The graphic memoirs which show the personal side of history

New books from Shigeru Mizuki and Polish duo Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal reveal an understated way to keep the past alive.

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History rarely feels like history at the time. There are exceptions, such as the 9/11 attacks and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, but even war can quickly turn into the backdrop to our own stories. Bombs may be exploding, or we may be living through an economic boom, yet who can help but view the history being made around us through the prism of autobiography? The central story will always be the personal one.

The fourth and final instalment of Shigeru Mizuki’s masterly comic series Showa: a History of Japan takes this idea and marries it with a distinctly Japanese sense of fatalism. Although the book is ostensibly a memoir, it devotes roughly half of its pages to national events during Showa, the Hirohito era (focusing here on the years between 1953 and 1989); it weaves staccato bulletins of political scandal, pop-culture news and student insurrection into a brisk account of Mizuki’s progress as a manga author.

If Tezuka Osamu was Japan’s Walt Disney, Mizuki, who died last November, was something closer to its Tex Avery. Like his US counterpart, he created cartoon characters who embodied the whimsy of his nation and its folksy outlook: Avery’s laconic Bugs Bunny and his self-absorbed Daffy Duck were as purely American as Mizuki’s various yokai spirits were expressive of the everyday superstitions of the Japanese.

Despite the hi-tech trappings of life in the world’s third-richest nation, Shinto – “the path of the gods” – remains a dominant religion there, alongside Buddhism. If the latter is called on for the rituals of death, the more mythological Shinto underpins the experience of the living and bridges it with the spirit world beyond. Compatible with this is a belief in yokai: supernatural apparitions ranging from the tengu, with its Pinocchio-like nose, to the shape-shifting tanuki raccoon (familiar to fans of Super Mario Bros 3).

Mizuki was a scholar of yokai and his best-known series, GeGeGe no Kitaro, is full of them: the one-eyed ghost boy Kitaro; “Eyeball Dad”, an anthropomorphised eyeball; and the money-hungry “Rat Man”. Showa is a fairly straight story of Japan under Emperor Hirohito but the realm of the spirits is never far. Of its two narrators, one is Mizuki, relating his own experiences, and the other is Rat Man, who here takes the role of a spooky newsreel announcer. At the heart of the historical account is Japan’s transition from war-humbled nation to atomised “economic powerhouse”. “I know a kind of happiness Japan has lost,” Mizuki writes. “The brotherhood of humanity . . . It’s a treasure money can’t buy.”

The book ends with the death of Hirohito on 7 January 1989. The Showa period is over and the recent past has become history. “Never forget it was real!” Mizuki implores. But Mizuki floated through his own time, his head down, working hard to survive, and today’s Japanese will doubtless do the same in theirs. The past, to them, will seem abstract and unreachable. The hope is that at least its lessons will have been learned. The Showa era was tainted by war. As Mizuki recalls the “faces of the dying”, he exclaims to the reader: “Don’t make the same mistake again!”

Behind the Curtain by Andrzej Klimow­ski and Danusia Schejbal is another graphic memoir about artists living through historical turmoil – in this case, the tensions in Soviet-era Poland between the state and the Solidarity free trade union. As in Mizuki’s story, wider political events are touched on but are never directly shaped by the book’s newly married protagonists, who are more concerned with meeting deadlines and finding the right cutlery for their kitchen.

Yet Behind the Curtain’s poignancy comes from the sense that what feels ordinary now is often built on brave or desperate acts of the past. Schejbal takes a walk with her son down Franciszkanska Street in 1970s Warsaw and its name “rings a bell”. “This is where my mother lived during the war,” she thinks. The turn of a page transports us back to 1942, to a small flat where members of the resistance plan to smuggle Jews to safe houses. Elsewhere, Klimowski follows a dog into a seemingly deserted apartment block and finds himself amid the uprising in which his father fought. The wartime past casts a shadow over the curfews and food shortages of communist Poland.

The memoir is rendered all the more personal by Klimowski’s and Schejbal’s visual styles. They each illustrate their own stories, and their compatible but distinct methods give their narrative the air of a conversation. Behind the Curtain derives much of its warmth from trivial details. The best place to put a TV set for good reception, a honeymoon spoiled by food poisoning, the “miscellaneous” ingredients of restaurant food: these are fragments of experience that history rarely bothers to record. That they seem so familiar to the reader helps to bridge the gap between now and the times that Klimowski and Schejbal document – an understated but effective way of keeping the past alive. 

Behind the Curtain by Andrzej Klimowski and Danusia Schejbal is published by SelfMadeHero (255pp, £15.99)

Showa 1953-1989: a History of Japan by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Zack Davisson, is published by Drawn & Quarterly (522pp, $24.95)

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article appears in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming