Shigeru Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari is a rare comic that succeeds on several levels: it’s a stunning visual work providing excellent cultural history, and curated in a manner both casual and critical readers will appreciate. It’s a masterpiece that should be included in any canon of literature, read by young and old as a celebration of the facility comics have to educate, entertain and elevate the human experience.
Created by one of the greatest cartoonists of the modern era, Mizuki’s impact on the medium cannot be overstated. Yet, his contributions have only recently begun to make waves outside of Japan as some of his work began to be translated into English in 2010. This book, published with care by Drawn and Quarterly, ought generate enthusiasm for the rest of Mizuki’s works to be translated and given the same treatment.
Tono Monogatari is not Mizuki’s creation: translated as the “Tales of Tono,” the tome was a collection of folk stories compiled by Kunio Yanagita and Kizen Sasaki in the early 1900s as they traveled the Tono region north of Tokyo. This was a period of rapid industrialization and change in Japan, and the purpose of their journey was to document the folk stories of rural communities before the modern world gobbled up the countryside and its traditions. It’s a defining text in Japanese literature and cultural history, providing a glimpse into the worldview of a not-so-distant time.
Creating a comic version of a seminal work may dissuade lesser creators, but the sheer brilliance of Shigeru Mizuki’s adaptation provides all the evidence necessary to classify him as a titan of the comic industry up there with Kirby and Hergé. Mizuki’s visual confidence is plastered over every page, from his simple but expressive character designs to the meticulous landscapes. Each tale from the Monogatari is given a few pages and structured in a way that any age group can enjoy and appreciate. I read through the book with my young daughters, who were enthralled by the supernatural and ghostly tales. I feared that the juxtaposition between the hyper-animated humans and the detailed realism of the landscapes would be conflicting, but this artistic decision only heightens the larger narrative purpose of the text. The wild, physical world comes across as real and wondrously terrifying, much like it would be for our ancestors living through the era. The people are a sideshow to the larger spiritual forces around them, manipulated and comically contorted at the whim of ghosts and spirits that occupy the same geographic space.
Mizuki’s style gives the Tono Monogatari life in ways my previous readings of this classic text did not. Some of the tales are comical, with others being downright sinister. This adaptation captures the tenor of tales vividly, representing how entwined these stories were with the daily life of its inhabitants. It is not a sanitizing of these tales, but a true study in their importance to a culture at large.
Lastly, Drawn and Quarterly must be commended for the quality of this printing (note: I read a digital version for this review but scanned through the physical version at my local comic shop). An incredibly useful introduction is provided that gives context to those unfamiliar with the artist or this work, and Mizuki’s panels or printed with care and precision. D&Q have done fine work in the past, but this collection was given the time and effort it deserves in its translation and publication.
Tono Monogatari is simply a book that everyone should read, not just comic or manga fans. This is for anyone interested in taking a masterclass in how tradition can be repackaged and expanded by artists with a purpose. It’s a humorous, frightening and beautiful book that deserves celebration.
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