I can’t tell you how many mostly-disembodied eyeballs are found in gift shops around the San’in region. They’re popularity is all thanks to the influence Mizuki Shigeru has had on popular conceptions of youkai, a somewhat frightening, somewhat endearing cast of Japanese goblins and ghouls. He is most famous as the manga-ka who wrote GeGeGe no Kitarou (introduced in this entry last Halloween), but he would introduce himself first as a world explorer and folklore researcher. Wherever I go looking for youkai information, I always find his name in the works referenced! As beloved as his comics are and as much as you see them everywhere around here, his life has been very unique and merits special introduction.
Mizuki Shigeru (whose real name is Murai Shigeru) was born in 1922 in the port town of Sakaiminato in the little part of Tottori nestled close to the Shimane peninsula. There was an old lady who helped take care of his household, and she was very religious and told little Shigeru about the monsters that lurked in their midst. He was captivated by these stories, also remembers being captivated by an illustration of hell populated by demonic creatures. As you can imagine, it was the kind of art deemed not appropriate for children, but once seen, children may carry it with them forever.
He encountered real terror later on when he was drafted into the military in 1942 and sent into combat on Papua New Guinea. In addition to watching his comrades die, he caught malaria, lost his left arm in an air raid, and become a prisoner of war. While everyone else was growing thin in their poor wartime conditions, his commander found it odd that young Shigeru seemed so well-fed. This was because he had a knack for getting along with the natives. He got along so well, in fact, that they offered him citizenship, land, and a bride.
He was highly tempted to accept their offer, but the military doctor guilt-tripped him into returning home to see his parents once the war ended. He did so with the intention to return to life with the natives on Papua New Guinea, but his post-war predicament back in Japan prevented him from doing so. Instead, the one-armed man worked in a movie theater until 1957, when he made his debut writing super hero comics. Later, he began writing the early adventures of his most famous character, Kitarou.
Like any good Japanese citizen at the time, his accepted an arranged marriage. Her name is Nunoe, and I believe she is from the nearby town of Yasugi. Together they scraped by through poverty and manga deadlines, and at some point, Kitaro exploded with popularity. With its catchy theme song and years and years of anime remakes about the montrous encounters of the title character and his band of regular cast members (everything from what remains of his father (an eyeball), a floating bolt of cotton, an old couple, a cat girl, and a rat man), you could say that it’s like the Scooby-Doo of Japan, except that–as far I know–Scooby doesn’t have an airport named after him. Kitaro is the kind of thing that pretty much every Japanese person has been exposed to in one remake or another, and it is particularly celebrated in and around Sakaiminato, Mizuki-sensei’s hometown.
In addition to his years of research, manga, and fame in regard to youkai, he has also written historical manga about the atrocities of WWII, and has recently been releasing his manga take on the Kojiki (I only noticed this after I started writing my own. As you can imagine, it makes me feel quite inadequate). Busy though writing manga probably keeps him, his interests do not keep him in Japan. Although he is one of the most thorough researchers of youkai in Japan, he has also traveled all over the world studying folklore and making friends with the locals. His fame has drawn more attention to his life story, and the the memorial museum dedicated to his life and works has exhibits about both his world travels and collections, as well as his life story illustrated by both photographs and illustrations from his autobiography. The museum also brings to life his research on Japanese youkai, and even has a model of what his house was like when he lived and struggled there with his young bride. There was even more interest generated in their lives when she released her own autobiography, “GeGeGe’s Wife”, which later had two live action adaptations.
As of my posting this on Halloween 2013, Mizuki-sensei is 91 years old and resides in Tokyo, still busy as ever. He sometimes returns to his hometown and provides original illustrations on the walls of his memorial museum and along the road of youkai statues and youkai-themed products and costumes characters that lead from Sakaiminato Station to the museum. I already admired him and had heard the basics of his life story before paying a visit there, but I left with a much deeper appreciation. Theoretically, since he’s still alive and comes back to visit, I suppose it would be possible to meet him someday. But what would I say or ask first to such a wizard, besides “this lowly worm is unworthy of calling herself a comic artist and purveyor of culture in your great presence”? I get the feeling he’d laugh that off, though.