Among Christmas presents I received this year was NonNonBa from my father. I had never heard of it before, but my dad has good taste.
NonNonBa is a manga about a little boy growing up in 1920’s Japan, going to school, playing war with the neighborhood boys and sneaking around poking his nose into adults’ matters and what-not. Nevertheless his day-to-day adventures are there only to complete the picture, at the center of which are his imaginative depictions of and stories about all sorts of Japanese yōkai. An old woman (called Nonnonba) in the village inspires him with tales of these traditional monsters, just like an elderly neighbor used to entertain the author, when he was a little child with an overabundance of ideas.
Shigeru Mizuki is an intriguing person himself. He fought in New Guinea, contracted malaria, lost his arm in an air raid and generally encountered some serious difficulties during World War II, the effects of which have haunted him ever since. Even after returning to Japan luck wasn’t on his side until 1957 when he debuted with Rocketman. Today he is an established gekiga-ka and (more importantly) an expert on Japanese folklore, while also well-known for his World War II memoirs. This is often pointed out as critique of Japanese militarism and love for the country and its traditions are deemed mutually exclusive.
Even if we assume that otaku are recruited from lovers of literature more often than not (which seems to be the case in my local community), they are still more likely to read a non-fiction manga than memoirs and maybe even more likely to spend their time watching an educative anime. Shigeru Mizuki caters to lovers of all media – I’ve already mentioned his account of WWII experiences, most of his works are manga (a non-fiction example being Hitler’s biography), one of which, GeGeGe no Kitarou, ended up being animated.
Nevertheless, back to NonNonBa!
Amongst the boys’ adventures the readers are shown and told about various yōkai in short episodes. Mizuki-san puts everyday children’s play next to tales of spirit monsters, weaving the plot seamlessly from one reality to the other, drawing and writing the story such a way that one cannot doubt the creatures’ existence. As with all works which are built upon the author’s memories, the audience can feel the strong emotions between the lines – in this case, overbearing belief in what is generally disregarded as superstition wafting from the book.
While I called the work a manga in the first sentences of this post, I suppose the correct term would be gekiga. (Just like manga authors are called mangaka, Shigeru Mizuki is often introduced as a gekiga-ka.) What does this mean for NonNonBa? The art style, although drawn by a Japanese man, reminds you more of American cartoons than Japanese manga now-days. The characters are stocky with round heads and closer to reality than, let us say, Sailor Moon. Their imperfections are in public view. As for the story, gekiga weren’t draw for children to enjoy – they were aimed at older audiences, often sheltering highly experimental or even offensive works. NonNonBa isn’t either, but it caters to a different audience than mainstream manga. The topic at hand, while underlaying in many manga, is rarely the focus. On top of that I trust not all episodes would be understood by children today.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. Though I’m used to different art styles and Japanese superstitions never interested me due to their complexity, I could barely put it aside and would reread it anytime. Like I said, my father has excelent taste.