Children are constantly reminded that they know nothing of the world. Adults act as if they couldn’t understand, so no use trying to explain. Other children posit guesses or deliver information accompanied by shrugs or exaggerated confidence. Our childhood experiences drift rootless in the fog of unknown contexts, despite our interaction with it. A future of knowledge awaits us.
In Shigeru Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical work, written when he was in his eighties, Nononba, the illusion of knowing is peeled back to reveal mystery as beauty, spirits as practicality, and respect as imperative to wonder.
The story follows Gege, a young boy growing up in rural Japan, and his relationship to the yokai (Japanese spirits) through an elderly woman in the community. Nononba, as she is familiarly called, is a prayer hand and occasional housekeeper who spends a lot of time at Gege’s house, helping the family and telling stories of the yokai and their domains.
As Gege works to make sense of difficult events in his life, Nononba tells him of Akaname, the dirt-licker, who will come to lick the dirt off your walls if you don’t clean them well enough. For those who pray only in times of need, a selfish prayer will bring an Otoroshi down from the shrine gates. If you embark on a long journey without eating or bringing food, you may find yourself paralyzed by the Hungry Gods.
Not all of the yokai represent moralistic lessons, however; the creaking steps you hear behind you when walking at night could well be Mr.Sticky, a yokai who walks in noisy sandals. All you need to do to send him away is step to the side of the road and say, “Mr.Sticky, please, after you.”
In Mizuki’s style, the backgrounds are ornate and detailed, conveying realism within the world of the story, juxtaposed by highly stylized characterization. In reading this translation, you might find yourself doubling back to read the panels in the correct order (top right to bottom left), but it also takes time to adjust to Mizuki’s visual language. There are certain expressive cues that all characters display–for example, the puff of air emitting from a nostril indicates exasperation, or a stressed emotion, usually anger or frustration–but each character also possesses unique physical features, and adjusting to their general expressions behind their sometimes overwhelming physicality take a little getting used to. At least, until their personalities sweep you away into their world.
The yokai are conveyed in a different style altogether, recognizable from Japanese folk art, with grand features rendered in great detail–almost a mix of the natural world Mizuki represents and the exaggerated and cartoonish characters he generates within it. The yokai also remain part of the background to the characters for the beginning of the story, never seen by those who speak of them. But as the story progresses, and Gege’s thoughts and drawings turn more and more towards these unseen spirits, they begin to show themselves to him–even speak with him–and become incorporated into the story as recurring characters.
Though his family and friends often scoff when Gege makes reference to the yokai, they all enjoy reading his illustrated stories about them. It is because of his stories that one yokai in particular, Azuki-Hakari, chooses to interact with Gege, and show him its true image so that Gege can draw it accurately. Drawing is Gege’s way of understanding the world, particularly the parts he can’t make sense of within himself.
As his internal life unfolds, the yokai begin to come to him more often, though it is unclear as to whether or not these interactions take place in dreams or reality. As Gege learns, this doesn’t matter. The respect he regards them with is fundamental, and despite the disbelief of his peers and family, he continues to explore and take part in this spiritual existence, and is rewarded by more and more dream-like interactions with the yokai.
By the end of the novel, a childhood has been lived, and you, the witness, will have been moved. The experiences of Gege range from tender and heartbreaking to brutal and self-actualizing–a coming of age story too rich to draw any one conclusion. Except, perhaps, that looking inside ourselves and valuing our individual experiences of the world–however mysterious they may be–might actually connect us more deeply to it. Reading this graphic novel could be your first step.
Georgia Webber is a Toronto-born cartoonist living in Montreal. Whenever she’s not obsessing over comics, she can be found fixing bikes, serving coffee, studying languages, and doing yoga. She loves learning and sharing her knowledge through workshops, discussions, and generally hanging out. She welcomes your inquiries, enthusiasm and conversation on any of these subjects.