The rest of the world knew him as Hirohito, but to his subjects he was always just “the Emperor.” Known posthumously as Showa, Japan’s 124th monarch reigned for over 60 years, during which he would be witness to both the best and worst of times.

Showa: A History of Japan 1926-1939, by Shigeru Mizuki.
Rating: ★★★★

Assuming the throne on Christmas Day in 1926, Hirohito found a country still reeling from the devastation unleashed by the Great Kanto Earthquake three years earlier. By the time he succumbed to cancer in early 1989, at the age of 87, the Showa Era had seen Japan cycle through a number of different guises, moving from military aggressor to committed peacenik, plucky rebuilder to economic powerhouse.

That the Emperor’s demise coincided almost perfectly with the collapse of the Bubble Economy lent it even greater significance. It was the end of an epoch: The era that bore Showa’s name had come to define 20th-century Japan in the same way that Queen Victoria had for 19th-century Britain.

Just months before Hirohito’s death, manga artist Shigeru Mizuki published the first part of a remarkable manga chronicle of the Emperor’s reign. “Showa: A History of Japan” would end up spanning eight volumes, blending the factual detail of a high school textbook with acerbic commentary and personal reminiscences. Twenty-five years after their original publication, the first two volumes are now available in a single, chunky tome released by Drawn & Quarterly, the Canadian publishing house that has recently begun introducing Mizuki’s work to an English-speaking audience.

In Japan, of course, Mizuki doesn’t need any introduction. Now 91, he is probably the country’s most famous living mangaka (manga artist), and definitely one of its most distinctive. He’s best known, of course, for his work featuring yokai, the monsters, shape-shifters and miscellaneous supernatural beings of Japanese folklore. Mizuki would draw on this rich tradition — a source of fascination since his childhood — to furnish the cast of his most famous series, “Gegege no Kitaro,” though it’s been a running theme throughout his career.

Drawn & Quarterly published a selection of strips from that series in last year’s “Kitaro,” but for its first foray into Mizuki’s catalog, it chose an altogether different starting point. “Onward Towards Our Beautiful Deaths” (2011) — originally released in Japanese in 1973 — was a largely autobiographical account of the author’s experiences as a conscript during the final, most suicidal phase of the Pacific War. Mizuki lost an arm in the conflict, and his anger rippled through the pages of this bleak, mordantly funny tale of a battalion hurtling towards its bloody demise.

By comparison, “Showa: A History of Japan” is rather more measured. Mizuki’s grand overview of the era alternates between sections of wry personal memoir and more straightforward history, though even the latter is dispensed with an admirable lightness of touch.

A prologue recounting the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 sets the tone. Mizuki depicts key events with realistic, intensely detailed artwork, much of it based on famous photographs from the era. (His ordinary folk, by contrast, bear far closer resemblance to the stylized caricatures of “Kitaro” et al.)

As if to punctuate the onslaught of names and dates, unnamed characters pop up at various points to discuss the unfurling events, like a Greek chorus. They’re joined by Mizuki’s beloved Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), a key character from the “Kitaro” series, who acts here as a stand-in for the author himself, lacing the narrative with factual details and caustic asides. “There is war everywhere,” he observes during a chapter on the Mukden Incident of 1931, which supplied the pretext for Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. “The only ones who see any appeal in this are kids and soldiers, I would think.”

Mizuki was 4 years old at the start of the Showa Era, meaning that his reminiscences are often of a tangential nature. While Japan’s leaders were deliberating the London Naval Treaty of 1930, he was off hunting bugs and exploring graveyards. As the Lugou (Marco Polo) Bridge Incident sent Japan and China hurtling into full-scale conflict in 1937, he was too busy getting sacked from multiple teenage jobs to notice.

At other times, the narratives intersect more closely: even children in rural Tottori Prefecture couldn’t help but be affected by nationwide food shortages in the early 1930s, or the country’s fervent embrace of militarization. In a chapter titled “The Great Kids’ War,” Mizuki recalls the brawls between rival gangs of children with all the exuberance of a boys’ own adventure yarn. Only in the final page does he reveal how these scraps reflected the national mood: “Everyone loved soldiers. Battle hymns filled the air all over Japan.”

In the final chapters of the book, this mood inevitably becomes more ominous. Mizuki is unsparing both in his depictions of Japan’s military atrocities — the Nanking Massacre is described as claiming “hundreds of thousands” of victims — and the lurch towards totalitarianism at home. A crackdown on the Communist Party soon spreads to “anyone advocating inconvenient ideas,” including liberal academic Tatsukichi Minobe. Come 1937, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture is asserting that “happiness lies only in absolute submission to the Emperor’s will.”

When the dreaded Hideki Tojo makes an appearance on the final page, it’s clear that there’s far worse to come in the next volume, due out in May this year. “We will do whatever it takes to ensure lasting harmony and stability in Asia,” declares Japan’s soon-to-be prime minister. But Mizuki knows better: “We would soon learn what it meant to truly suffer.”

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