We live in interesting times. Because of the Internet, old familiar media formats are breaking down or going through changes. More and more printed word publications are going out of business or finding new life online. The old LP/album format is essentially an anachronism in an iPod-centered universe.
But the truth is change has always been with us, as I realized in a most unlikely place, the exhibition dedicated to the famous manga artist Shigeru Mizuki at Hachioji’s rather small Yume Art Museum.
I say “unlikely” because, in contrast to most manga, which reflect the fast-changing modern world, Mizuki’s famous comic series, “Gegege no Kitaro,” conjures up the unchanging, timeless realm of Japan’s yokai, a world of ghosts, ghouls, goblins and other supernatural beings. But despite this retro charm — refracted through dozens of digital prints of Mizuki’s cleanly drawn illustrations, as well as masks and models of the characters that will delight the kids — “The World of Mizuki Shigeru” also allows us to take a close look at how methods of delivering culture have changed over the years.
The story of “Gegege no Kitaro,” it turns out, is almost a case study in the malleability and flux of media.
Firstly, the traditions on which the manga is based — including characters such as Medama-oyaji (Eyeball Father), Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), Konaki Jijii (Child-crying Old Man), Nurikabe (Plastered Wall) and Ittan Momen (Roll of Cotton) — were initially passed down through the medium of oral communication. When Mizuki was 5 or 6 years old, an old woman called Nonnon used to regale him with Japanese folklore ghost stories, making a big impression on the young lad.
Around about the same time, a story called “Hakaba no Kitaro” (Graveyard Kitaro), which would prove an important inspiration for Mizuki, was doing the rounds as a kami shibai (paper play). In the years before and for some time after Word War II, kami shibai story tellers would travel from community to community telling tales using picture cards. In his early days as an artist, Mizuki himself painted kami shibai cards.
But this particular media went out of business when comic publishing started to take off in postwar Japan. This is where the exhibition comes into its own, showing several examples of early comic-book production. According to the show’s curator, Takahito Kawamata, there were two phases to this — namely kashi hon (rental books), followed by the more conventional manga that we are familiar with today.
“Thanks to the recent NHK TV serial ‘Gegege’s Wife,’ people have rediscovered kashi hon,” Kawamata explains. “In the 1950s Mizuki worked on various examples of these.”
Designed to be borrowed and repeatedly read, the kashi hon were sturdy, well-made books, usually with a hard cover. Kawamata points out some examples, including a ’50s version of “Gegege no Kitaro” and another featuring “Akuma-kun,” a kind of doppelganger of “Gegege no Kitaro” that Mizuki used to explore the world of Western monsters.
Flourishing in the ’50s, kashi hon started to go out of business in the ’60s when manga anthologies, featuring the work of several artists, printed in cheaper, more disposable formats, came into vogue. The exhibition has several dozen examples of “Garo,” an anthology manga launched in the ’60s, which featured Mizuki’s “Gegege no Kitaro” stories. With an avant-garde focus, the magazine was initially popular, but in later years it constantly lost readers, finally closing in 2002.
One of the most interesting sections of the exhibition refers to this idea of constantly changing media. In 1832, Utagawa Hiroshige used the then preferred medium of ukiyo-e woodblock printing to create “The Fifty-three Stages of the Tokaido.” The exhibition includes digital prints of Mizuki’s humorous re-working of this famous series. Punningly titled “The Fifty-three Stages of the Yokaido,” it shows Hiroshige’s famous road scenes now adorned with Mizuki’s equally famous yokai characters.
“The World of Mizuki Shigeru” at Yume Art Museum runs till Jan. 23; admission ¥500; open 10 a.m.-7 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.yumebi.com (Japanese only).