The work of Shigeru Mizuki, a legendary 90-year-old manga artist in his native Japan, arrived Stateside last year with the first-ever English translation of the award-winning Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which draws on Mizuki’s own experiences during World War II when he was drafted into Japan’s Imperial Army and shipped out to what is now Papua New Guinea. While Onward was about the senseless violence and unnecessary tragedy of war, NonNonBa – based on Mizuki’s own boyhood – is nearly its opposite: light, humorous, playful, with occasional serious references to childhood death and even child trafficking.
Shigeru, also known as “GeGe,” is the middle child in a family of three boys; their mother has pretensions of past grandeur, while their Tokyko-educated father dreams of bringing true culture to their remote seaside town. The year is 1931, and Shigeru and his friends spend their days fighting “from morning until night.” But at nighttime, he “immersed [himself] in the world of dreams … drawing these worlds” into stories he shared with appreciative family and friends. His schoolwork might have suffered, but his artistry flourished.
In this delightful ‘portrait of a manga artist as a young man among ghosts,’ Shigeru’s imagination is continuously nurtured by NonNonBa, an elderly village widow who lives with Shigeru’s family on and off, in between various jobs. The unusual name, Japanese supernatural expert Kimie Imura explains in her afterword, is a combination of “NonNon-san,” which refers to people who served Buddha, and “Obaasan,” for grandmother: “NonNon Obaasan” (Grandmother NonNon) was abbreviated to “NonNonBa.”
Shigeru’s NonNonBa is a patient, kind, caring woman who shares endless stories about ghosts, spirits, even monsters she herself has encountered and continues to meet now and then. While such beings are all lumped together as yōkai, each being has distinct, individual characteristics; Shigeru gets to know quite a few of them well, including “Mr. Sticky” who tries to follow him home, the “wart yōkai” who initially proves useful at school, and the “Azuki Hakari” who enjoys multiple friendly visits (not to mention a good hot bath!).
In between his yōkai visitors, Shigeru and his friends plot their battle strategies, his father goes through multiple jobs including an attempt to open a local cinema, a sickly cousin arrives from Tokyo and regales Shigeru with big city-delights, a mystery family moves into the town’s haunted house, and Shigeru befriends a little girl with other worldly connections. All the while, NonNonBa is a constant presence, introducing, explaining, loving. Her stories – in action and words – remain the same: kindness is always the best weapon of all.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 1977, 2012 (United States)