Creator: Shigeru Mizuki
U.S. publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Released: April 2012
Original release: 1992
Awards: Angoulême Prize
I was very happy when Drawn & Quarterly announced that Shigeru Mizuki's manga NonNonBa would be released in English in 2012. Mizuki is most well known for his yokai-filled manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō and as being a specialist in yokai. NonNonBa is a semi-autobiographical work capturing Mizuki's childhood in 1930s Japan and a grandmother figure, NonNonBa, who first inspired his love of yokai. My personal interest in yokai naturally extends into an interest in Shigeru Mizuki and his work. Mizuki first wrote the story of NonNonBa in 1977 before adapting it as a manga in 1992. In 2007, the French edition of NonNonBa surprised many people by becoming the first manga to ever win the Angoulême Prize for Best Album. Drawn & Quarterly's English edition of NonNonBa also includes an edited version of Kimie Imura's 1977 essay "A Japanese Yokai Expert In Search of British Fairies" which provides even more insight into the life of Shigeru Mizuki. I was looking forward to reading NonNonBa a great deal.
Growing up in rural Sakaiminato, Shigeru is befriended by an older woman in the community who everyone affectionately calls "NonNonBa." Shigeru loves listening to her stories about ghosts, spirits, and yokai. To NonNonBa, a highly spiritual person, they are more than just superstitions but are a fact of life. As she tells Shigeru, "It's a mistake to think that just because you can't see them they're not there." The stories give Shigeru's already active imagination a creative outlet and he is inspired to draw and write his own tales of yokai and adventure. That is, when his young mind isn't preoccupied by other things, such as the gangs of neighborhood boys battling over their territory and fighting for their honor. His family has its own problems, too, with his father flitting from job to job and Shigeru and his brothers constantly finding ways to get into trouble. In the end though, it's all part of growing up.
Mizuki has expertly layered the supernatural into the everyday lives of his characters. While some, like Shigeru, deliberately seek out yokai, others do anything they can to avoid them. Some people believe in yokai, some people want to believe in yokai, and some people believe yokai are only a bunch of stories and superstitions. Many don't even realize when they are interacting with yokai. For NonNonBa, the yokai are very real. In fact, one of my favorite moments in the entire volume is when she stares down a "slippery lad," cowing it into going back home to where it came from. (I love and adore NonNonBa as much as Shigeru loves her; she is simply marvelous.) The yokai and their stories serve several purposes in real life and in NonNonBa. They give children a good reason to behave themselves and lead moral, upstanding lives. They are the basis for tests of courage. They instill a sense of wonder, respect, and even a little fear of the natural world. But perhaps most importantly in NonNonBa, they serve as a source of comfort.
NonNonBa comes across as a very nostalgic work, as if Mizuki is sitting next to the reader saying, "Remember that one time?" He also has a delightful sense of humor. There is no singular driving plot line in NonNonBa. Instead, the manga is a collection of closely related childhood memories and reflections. In many ways the narrative is unfocused, jumping from one aspect of Shigeru's life to another only to throw them all together in seemingly haphazard ways. It's not unlike little kids who get so excited about telling stories that they barely finish one before staring in on another as their attention zigzags. However, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary the events being told are, they're all important to Shigeru and his personal growth. NonNonBa is filled with life lessons; Mizuki's remembrances are meaningful to him, but they have the potential to be meaningful to the reader as well. But most of all, the manga is a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to the wonderful woman he knew as NonNonBa.