“Tono Monogatari”, the popular tale of Shigeru Mizuki

Shigeru Mizuki came to adapt Monogatari tone, a classic from Japanese literature by Kunio Yanagita, father of native ethnology, in 2008, 86 years old. Already a well-known author in his home country, with this latest work completing Mizuki a discourse that was implemented throughout his career, first as the creator of Kitaro of the cemeteries, with whom he introduced Yokai, the demons of Japanese folklore, into pop culture; then pick up on the concept at a mature age with IkkeIkkeBâa kind of autobiography dedicated to his grandmother, able to talk to ghosts.

Mizuki’s poetics were therefore always inspired by Japanese folklore, legends and popular traditions. The transposition of Yanagita’s classic (dating back to 1910) proved to be a completely natural, almost obvious, phase of a coherent path: Monogatari tone is the sum of the poetics of Shigeru Mizuki e his artistic will. The stories included in this collection show a rural Japan, intertwined with tradition and magic, an animistic religion rooted in ancient Japan and at the same time claiming its contemporaneity, sanctioning a literary force still alive that refers to ancestral myths, to legends, fairy tales, stories that resonate almost everywhere in the world.

In fact, in parallel with the work of Yanagita, the collection and preparation of Germanic folk tales developed by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century or more recently the anthology of Italian fairy tales curated by Italo Calvino (1956). Yanagita’s ethnographic research therefore constituted a point of arrival for Mizuki, but at the same time also represented a return to the origin, to the literary core from which it all started. Here, Mizuki ideally closed a path and drew the final line of his work.

The Tono region, so close to the center of civilized Japan and at the same time distant from the modern world, as if it were located in another universe, in a mythical and peasant past, becomes the scene of a series of stories without morals, episodes that testify to an almost disappeared world, which explores the mystery of nature, the mountains, of a more or less happy life of a humanity out of time. The stories follow one after the other, e.g. photographs of a peasant universe that superimposes reality and superstition.

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Legends of giant mountain men kidnapping village women, but also little stories of loneliness, of moneyless lonely old men going down to the village just to get drunk and spend the night on the streets; of men living with two women in the same house, wife and mother not coming together, so to resolve the dispute, they decide to kill the mother.

Of vicious Yokai, as the pillow-thrower; of fertility gods or the protective spirits of the houses carved into wooden statues, which occasionally take the form of children to help peasants sow and reap. Of lesser gods leaving their homes in ruins and mysterious forces hiding in the mountains as they leave their homes. Of voracious and vengeful wolves and bears, of magical monkeys making fun of the peasants. Of girls turned into owls sing their lost love. Of abandoned houses in the forest that contain magical things that can make those who use them rich. At Kappa, magical aquatic creatures that scare passers-by. Of foxes assuming human form, or of cruel villages where the elderly are left to die.

Also historical episodes are mixed with legends to create a fantastic folk tale: as the story of Abe Sadato, son of a rebellious shogun who was defeated and killed, but who for the inhabitants of Tono remains an honored hero. It then tells of the attractive daughter of a farmer who falls in love with his horse: When the farmer finds out, he beheads the horse, so that the daughter in desperation flies into the sky on the head of his beheaded animal.

Mizuki transposes these Japanese folk tales with respect and devotion. In keeping with a mature style, the human figures, such as ghosts, Yokai and animals, rendered with a synthetic and caricatured feature, create an effective contrast to the realistic and almost photographic precision of the landscapes, the houses, the vegetation: clock space that gets an immutable, magical concretenessout of time and history.

Mizuki’s poetics, imbued with a delicate despair, are reminiscent of other great Japanese storytellers. Sakaguchi Ango in some of his stories (Under the cherry forest, Marsilio, 1993) evoked the same atmospheres halfway between realism and magic, where the spirits of the forest and the mountains, Yokai, Tanuki and Kappa, coexist with men and sometimes take their place. Another great representative of the gekiga, Susumu Katsumata, also included ghosts, Kappa and ancestral creatures in his tales.

Back to the roots, to an ancient tradition that draws on popular narrative, became a way for these writers to keep alive a cultural heritage that was in danger of spreading due to the homologation to the dominant culture, the Western, according to the vision of the victors of World War II, and thus places itself in open conflict with a society that gave up its own identity and culture.

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The story of Monogatari tone also at the same time amazing and biographical, personal and political. The story described by Mizuki – which traces the same places as the ancient legends take place until he meets, magically and narratively, the master Yanagita – is intertwined with the stories of these magical and eternal places, and reaches a real identification.

To the point that Mizuki at the end of the stories says that he is convinced that he lived in Tono in a previous life. Here it is then that the transposition of Yanagita’s stories represented for Mizuki not only a respectful tribute to a precious literary prehistory, but almost a memoirthe attempt to rediscover a primordial memory, to trace an ancient origin that is common to all stories back in time.

Read the first few pages of the cartoon here.

Monogatari tone
by Shigeru Mizuki
translation by Vincenzo Filosa
Canicola Editions, May 2022
paperback, 248 pp., b / n
19.00 € (buy online)

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