The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru
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The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru

Shape-shifting foxes, tengu mountain goblins, kappa water spirits, and a panoply of other fantastic beings have long haunted the Japanese cultural imaginary. In contemporary discourse, such creatures are generally labeled “yōkai,” a word variously understood as monster, spirit, goblin, ghost, demon, phantom, specter, supernatural creature, lower-order deity, or more amorphously as any unexplainable experience or numinous occurrence.1 Such weird and mysterious things emerge ambiguously at the intersection of the everyday and extraordinary, the real and the imaginary, questioning the borders of the human, and challenging the way we order the world around us. Despite its historical longevity, the notion of yōkai is neither monolithic nor transcendent; rather, as has been said of the “monster” in the West, the yōkai “is an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place.” 2 That is to say, the meaning of yōkai is always changing—shape-shifting, as it were—to reflect the episteme of the particular time and place. By interrogating this meaning we uncover some of the hidden philosophies and unconscious ideologies of the given historical moment.

In the following pages, I focus on some of the yōkai images created by manga/anime artist Mizuki Shigeru (b. 1922), whose work has shaped the [End Page 8] meaning and function of yōkai within the popular imagination of late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century Japan. Mizuki’s anime and manga are familiar to nearly every Japanese who grew up watching television or reading manga since the late 1960s, and today he continues to make an impact on a whole new generation: in April 2007, a live-action movie based on his Gegege no Kitarō (Spooky Kitarō) series opened in theaters nationwide, the latest filmmaking venture in a list that also includes the 2005 blockbuster The Great Yōkai War (Yōkai daisensō) directed by Miike Takashi.

Here I would like to treat not only Mizuki’s anime and manga but also some of his writing in other genres. Mizuki researches and writes extensively on yōkai and has published numerous illustrated yōkai catalogs that recall the Edo-period bestiaries of two hundred years ago. He has also penned several personal memoirs, some recounting his experiences during the Pacific War and his role as a sort of accidental ethnographer of the people he came in contact with in the South Pacific. In all of these writings—memoirs, yōkai encyclopedias, and anime and manga like Gegege no Kitarō—we find similar strains of nostalgic longing for a purer, more authentic world. And as Mizuki’s personal history becomes metonymic of the Japanese postwar experience, both he and the yōkai he describes and produces are implicated in the formation of Japan’s identity as a nation.

Yōkai Discourses

In order to grasp Mizuki’s place within the cultural imagination of postwar Japan, it is important to know something about his precursors in the discursive history of yōkai since the Edo period (ca. 1600–1868). One of these key figures is Toriyama Sekien (1712–1788), a yōkai cataloger whose work emblemizes Edo consciousness with regard to fantastic creatures. Between 1776 and 1784, Toriyama produced four sets of illustrated bestiaries that collectively document over two hundred different yōkai.3 These texts represent the coalescence of two modes of expression that were particularly prominent during this period: the encyclopedic and the ludic. The encyclopedic entails processes of collecting, labeling, and cataloging that were influenced by neo-Confucian ideas and led to the publication of numerous natural history texts, pharmacopoeias, and encyclopedias. The ludic mode, on the other [End Page 9] hand, denotes a sensibility that values recreation and play, and was manifest in such practices as comic versification (kyōka and senryū) and the spooky tale-telling sessions known as hyaku monogatari. Sekien’s yōkai catalogs creatively combined the encyclopedic and the ludic modes of expression: each page featured an illustration of a particular yōkai, often complete with description just like a natural history text; at the same time, however, the accompanying text and often...


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