Monday, April 22, 2013
Would you believe that I was afraid to read this book? Silly, I know, but even though I bought this book almost a year ago, I kept putting off reading it because I was afraid I wouldn't like it. I had previously read one of Shigeru Mizuki's other works, 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths', and it didn't particularly impress me. Shigeru Mizuki's works are highly regarded and award winning in Japan, and the works released in English have been critically acclaimed as well, so when I don't see what everyone else seems to see, it makes me feel like I have bad taste or something. But I finally decided to sit down and give 'NonNonBa' a read, and I really wish I hadn't waited so long, because it turned out to be a great book.
Very much a memoir of Shiguru Mizuki's childhood, 'NonNonBa' takes a focused look at his daily life in pre-World War II coastal Japan. Most specifically, his interactions with his grandmother, who he called "NonNonBa". NonNonBa was a spiritual expert of sorts and taught young Shigeru all about yōkai, which is a blanket term for ghosts, monsters, demons and other mysterious creatures from Japanese folklore. Through these whimsical and sometimes scary folk tales, NonNonBa passed on life lessons hidden within her superstitions, and greatly bolstered Shigeru's imagination, leading him to become known as the forefather of yōkai manga.
This manga was a most pleasant surprise for me. Not only because I highly underestimated it, but because I wasn't expecting it to be so heavy with aspects of one of my favorite sub-genres. That is, slice-of-life. More specifically, daily life. In past blog posts, I've talked about how I could understand how some would find daily life stories boring, but for some reason, they are oh so endearing to me. I think it's perhaps they feel so natural in the events featured and the pace. There are no convoluted plot lines to artificially make things more interesting and exciting. Things are often slow going and thoughtful and when dramatic things do happen, they don't feel forced or melodramatic. Being a memoir, this story captures all of that. Sometimes a chapter is just Shigeru learning about yōkai. Sometimes a chapter is about him having fun with his friends. And sometimes it is about him coping with loss or his family's struggles. Slice-of-life allows for an evolving pace and tone that never feels unnatural, which you don't often get with plot heavy stories in my experience.
'NonNonBa' has got some pretty interesting "characters". I put characters in quotations because, this being a memoir, as far as I know, these are true to life, real people. One of my favorites is Shigeru's father, Nozomu. He is not your stereotypical, strict Japanese father. This guy was kind of a free spirit, more than a little lazy, and a bit flaky. But he was also rather wise in his life advice to Shigeru, even if he didn't always live by his own words. And I absolutely loved the level of encouragement he gave Shigeru in following his dreams of becoming an artist. And of course, there's the title character, NonNonBa. It seems like she can find a yōkai tale to fit every part of life. Stains on the ceiling? That's a yōkai. Feel like someone is following you? Another yōkai. Didn't clean the bath properly? Watch out for the yōkai. Through NonNonBa, these folk tales are seamlessly woven into the story, and not only did they seem to add more than a bit of fun to Shigeru's life, but they also came across as lessons sometimes. They kind of reminded me of western fables like "the boy who cried wolf" and what not.
For me, the art of 'NonNonBa' is a big step up from the art I experienced in 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths'. It has the same style of cartoony characters on highly detailed, semi-realistic backgrounds, but the scenery of 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths' just didn't seem to allow for dynamic art. Jungles, beaches and uniformed soldiers during a war can be pretty bleak and just plain. 'NonNonBa' on the other hand has a more varied setting and many more uniquely designed characters. Not to mention the imaginative yōkai designs. On top of that, the book starts off with some surprisingly well done color pages. Check out a free preview of 'NonNonBa and sample the art for yourself.
I know I said I didn't really care for 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths', but after reading 'NonNonBa', I have a new, retrospective respect for it. Both being at least semi-autobiographical accounts of Shigeru Mizuki's life, they act as great companions to each other. And the pre-World World II tone of 'NonNonBa' is a really interesting contrast to the thick of battle that is 'Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths'. That said, I still much prefer 'NonNonBa' and I'm truly glad I finally got around to reading it.