by Justin Mullis, in collaboration with Maser Patrol
This week the world of Japanese pop-culture lost one of its most influential and powerful voices; Shigeru Mizuki (1922-2015). While Mizuki may still not be a household name for many American fans of Japanese manga, anime, and tokusatsu – like say Hideaki Anno, Hayao Miyazaki, Akira Toriyama, Shotaro Ishinomori, Ishiro Honda or Eiji Tsuburaya – he should be. Being a fan of Japanese pop-culture and not knowing about Mizuki is akin to being a fan of American comics and cartoons and not knowing who Charles Schultz, Bob Clampett, Jack Kirby, or possibly even Walt Disney is. Yes, Mizuki is that big and that important. And it is no exaggeration to say that without Mizuki there would certainly be no PokéMon, Digimon, or Yo-kai Watch and probably no Toei Superhero Time, no Studio Ghibli, no Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, no Death Note, or Ring series. For while Mizuki may not have touched these works directly, his own work nevertheless was instrumental in creating the milieu in which these latter works came to fruition.
In recent years Mizuki has finally been getting the recognition he deserves in the States, largely due to the fine efforts of the folks at Drawn & Quarterly Press who have been translating and publishing Mizuki’s manga in English. As a result Mizuki’s reputation amongst American anime and manga fans has started to grow, however the flipside of this – American kaiju and tokusatsu fans – are still largely unaware of Mizuki and the debt of gratitude they owe him. The intention of this essay is to shine a light on Mizuki for American kaiju and tokusatsu fans then, so that they might better familiarize themselves with both the man and his work, specifically his contributions to the kaiju and tokusatsu genres.
Shigeru Mizuki was born Shigeru Mura in the city of Osaka, but spent his formative years in the nearby rural Tottori village of Sakaiminato where, as re-counted in his semi-autobiographical 1977 manga NonNonBa, he spent much of his childhood listening to the oral folktales recounted by the village elders. Much later Mizuki was drafted as a soldier to fight in the Second World War and stationed in Papua New Guinea where he contracted malaria. While recuperating in a local hospital, Mizuki lost his left hand – his drawing hand – when the hospital was bombed by American forces. Mizuki survived the war however and returned to Japan where he spent the next several years learning to draw with his right hand. It is these two pivotal points in Mizuki’s life – his folklore-filled childhood in Sakaiminato and his time as a soldier in the jungles of the South Pacific – which would come to shape Mizuki’s life and creative opus.
We will be not be discussing the latter much except to say that, like Ishiro Honda, Mizuki went on to become a lifelong pacifist; a point of view which is expressed in many of his manga especially his autobiographical account of his wartime experience, Onward Towards Our Nobel Deaths (1973), and his historical works such as his 1971 biography of Adolf Hitler and his 13 volume epic Showa: A History of Japan.
Instead we will be focusing on the first half of Mizuki’s life and how his time spent soaking up the folktales of his rural hometown instilled within him a lifelong obsession with yokai – those mischievous, supernatural beings such as the tanuki, the kappa, the tengu, and kitsune who haunt much of Japanese pop-culture today. In fact, the continued popularity and prevalence of yokai in modern Japanese pop-culture is entirely due to the influence of Mizuki. A product of the high Tokugawa Era, yokai had nearly lost all relevance in modern post-WWII Japan. Mizuki however revitalized – and in some cases completely reinvented – these traditional monsters via his popular children’s horror manga series GeGeGe no Kitaro, Akuma-kun, and Kappa no Sanpei, thus giving these old spirits new relevance.
Mizuki’s love of monsters was not just limited to Japanese yokai however. Anyone who has read even a fraction of Mizuki’s work will see Mizuki had an unconditional love of all monsters; Japanese and foreign, yokai and kaiju.
Mizuki’s fondness of kaiju – in particular Toho’s kaiju – is evident in many of his works, one notable example being the 1966 manga/tokusatsu TV series Akuma-kun or “Devil Boy.” Created at the behest of Toei producer Toru Hirayama (whose success with Mizuki would later lead him to team up with manga-ka Shotaro Ishinomori and create Kamen Rider and Super Sentai) looking for a show to compete with Tsuburaya Pro.’s hit series Ultra Q. Akuma-kun debuted simultaneously with the Mizuki’s own manga of the same name in Shonen Magazine, running for 26 black-and-white episodes and starring Mitsunobu Kaneko (of Toei’s Giant Robo aka Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot) as child protagonist Shingo Yamada, who forms a literal Faustian compact with the demon Mephisto (actor Yoshio Yoshida). Rather than damning his soul however, Kaneko’s deal with the devil allows him to take on a heroic role as a vanquisher of evil in the form of marauding demons threatening Japan. The various demons of Toei’s Akuma-kun are a motley crew taking the shape of Japanese yokai, Hollywood monsters like The Mummy and Wolfman, and in quite a few instances giant monsters bearing more than a passing resemblance to Toho kaiju. These include the Rodan-like Devil Bird who appears in Ep. 2, the sea-monster Paidon from Ep. 3 who bears a striking resemblance to Gaira the Green Gargantua, and Ep. 5’s Perorigon who looks decidedly like a giant bipedal armadillo with the tongue of an anteater in the show but much more Godzilla-like in Mizuki’s manga.
But while Akuma-kun is great and definitely worth any kaiju fan’s time seeking out, it does little to compare with Mizuki’s 1958 manga Kaiju Raban; which is special precisely because it is a bona-fide, Toho-approved Godzilla comic – albeit a highly unusual one as Godzilla’s appearance is limited to a mere three pages.
Kaiju Raban centers around two rival scientists – the older, kind-hearted Ichirou Mizuki and the younger, callous, glory-hound Jirou Ikawa – who head off together on an expedition to Papua New Guinea to collect Godzilla’s blood in hope of it providing the key to immortality, thus reprising an often overlooked plot point from the original 1954 Godzilla regarding Prof. Yamane’s desire to study Godzilla because he believes the creature may hold a cure for radiation poisoning. In what will become an important plot point later on, Jirou’s younger sister Keiko tries to gives her brother a good-luck charm for protection but he rebuffs it on the basis that such things are silly superstitions, so Ichirou takes it instead.
Once in New Guinea, the two scientists find the King of the Monsters hanging out at the foot of the Porogon Mountain and manage to successfully extract Godzilla’s blood with a harpoon-like needle. This marks the end of Godzilla’s direct involvement in the plot, but far from the end of the manga’s giant monster action. Ichirou and Jirou subsequently run afoul some local natives who manage to wound Ichirou with a poison spear. Jirou, being the kind of bastard that he is, snatches the blood vial from his rival and leaves him for dead in the jungle. Ichirou, rather naively, fails to realize this and eventually manages to crawl his way to the boat and reunite with Jirou, much to his shock and horror. As the two scientists leave for Japan, Jirou concocts a plan to do away with Ichirou and tricks Ichirou into letting him inject some of Godzilla’s blood into his body on the pretense of it being a drug to help counteract the poison. Jirou, having hoped the raw blood would kill Ichirou, is terrified to see his rival transform before his eyes into a giant reptilian monster who then jumps overboard and flees into the ocean.
Jirou returns to Japan where he is hailed as a hero. Soon however Ichirou shows up having fully transformed into the kaiju Raban. As is par for the course, the military first battles Raban and fails, after which they turn to Jirou for a solution. Jirou proffers the notion of building a giant robot kaiju, an “Iron Raban,” which he will pilot into battle with the monster, defeating it and thus elevating his fame even more. Even more importantly for Jirou is the fact that he is afraid that people may soon discover the truth that Raban is a mutated Ichirou, mostly due to the fact that Ichirou-Raban is still wearing the good luck charm that Keiko gave him before leaving on the expedition.
However, while Jirou is building his giant robot, Keiko, her suspicions having been aroused when she saw her good luck charm on Raban, seeks out Ichirou’s mom and discovers that Ichirou is actually Jirou’s long lost older brother, having been separated during the WWII Tokyo air raids and later presumed dead. Having finally finished his Iron Raban, Jirou prepares to finish what he started and kill Ichirou. Yet, just as the two are preparing to square off, Keiko arrives and fills Jirou in on what she has discovered. Unable to commit fratricide, Jirou relents and returns to the government to plead for money to find a cure for his brother. At first the Japanese prime minister refuses on the basis of how much money Jirou just wasted building his giant robot, but then the fourth wall breaks down and Mizuki interrupts his own story to demand the prime minister comply with Jirou’s request. In the end Jirou manages to extract the Godzilla blood from Ichirou’s body and return him to normal.
Kaiju Raban is an interesting and seldom remarked-upon footnote in the history of kaiju eiga and the Godzilla franchise in particular. Most striking is the fact that the idea of a mecha-monster doppelganger appears to have originated here, predating the appearance of Mechani-Kong in King Kong Escapes (1967) by nine years and the first appearance of MechaGodzilla by sixteen years! It also deals, albeit in a rather crude way, with the theme of Godzilla’s blood being used for a gene-splicing experiment; as seen in Godzilla vs. Biolloante (1989).
Mizuki was apparently extremely fond of the story he had crafted in Kaiju Raban, as evidenced by the fact that he would repurpose it just a few years down the road in 1965 as a major arc in his most popular manga GeGeGe no Kitaro, titled “Creature from the Deep” in D&Q’s 2013 English language Kitaro collection. Kitaro is best surmised as a cross between Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo’s Casper the Friendly Ghost and Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Like Casper, Kitaro is a child ghost – as opposed to, say, the ghost of a child – who, like Hellboy, was raised by humans, instilling him with a lifelong fondness for them. Kitaro lives in a tree house in a graveyard and, again like Hellboy, works as a freelance paranormal detective, investigating mysterious happenings around Japan, happenings which are usually the work of mischievous, or in a few instances outright megalomaniac, yokai.
In the “Creature from the Deep” storyline, Mizuki repurposes almost everything from his Kaiju Raban manga with only a few minor changes. The treacherous and greedy Jirou is now the equally treacherous and greedy Shuichi Yamada, while the good-hearted Ichirou is replaced by Kitaro himself. Instead of Godzilla, Mizuki creates an original yokai-kaiju called Zeuglodon which looks like a cross between a humpbacked whale and a yeti, thus invoking the idea of Godzilla via a literal depiction of the famous monster’s own name; “Gojira” being a compound of the Japanese words for whale and gorilla (a similar idea was later used in the American comic Kaijumax). Also gone, wisely, is the subplot about the protagonist and antagonist being brothers, though the details about Shuichi’s sister – still named Keiko – giving Kitaro a good luck charm remains. With the long-lost-brothers aspect gone this also means that this time there is no deus ex machina ending and we do actually get to see Kitaro-as-Zeuglodon battle the Shuichi-piloted MechaZeuglodon to the death. Aside from these few details everything else is exactly same. Nevertheless these minor changes make a world of difference and the “Creature from the Deep” storyline in GeGeGe no Kitaro is arguably superior to Mizuki’s earlier Kaiju Raban in almost every way with Raban feeling rather like a rough draft in comparison.
The “Creature from the Deep” arc of Kitaro would go on to become one of the series’ most popular installments and served as the basis for Toei’s first feature-length – it’s just shy of 47 minutes – black-and-white anime film adaptation of Kitaro released in 1968 as part of Toei’s Manga Matsuri series. This anime adaptation is largely faithful to the manga other than being compressed for time. Amazingly Shuichi manages to come off as even more of an asshole in this film than he does in the original manga. In 1996 Toei made a much looser adaptation of this same story as the 50-minute color anime film titled GeGeGe no Kitarō: Daikaijū. In this version Kitaro travels to the South Seas Baruru Island to investigate the disappearance of several Japanese scientists. Once there Kitaro discovers that the scientists have been abducted by the local yokai who fear that they are after the sacred waters of their god, Zeuglodon, on the basis that the water will bestow them with eternal life. Angered by this perceived blasphemy the Baruru yokai decided to strike back by kidnapping Kitaro and forcing him to drink the sacred water which actually transforms him into a Zeuglodon who they then unleash on Tokyo. Several scenes during Kitaro-Zeuglodon’s rampage are recognizable as visual callbacks to scenes from both the original Godzilla (‘54) and the opening scene of Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (‘95) which was released the previous year. There is no MechaZeuglodon this time around, though eagle eyed viewers can catch Shuichi making a brief cameo.
In addition to drawing inspiration from the “Creature from the Deep” arc, GeGeGe no Kitarō: Daikaijū also pulls from several other Kitaro comics most notably the giant monster-centric “Great Tanuki War” arc (1967, coming Fall 2016 from D&Q) and the much more famous “Great Yokai War” arc (1966, which can be found in the 2013 D&Q Kitaro collection alongside “The Creature from the Deep”). While fans of kaiju and tokusatsu are likely to be interested in both of these Kitaro storylines it is the latter of the two which we will be focusing on as we continue this retrospective due to the fact that it has inspired two notable tokusatsu adaptations to date: 1968’s Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (Dir. Yoshiyuki Kuroda) and 2005’s The Great Yokai War (Dir. Takashi Miike).
Due to copyright issues a straight GeGeGe no Kitaro adaptation of Mizuki’s “The Great Yokai War” arc was not possible in either case, neverthelesss both films clearly take their inspiration from it. In the original manga, the titular war is a fight between Kitaro and several other Japanese yokai against the invading forces of several iconic “Western yokai” who take the form of famous Hollywood monsters Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, and a Wizard of Oz-style Witch all lead by Blackbeard, who looks nothing like a pirate but rather a giant ball of black flame with a single red hypnotic eye. The story has been understood as Mizuki’s metaphor for the then concurrent Vietnam War but it also obviously constitutes a clash of (pop-) cultures similar to King Kong vs. Godzilla (‘62) in its pitting of several classic Japanese monsters against their ostensible western counterparts.
Kuroda’s 1968 adaptation, Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare, from Daiei takes the basic premises from Mizuki’s manga and abandons everything else. The story is moved from the 1960s to Tokugawa-era Japan and the invading yokai from the west are re-imagined as a single demonic being, named Daimon, hailing from Babylon. While the human characters fail to recognize Daimon for what he is, the local yokai do, and by the climax of the film manage to rally a massive army of indigenous Japanese monsters to fight and defeat this duplicitous outsider. While a fun film, Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare does little to acknowledge its debt owed to Mizuki with regards to both the basic idea and the resurgence in popularity of yokai in general. (As a side note, Spook Warfare would get its own manga adaptation by Satoshi Inoue and Makiho Narita later that year. Mizuki himself did the manga for Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters, the first film in the thematic trilogy.)
In contrast Miike’s 2005 film, The Great Yokai War, acknowledges the debut owed to Mizuki by giving the author himself a cameo as the King of the Yokai, allowing him to close out the film, plus there’s an extended sequence at a museum dedicated to Mizuki’s characters. Nevertheless Miike’s movie is no more faithful to Mizuki’s original storyline than its 1968 precursor. The hero this time around is not a yokai but a young boy, the legendary Kirin Rider (does that sound like Kamen Rider to anyone else?) prophesied to be the savior of the yokai in their hour of need. That hour is now, as a new threat has arisen, though surprisingly not one of western origin. In what seemingly amounts to an attempt to make his film even more Japanese, Miike has made the villain of The Great Yokai War none other than Yasunori Katō; the evil wizard and principal antagonist of author Hiroshi Aramata’s 1985 historical fantasy series Teito Monogatari, which has been partially adapted twice, once as the anime OVA Doomed Megalopolis (91-92) and as the two-part live-action Toho film Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis (1988, Dir. Akio Jissoji) and Tokyo: The Last War (1989, Dir. Takashige Ichise). The Great Yokai War has two tie-in novelizations: the prose novel, by Aramata (accounting for the Teito Monogatari connection), and the loose manga adaptation by Mizuki.
Miike’s film proved a modest box office success, encouraging Kadokawa to reboot other former Daiei monster properties, with the film Gamera the Brave (2006) and the TV series Daimajin Kanon (2010) which also incorporated yokai into its setup. Other studios rivived other yokai properties around this time as well such as Dororo (2007), Cat Eyed Boy (2006), Yokai Ningen Bem (2011), and, of course, Kitaro (2007).
Kitaro is no stranger to straight-up tokusatsu adaptations as well. There was a 1985 Toei TV special, which hit most of the tropes one would expect of Toei: martial arts, rubber-suited monsters, a climactic battle, complete with explosions, in Toei’s signature gravel quarry, and a showdown in what appears to be Makuu space. Little surprise there, as both this movie and its 1987 DTV sequel were directed by Yoshiaki Kobayashi, an episode director on numerous Toei hero projects, most notably Space Sheriff Gavan and Choriki Sentai OhRanger. It’s sort of awesome.
The higher-profile tokusatsu films, Kitaro (2007, available on DVD/Blu-ray in America from Navarre and Manga Entertainment in the UK) and Kitaro and the Millennium Curse (2008, available from Manga Entertainment in the UK) were both directed by Katsuhide Motoki (Battle League Horumo, Welcome Home Hayabusa) and starring Eiji Wentz (the 2013 Tiger Mask) in the title role. Wentz’s casting is an interesting choice: while he was considerably older than the other actors to play the role, jarring against the prior versions of the character design, the actor’s Caucasian heritage provides a parallel to Kitaro’s own mixed upbringing. Of course, if you’re more interested in monsters than in subtext, the movies provide them in spades; since these were actually made by Shochiku in collaboration with Mizuki’s production company, Mizuki’s various original yokai characters could be included without the copyright problems that excluded them from the Daiei films. Also of note, kaiju fans should be particularly enthralled with the gashadokuro (giant skeleton yokai) rounding out the second film.
It’s easy for western fandom to overlook Mizuki’s contributions to the kaiju landscape; yokai, being distinctly supernatural phenomena, fall into a different bucket from the atomic-age science fiction that birthed Godzilla, Gamera, and Ultraman. However, the imagery can be very similar, and it’s no coincidence: while the context may vary, it was an ingrained tradition of monsters that paved the way for the kaiju boom, the henshin boom, and beyond. And while Mizuki wasn’t the inventor of the majority of prominent yokai, he revitalized and popularized them, codifying the iconic canon of traditional Japanese spooks for popular culture; when they differ from traditional mythology it is his reinterpretations that are better recognized. That’s not to say that he didn’t toy with more SF-ish elements at times as well (hopefully the giant robots above have illustrated that point).
In conclusion, kaiju and tokusatsu fans owe it to themselves to investigate some of Mizuki’s work. It may prove much more familiar than one would expect.