art. It was said that it took little time for the second floor of his house to turn into a full-scale folklore gallery. Based on these experiences, he formed a "1000 Youkai" theory, that there were roughly 1000 archetypes for spirit creatures from around the world, and every one could be put into one of these categories.

Adventurer Mizuki ShigeruOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Mizuki was a masterful suitcase-packer, even with only one arm. Of particular note were his techniques for transporting works of indigenous arts and crafts back to Japan. He wrapped these valuable items in his used underwear, so that customs officers would immediately shut his suitcase and let him pass. That was a very special technique, indeed.

Yokai SquareOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Phrase 6: The Youkai specialist

Youkai had fascinated Mizuki since childhood. He belonged to the Japanese Society of Ethnology, and published his ethnographic research in encyclopedias and journals. A panel introducing the local Youkai from all of Japan's regions is on display at the Mizuki Shigeru Museum.

Mizuki Shigeru Road Bronze Statue of Mizuki Shigeru and his wife, Nunoe MuraOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Phrase 7: The support of his beloved wife

The final key to understanding Mizuk is Nunoe, Mizuki's wife. They were married when Mizuki was 39, and shared both happiness and hardship together until Mizuki's death at the age of 93. He gained no recognition as a manga artist until he was 43, but never gave up, and Nunoe at times was concerned about how they would make a living; but when she saw Mizuki struggling to draw using just his single arm, she felt a strong desire to support him regardless. Their struggle together later became a TV drama, produced by Japan's national broadcaster. In Sakaiminato city, there is a statue of Mizuki and Nunoe, looking up at the cherry blossoms together.

Mizuki Shigeru Museum, GalleryOriginal Source: 水木しげる記念館 ©︎水木プロ

Relax: live free like a Youkai

Adjacent to Mizuki's smiling face, peering out from a portrait, is a piece of coloured paper with the hand-written words "Boys, don't try too hard" written on it. Despite his many trials and tribulations, Mizuki was a laid-back, free-spirited man who slept well, ate well, and laughed a lot. His Youkai - who might share the same sentiment about life - have outlived him and have remained as one of Japanese unique cultures.

Credits: Story

This article was produced in July 2020, based on the interview conducted at the time.
Cooperation with:

Mizuki Productions
Mizuki Shigeru Museum

Photos: Mitsugu Uehara
Text & Edit: Makiko Oji
Edit:Saori Hayashida

Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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