A glimpse into Japan’s past

TONO MONOGATARI

By Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Zack Davisson (Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2021, 256 pp., $24.95, paperback)

Known for his ghost stories, Shigeru Mizuki is in his element with “Tono Monogatari.” Focusing solely on a collection of short stories collected from the Tono region of Iwate Prefecture, Drawn & Quarterly’s latest translated work by the late manga artist is a master’s homage to his roots.

Mizuki amassed an eclectic oeuvre throughout his 93-years of life. He documented his experiences as a soldier in the Philippines in “Onward Towards our Noble Death” and the background of World War II in Europe through “Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler.” He chronicled the rapid changes Japan faced in the 20th century through “Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan.” Though critically acclaimed for his more modern historical fiction, Mizuki is best known for his “Kitaro” series in Japan, featuring the ghosts and goblins of Japan’s yesteryears.

“Tono Monogatari” presents itself as something closer to what most of Mizuki’s readers may expect from him, but is also unique in being an adaptation of a 1910 collection of stories of the same name by Kunio Yanagita. Yanagita himself claimed to have collected the 100 or so tales from Kizen Sasaki, a local storyteller from the Tono region, and “written down exactly as he told me.” 

Zack Davisson, long-time translator of Mizuki’s works, notes that Yanagita reinterpreted the stories he heard from Sasaki to make them “more interesting” and Mizuki — in turn — added his own mark to them (mostly by way of self insertion and fart jokes) to make the piece his own. Davisson, charged with interpreting “Tono Monogatari” to become accessible to English-reading audiences, also joins this line of retellings.

Davisson, being an expert on Japanese ghosts and monsters himself, lends his voice to “Tono Monogatari” through short essays discussing Mizuki and Yanagita’s works, as well as other short pieces that flesh out the history and cultural context these stories exist in. The extended translator’s notes greatly improves accessibility and engagement of the otherwise disparate and mysterious stories.

The stories themselves are curious. Mizuki’s style as an artist veers toward caricature when it comes to humans, but the illustrations of the rural Japanese countryside is drawn with expert penmanship. The style lends itself well to the often disjointed series of spooky short stories. At times shocking and other times sad, “Tono Monogatari” runs the gamut of human emotions, and although supernatural, also helps illustrate perhaps how unforgiving life was to be living in the rural north.

Mizuki and Davisson both found fascination in Japan’s folklore. This passion was, at one point, nearly forgotten in Japan. Yanagita’s work documenting “Tono Monogatari” was done in the shadows of a rapidly industrializing Japan that aimed to eradicate superstitions in favor of a “civilized” and Westernized nation. The world “Tono Monogatari” depicts is now largely gone, suppressed and written off in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This latest translation, like much of Mizuki’s other works, helps keep that fantastical side of Japan alive by imparting it to a new generation of fans.

 

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