Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: An Interview with Zack Davisson
Author: Dan Ross
Official Site: drawnandquarterly.blogspot: Showa 1926–1939: A History of Japan
Drawn & Quarterly, a Montreal-based publisher of high quality comic collections has in recent years taken the works of Japanese manga legend Shigeru Mizuki into their roster. Though mostly known in the West for his yokai (Japan’s folkloric creatures) comics such as Gegege no Kitaro, Mizuki has a broad range of subjects he works from. In 2011 D&Q chose for their first Mizuki collection Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. It’s a semi-autobiographical story about Mizuki’s experiences in the final days of WWII. Specifically it relates Mizuki’s time in Papua New Guinea.
Next D&Q published Nonnonba (2012). It is also an autobiographical look at Mizuki’s life. This time focusing on his childhood; the relationship with his family and friends, and his early fascination with yokai.
Then earlier this year Mizuki’s signature character Kitaro finally hit the Western world through D&Q’s high quality release. (In 2002 Japanese publisher Kodansha International published three small bilingual volumes of Gegege no Kitaro.)
And this week D&Q is releasing their latest in the Mizuki line; Showa. (Japanese history is broken into periods or eras that are related to the time span of the reign of an Emperor. The Showa period was during the reign of Hirohito from 1926-1989.) Mizuki’s book Showa is an epic look at this era of Japanese history and again interjects his autobiographical perspective throughout.
Taking on the task of translating this massive body of work is Zack Davisson. We interview Zack now to get the lowdown on Showa, Kitaro, Mizuki and other related projects:
SciFi Japan: Zack, before talking about Showa, let’s get some information about the translator. You’ve been lurking in the fringes of Japanese folklore studies for a while now. You’ve written several articles on kaidan, yokai and folklore, and with Hyakumonogatari on your own time you’ve been crafting ongoing translations from classic and popular sources. What got you interested in the subject of ghostly Japan?
Zack Davisson: Ha! That’s funny! I’ve never thought of myself as “lurking in the fringes,” but I guess that’s accurate!
All my life I’ve been interested in folklore, magic, mythology, and the mysterious. As a kid I watched IN SEARCH OF…, had a subscription to Fortean Times magazine, that sort of thing. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest so I was interested in Bigfoot, Aliens… and other American folklore like the Jersey Devil and the Bell Witch. Later, I traveled around the world going to mystery spots. When I lived in Scotland I went to standing stones, the Fairy Bridge of Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Sky, and the haunted underground of Edinburgh. I even had a Loch Ness Monster sighting. My wife and I have been to the pyramids of Egypt and Mexico…
So when I got to Japan it was only natural I gravitated to their native folklore. And that’s where I hit the mother lode. Every culture I’ve researched, every place I’ve been — I don’t know anywhere as rich as Japan in folklore and monsters. It’s the most haunted country on Earth.
SciFi Japan: Is this what motivated you to move to Japan, and what did you do when you got there?
Zack Davisson: I can’t say it was a primary factor, but it was in the back of my mind. Mainly, I was looking for another opportunity to travel and live abroad when I found the JET Programme. That’s how I got over initially.
I’d been interested in Japan for a long time; I’d studied Japanese in high school and college. But I was mainly into samurai flicks and anime. It wasn’t until I got there that I really dove into Japanese folklore, first reading English stuff like Lafcadio Hearn and the few translations available. My then-girlfriend / now-wife Miyuki introduced me to Mizuki Shigeru, thinking that if I loved ghosts and monsters so much I would love his comics. And she was right. I was hooked. I loved them, and I REALLY wanted to read Mizuki Shigeru’s comics, but there was no English language version available. So I knew I would have to get serious about my Japanese.
The University of Sheffield had a satellite college in Hiroshima. I started studying there and eventually got my Master’s Degree from Sheffield. I did my thesis on yurei, Japanese ghosts. It was when I was studying for my MA that I started writing too, publishing articles for Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out and some stuff for Osaka University. I wrote articles on Mizuki Shigeru, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, yurei and yokai, all the stuff I love.
SciFi Japan: Could you tell us the mission of Hyakumonogatari.com and why you felt compelled to start it?
Zack Davisson: I started hyakumonogatari.com when I came back to the States, for a couple of reasons. One, I didn’t have as many avenues to write for professionally in the U.S. as I did in Japan — not so many magazines here interested on running articles on Japanese folklore. Second, I had a stockpile of translations I had done for my MA sitting around on my computer gathering metaphorical dust.
I figured I would just stick them up on the internet for anyone who was interested. At the time, there wasn’t really any resource for English-language kaidan (Japanese weird stories). Matt Alt and Matthew Meyer hadn’t published their yokai books yet… Kurodahan Press hadn’t put out their Kaiki series… there was a dearth of material.
With hyakumonogatari.com, I started getting a better sense of how many people were really interested in this subject. I first got 10 views, then a hundred… now I’ve had over three hundred thousand. That inspired me to do more, and to do better. Instead of just sticking up leftover grad school homework I’m working to make the site one of the best, most accurate and thorough English-language resources around. The site keeps building more and more every month, and I’m quite proud of it.
In retrospect though, I should have named it something different, something easier to remember… that’s about the only complaint people have about the site.
SciFi Japan: Possibly a good segue here, did this translation work help get you on board with Drawn & Quarterly?
Zack Davisson: Definitely. I’d actually been trying to get companies to do English-language Mizuki Shigeru comics for a couple of years now. I’d pitched the idea to Kodansha and a few other publishers but no one was interested, or they just couldn’t get the rights or for whatever reason. Anyways, I’d put together a portfolio of Mizuki Shigeru translations, but I refused to publish them online as scanlations because I have too much respect for Mizuki Shigeru.
When I saw Drawn & Quarterly had published Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths I sent them my pitch along with some of my work including hyakumonogatari.com. It was fortuitous timing — they had already translated Nonnonba and the first Kitaro book but were in the market for a new translator. They were impressed by my passion and personal commitment — translating Mizuki Shigeru isn’t just a job for me — and gave me Showa.
SciFi Japan: From D&Q’s side of things, do you know how the Showa project came about?
Zack Davisson: From a fan’s perspective, I thought it was odd that D&Q started their Mizuki Shigeru line with his war memoirs instead of his far more famous Kitaro comic. I guess that fit better in line with D&Q’s sensibilities, or they felt that the more human autobiographical stuff was more approachable than a gang of strange, unfamiliar monsters. They may be right. I don’t really know the background there.
Showa is such a challenging, controversial book. It is a serious deep-dive both into Japanese history and Mizuki Shigeru’s psyche. I’ll admit I was bummed that I had missed out on Nonnonba and the first Kitaro, but I’m proud of Showa. In many ways, that’s Mizuki Shigeru’s Magnum Opus.
SciFi Japan: What can you tell us about Showa itself? What is the overarching idea of the series?
Zack Davisson: Hurmm… That’s a big question. My best way of describing it is “What if Walt Disney wrote Howard Zinns’ A People’s History of the United States as a comic book narrated by Donald Duck?”
The series basically goes through the Showa period, which was a time of intense transformation for Japan — from the flowering of the Taisho democracy, to the rise of Militarism and Imperialism, to defeat and ruin post-WWII, to reconstruction and resurrection during the Economic Miracle. Intertwined in this is Mizuki Shigeru’s life, his autobiography and his philosophy.
It’s such a big series, with so many ideas — you really have to read it to understand.
SciFi Japan: Will we learn much about Japan from Showa or is this more of a personal journey in the life of Shigeru Mizuki?
Zack Davisson: It’s both. Absolutely both. Showa is like a college course in both the history of Japan and Mizuki Shigeru. You’re going to come away from this series with a deep knowledge of both. In some cases, more than you wanted to know. Mizuki Shigeru isn’t shy about the needs of bodily functions in the middle of a battlefield.
And there’s really three narrators — three points of view. You have Mizuki Shigeru narrating his own history; the sort of faceless text boxes giving you a factual report of what’s going on, and Nezumi Otoko giving the color commentary. There are a few other characters who serve as philosophical mouthpieces; a pair of old men playing a game like chess and discussing current events, a group of business men at a bar…
Personally, I found the Mizuki Shigeru’s story to be the most engaging. I got really emotional when I was deep into the translation. I’m not ashamed to say I got a little weepy in a few parts. It’s powerful.
But then, it’s only powerful in the context of what’s going on in history. You have to know both. It’s that combination of facts and humanity that make Showa stand out. For example, there is great scene in one of the volumes where Nezumi Otoko leads you through all the Military lingo — how many men make up a squad, a company, a battalion, etc… then he says something like “I’m only telling you all this so that when I say Japan lost a battalion of men on such-and-such an island, it will mean something to you.”
Oh, and if you have read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths or Nonnonba you will recognize a few of the scenes. Mizuki Shigeru used real events to tell fictional stories, but in Showa you get the unfiltered truth.
SciFi Japan: Has it been daunting working on such a big project or intimidating given the task of translating the legendary Mizuki’s words?
Zack Davisson: It’s been daunting in that this is the most complicated translation I have ever worked on. I had to learn a lot of new Japanese — mainly Military lingo, and specialized political and philosophical terms. Showa is far denser than any other comic I have ever read, from any country. My wife Miyuki was essential for that. She became my translation assistant, going over all the obscure kanji that even she couldn’t even read, and making lists for me to work from every day. I couldn’t have made my deadlines without her.
Then there’s that always difficult process of taking all of the Japanese and turning it into something that is accurate and true, but still engaging and interesting for English readers. And that fits in the speech bubbles. That’s the bane of manga translation — you can always add more pages to a book but not more space to a speech bubble. Whatever you write has to fit.
On the other hand, I’m not really intimidated by translating Mizuki Shigeru’s works. I’ve been reading his comics for about 10 years now, and translating his stuff for 5 years — I feel very comfortable inside his world, and I know how to put his words into English.
SciFi Japan: D&Q is also publishing Mizuki’s Gegege no Kitaro this summer, but the original series started in 1959. When was Showa originally produced in Japan?
Zack Davisson: Well, Kitaro is actually older than that, although in a different form. He was created, supposedly, by Ito Masami back in 1933 as a kamishibai series based on ancient ubume legends of a living child born to a dead mother. Mizuki started working on the series in 1954 as a kamishibai artist, before taking it into comics in 1959.
The first volume of Showa was published in Japan in 1988, which was ambitious of Mizuki Shigeru considering the Showa period hadn’t even ended when the series began. He wrote it with a definite purpose in mind. He was watching the children of the new Japan grow up in luxury and decadence, forgetting the price that was paid to get them there, the sacrifices people had made.
There is this amazing scene in the final volume, where Mizuki turns to face the reader and pleads “This is real! This really happened! Don’t forget about it!”
SciFi Japan: Showa is an epic story. Now in his 90s, I’m surprised to see such a massive body of work still coming from Mizuki-san. Is he still blazing away at the drawing board?
Zack Davisson: Not really. He does new work that is credited to him, but it probably 90% the work of assistants. But he is still active. I think he’s enjoying his well-deserved rest as a respected elder statesmen. In 2010 he was awarded the Person of Cultural Merit, which is similar to being knighted. There has been a big push to get all of his works back into print — they’re releasing the Complete Mizuki Shigeru Collection this year. They just had a huge event, the MIZUKI SHIGERU YOKAI PARADISE exhibition in Osaka. He’s getting all sorts of love from Japan.
It’s a little strange that the West is just starting to discover Mizuki Shigeru at the end of his career. His work has already been translated into so many languages — Chinese, Korean, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese… pretty much everything but English. Nonnonba won the French Angoulême International Comics Festival Prize for Best Comic award in 2007. He is an internationally recognized genius in the fields of folklore and comic book art. And yet the US, UK, and Canada — supposedly these great comic book cultures — are only now finding out who he is.
I’m glad that it is happening while he is still alive. Too often, it seems we wait until someone is dead to appreciate them. Better late than never!
SciFi Japan: Speaking of Mizuki’s current life, I’ve noticed you translating some of his tweets. I think that is a really wonderful service for his English speaking fans. I hope that is something that will continue to happen.
Zack Davisson: Thanks! He’s such an interesting character. His Twitter feed is mainly written by his kids, his son and daughter, but it shows the daily life of this extraordinary person. I thought that was worth sharing to with the English-speaking world, and translating such short bursts isn’t a lot of effort, so… I’m glad it has been well-received.
SciFi Japan: With Nonnonba, Kitaro and Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, and now Showa, this will make the fourth Mizuki project at D&Q. Do you know if there are plans for further translations of his books?
Zack Davisson: I hope so. He certainly has enough work available. I really hope they do more Kitaro, and some of his folklore books. I have a good chunk of his Tono Monogatari already translated, and it wouldn’t take too long to finish that off if D&Q was interested. Not to mention his Yokai Encyclopedias. Those are amazing. He was incredibly prolific.
Like anything else it is going to depend on the market. The reality is that if people want to see more Mizuki Shigeru translations, they have to support the ones that are out there. Ultimately, fans determine today what they will get tomorrow. I’m confident there is an audience for his works though, so I would expect to see more.
SciFi Japan: Let’s hope they will take you up on Tono Monogatari and the Yokai Encyclopedias.
Zack Davisson: Let’s hope. I think Tono Monogatari would do well — it is a good mix of autobiographical stuff combined with one of Japan’s most famous literary works. Plus, it has a woman who has sex with a horse, then flies away on its severed head. That is always a crowd pleaser.
Mizuki’s works range from the outright goofy, like Kitaro Versus the Yokai Ramen, to heavy political stuff like Kitaro’s Vietnam War Diary where Kitaro rallies the yokai troops to fight against the invading American forces in Vietnam. He even has sex comics, like Kitaro Continued where a teenage Kitaro goes to college and gets into all sorts of grown-up hijinks.
Then he has straight horror comics like his adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, and slice-of-life stuff about being married and dealing with money like Gegege’s Household Account Book, a biography of Hitler — the possibilities are really endless. Again, we are talking about one of the greatest artists who has ever worked in the comic book form.
SciFi Japan: Has Showa helped solidify a relationship between you and D&Q… meaning, do you think you’ll be doing further translations for them?
Zack Davisson: Again, I hope so. When I started Showa it was with the understanding that I would be doing future Mizuki Shigeru translations as well, but that is up to D&Q. If they like the work I did on Showa, then they will continue to use me. I have loved working with D&Q, and I hope this is just the start of a relationship that keeps going for years and lots more beautiful Mizuki Shigeru work for the English-speaking audience.
SciFi Japan: Since we first started this interview, you wound up working on the Kitaro book. So it looks like they are very happy with their relationship with you.
Zack Davisson: That’s true. I would say we have a good relationship now. I did some pick-up translation work for Kitaro — mainly sound effects and background stuff, as well as clarifying a few things. What many people don’t realize is that translations usually go through several “sweeps,” like an initial translation, then an edit to that, and a refined, final translation. So I only helped on the finished translation on Kitaro.
My biggest contribution to Kitaro is largely invisible. The initial translation had the yokai names translated into English — Rat Man, Sand-Throwing Hag, etc … I convinced them that it is better to keep the yokai names in English, then do a Yokai Glossary in the back explaining all the characters. Which is how the final book came out. And I think it was successful, and I think D&Q is happy. The reviews seem to be good, and everyone likes the Yokai Glossary.
SciFi Japan: Beyond translating Showa, you have a book you’ve written which is coming out and I read through the grapevine that you have something going on with a television show in the fall. What can you tell us about these projects?
Zack Davisson: Yes indeed! I’ve got lots of cool things coming out. I’ve been working with the publisher Chin Music Press, and we released my first work in March, a short chapbook called The Ghost of Oyuki. It’s a limited edition, and a beautiful piece of book art — letterpress printed and hand-bound like an old Japanese yomihon. Really stunning.
Then my full book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost is coming out next year, in 2014, also from Chin Music Press. I’m really proud of that. It’s a book I wrote based on my MA thesis and all of my research in to Japanese ghost-lore and history.
Along with that, I did some consulting and translation for Tony Harris for his brilliant samurai comic Roundeye: For Love, coming soon from Image Comics. I’ve seen the advance art for that and I know everyone is going to be blown away. Tony really wanted to make sure his Japanese elements were authentic, which is where I came in. The same with Brandon Seifert on his comic Supernatural Geographic, also form Image Comics. I did research on the Bakekujira and Japan’s Whale Cults for Brandon.
The TV show came out this August, from National Geographic called JAPAN: LOST SOULS OF OKINAWA. I did background research and filmed some segments for that show about ghosts on Okinawa. That was a lot of fun and a great experience. Although it was weird to see myself on TV, but pretty cool.
I have some other amazing projects coming up as well that are unannounced and I can’t really talk about yet. But I feel pretty comfortable in saying that I have come off of the fringe!
SciFi Japan: Zack is definitely no longer in the fringe, and we hope to be hearing much more about his projects in the future!
For much more information on Shigeru Mizuki and his works, please see the previous coverage here on SciFi Japan:
- All Books Attack! Ninja, Yokai and Yurei on the Loose in American Bookstores
- Review: The Legends of Tono: 100th Anniversary Edition
- Yokai University, an Interview with Matt Alt
- KITARO now on UK DVD
- KITARO AND THE MILLENNIUM CURSE
- KITARO on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray
- Yokai Attack! An interview with Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
- New Book Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide
- THE GREAT YOKAI WAR