At age 82, Shigeru Mizuki (above) is undoubtedly among the most popular — and certainly one of the longest-standing — cartoon artists in Japan. There is probably no Japanese adult who is not familiar with his name, or who has not at least glanced at the voluminous comics/animation series “Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro,” for which he is best known.

The cartoon, in which a one-eyed, orphaned ghoul named Kitaro fights with monsters from around the world, epitomizes Mizuki’s avid interest in yokai (goblins). But even though most of his works are characterized as “horror manga” — a genre he himself is pretty much responsible for creating — Mizuki still somehow manages to retain charming, goofy-funny qualities in a lot of his characters.

Mizuki’s success in breathing life into creatures previously widely dismissed as merely grotesque or otherworldly, might have been attributable to his childhood.

Born on the Sea of Japan coast in Sakaiminato, Tottori Prefecture, as the second of three sons, Mizuki, whose real name is Shigeru Mura, was always a curious, freewheeling kid. He loved eating, drawing and day-dreaming about regional monsters he heard about from “Non-non-ba,” his nickname for an old local woman who believed wholeheartedly in ghosts and often shared her monster-ridden folktales with Mizuki.

One thing that Mizuki couldn’t be freewheeling about, though, was serving in the military. In 1942, as Japan’s fortunes in World War II were fast taking a turn for the worse, he was drafted as a 21-year-old into the Imperial Japanese Army and sent off to Rabaul [a city on New Britain Island, now part of Papua New Guinea], where he saw real monsters — or rather, Hell.

There, he saw comrades killed in bombings and dying of diseases. Some also killed themsleves out of despair. Then when Mizuki himself contracted malaria and was hovering on the brink of death, his left arm was blown off in an air raid by the Allied forces and the stump soon became infested with maggots.

Today, six decades after after his miraculous return to Japan, and nearly four decades after his first big break as a cartoon artist, Mizuki is active both as a storyteller of his wartime experiences and as a working cartoon artist.

Although he now delegates some of the illustrating work to three assistants, Mizuki still draws with the same fervor, making sure he puts the finishing touches to every one of his team’s creations himself.

Despite his age and busy schedule, Mizuki recently took time out to talk to The Japan Times about his childhood and his interest in the ghostly world. Pulling no punches, the result is a vivid account of life as a frontline soldier, of Mizuki’s friendship with tribespeople in New Guinea — and a powerful, personal and frank exposition on war itself. The interview, which took place recently at Mizuki’s studio in Chofu City, Tokyo, is powerful testimony that one’s memories of something as cataclysmic as war do not fade despite the passage of six decades.

What kind of child were you when you were growing up?

When I was little, I didn’t do things except things I was interested in. Things that adults would be impressed at seeing, I never did. I would ignore directions from adults, unlike my elder and younger brothers, who listened to them. They were good students, though they didn’t succeed (laugh). Good students don’t succeed. Sensei (Mizuki) scored poorly in school. I missed the first class every day, because I couldn’t get up early in the morning. So I scored zero in math tests, because math classes were held the first thing in the morning and I skipped virtually all those classes. So I was called an idiot all the time. Still, I wouldn’t listen to what adults said; instead, I carried on doing what I liked — drawing.

You also liked daydreaming, too, didn’t you?

Yes. I have been the same ever since. I have been the same ever since I was 4 or 5.

But you were healthy and liked fights, I believe.

Yes. I have always been healthy, and have hardly experienced any illness in my life. The only illness I have had that I can think of, except for occasional colds, is malaria, which I suffered during the war.

Was it also during your childhood that you became interested in yokai ghouls?

Yes, yes . . . (Non-non-ba) knew a lot about yokai . . . but my knowledge of ghouls mostly came later, from reading the works of [folklore researcher] Kunio Yanagida. The ones I heard about from Non-non-ba were limited to traditional ghouls like akaname (a monster who would appear and lick the scum off wooden bathtubs if they were not well cleaned) . . . yokai were much more active back in the Edo Period.

They say yokai disappeared as electric lights came in. Monsters prospered in the pre-electricity days, when people used andon (a standing lantern with a wooden frame and paper shade) and oil lamps. Electricity was too bright for yokai to survive. The darkness, with a touch of light like that of paper lanterns and oil lamps, was great for yokai, and it inspired people to imagine yokai.

In New Guinea, old people believed yokai were really alive because there was no electricity. In fact, when I was there I asked the people to let me see “the head yokai,” who supposedly lived in the river. They were dead serious as they woke me up in the middle of the night and took me there, pointing to a certain location, shouting “there it is!” I couldn’t see anything. Electricity is dangerous. Not many people say this, but it’s absolutely the electricity that made yokai vanish.

You mean electricity made yokai vanish from people’s imaginations?

No, it’s not imagination . . . The ambience of electric lights is bad for yokai. Andon and lamps are fine, even candles are, as long as there is plenty of darkness. Babies nowadays don’t scream, “Yokai!” Before, they did. There were yokai everywhere, and that was probably because of andon and lamps.

After you graduated from school, you were drafted into the military. What was life like when you first joined the army?

I was always tense, worried I might be slapped in the face any minute. The superiors would slap me for just having a weird look, or for no reason. I was slapped all the time. I was not a serious soldier. I didn’t respond to superiors’ orders quickly enough.

In Tottori, where I was first posted, my job was to play the trumpet. I couldn’t play it, so I was forced to run around the grounds all the time. It was so tough. I asked my trumpet unit boss how I could be released from the assignment, and he told me to ask the head of the personnel unit. So I went to the personnel unit, and the officer there asked me: “Which would you prefer, South or North?” When I said South, I was sent to Rabaul [then a major Japanese wartime garrison]. If I had played the trumpet without complaining, I could have stayed on in Japan. Because I was a whiner, I was sent overseas.

On our way out to Palau, the ship we took was modern, fast and of good quality. But from Palau to Rabaul, we transfered onto one called the Shinanomaru, which was known for having spotted an enemy vessel during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). It was so old it could’ve been sunk anytime; it moved so slowly. The day after reaching Rabaul, on its way back, the ship was attacked by an enemy submarine and sunk. And the crew members all died.

Was that the first time you felt death creeping up on you during the war?

No, you feel death already when you receive the call-up papers. But the threat of death comes in five levels. On the first level, it is abstract. But as you go along, it becomes more specific. You go out to an area where some of your forces are in contact with the enemy. Then you form a group of 10 soldiers and go and meet your enemy. Once, in Rabaul, when I was on sentry duty, my job was to watch for enemy ships out on the ocean with a telescope. But instead of watching the enemy, I watched the parrots . . . I was amazed how beautiful the parrots were. I was still admiring them when the time came to wake everybody else up, so I was late by two or three minutes. But that ended up saving my life.

Over there, at 5 or 6 in the morning, the sun would suddenly rise, and right before dawn was considered the best time for an attack. So when I started walking back to where the rest of our soldiers were asleep, the enemy was already in position, holding their breath waiting to kill all of us, including me. But because I was admiring parrots, I was late and wasn’t with the others when the enemy started shooting. So I immediately fled instead of going back to our group. I was the only one who survived without injury. Two or three others survived, but got wounded. The rest were killed.

Was that the first time you saw your fellow soldiers die in the war?

I didn’t see them. Our barracks was about 50 meters away, and I didn’t look back; I was running at top speed, like 100 meters in 10 seconds. A half-hour or an hour later, I realized the bottom of my sturdy military boots had come off, because I was running on the corals. That must tell you how desperate I was, and how fast I fled (laugh).

I’ve read in your autobiographical comics that you once swam in the ocean all day long.

Yes. That was after my escape. The native tribespeople approached me, offering help, but I was suspicious and decided to flee back to our camp by swimming. It was a long distance. Maybe I didn’t have to be that scared of the natives. I could’ve been saved.

Were the locals on the side of the enemy?

I couldn’t tell which side they were on. It was better to be wary.

Did you see the Allied forces up close?

Well, maybe during the Russo-Japanese War you had a chance to “see” the enemy forces, but in the Pacific War, the moment you met the enemy you knew whether you were dead or alive. It was that fast. That’s why when I was a sentry on the front line along with about 10 soldiers and the enemy came from behind, everyone was pretty much killed except for me. I guess I was unluckily assigned to the most dangerous area. Rabaul is said to have had 100,000 Japanese soldiers, but inland there wasn’t much fighting, except for air raids. The fighting took place only in places where our forces came into contact with the enemy.

Your autobiography touches on pi-ya (brothels where so-called comfort women provided sex to soldiers) in New Guinea. Were there many brothels there?

In my recollection, pi-ya existed in New Guinea before the enemy forces came, when it was more peaceful.

When we got there, there was nothing. They couldn’t be placed in dangerous combat zones. They were probably there before I was sent. I might have spotted one once, but not so often. Where we were was too dangerous.

So was it only talked about among the soldiers?

Yes, but when the enemy was around, when we moved from one dangerous zone to another, we barely talked about anything.

It was after you contracted malaria and were bedridden that you lost your left arm during a bombing raid. What was that like?

I completely forgot myself. The moment I was hit, the pain was so fierce that I shrieked — but then the next moment, I forgot everything. People say that, when you are bombed, time becomes frozen, and the place turns into a vacuum. Your memory is temporarily lost, and you go into a different world when the bombing takes place right by you.

But you made a miraculous recovery, didn’t you?

Yes. Well, in that sense, I guess I’ve been a little lucky.

It’s also interesting that you became friends with the native Tolai people.

When I was in the military, I was forced to work hard. But after I lost my arm, I couldn’t perform my duties, so I became relatively free. Because I had free time, I went into the woods and became friends with them.

Why do you think you were able to make friends with them?

We talked. They spoke the Pidgin language, which is close to English, and I had memorized Pidgin, so we could communicate. We became so close that, when I was about to return to Japan, the Tolais urged me to stay. They said they would give me a farm, a house — even a bride! There was this grandma-type woman who was particularly keen. First I thought it was a joke, but they were so serious, so I started thinking about being discharged from the military there. So I asked my military doctor. He said, “It’s fine, but why don’t you go back to Japan and see the faces of your father and mother first?” I was convinced and came back here, but then I found Japan under [Douglas] MacArthur’s reign, and there was no way I could go back to New Guinea soon. And that’s how the relationship ended.

However, you did eventually have a reunion with those tribespeople, didn’t you?

Yes, much much later. They hadn’t changed at all.

Obviously, if you had stayed, your life would have been completely different.

Yes, I would’ve been able to live like a king, I’m pretty sure. With a lot of land.

In retrospect, why do you think Japan lost World War II?

Japan should’ve cool-headedly observed the United States. We didn’t have a deep understanding of what the U.S. meant, its national strength, and instead kept our perception vague. We had this weird illusion that we could win the war with just our yamatodamashi [Japanese spirit], paying only a little attention to the material aspects of the war. We were punished for that. The high-ranking officials relied too much on the trivial stuff like spirituality. National strength and material power are much bigger things than that — but we only learned that after losing the war (laugh).

When you say national strength, do you mean economic power?

Yes. One example was the food situation on Guadalcanal [an island in the Solomons that was the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the Pacific War]. In Rabaul, supplies were scarce, but we at least had enough food, and we received enough rice to fill more than half our hango [mess tin], plus potatoes and stuff. They were aware that food was the source of our stamina. On Guadalcanal, Japan lost because it had its food route blocked off and the soldiers were not fed properly. You must eat (laugh).

Your older brother, who was in charge of anti-aircraft guns in New Guinea, became a class-B war criminal for ordering his subordinates, under instructions from superior officers, to execute prisoners of war. How do you feel about that?

The enemy forces were very uptight about killing POWs, but we didn’t necessarily feel the same. Soldiers become POWs when they surrender, but the problem was that we then had to feed them. How can we feed the prisoners when we can’t even feed our own soldiers? But they didn’t seem to understand that, so they punished my brother. But feeding someone else was such a big deal, when our own forces were struggling for food.

Did your brother have difficulty making a living after he served his time in prison?

He became a regular sarariman after he came out.

Do you feel it was wrong that your brother was convicted of war crimes?

Being a war criminal . . . didn’t mean much during those times.

So people didn’t treat him badly?

Of course in newspapers, they were presented as problems, but in day-to-day life, it wasn’t a big deal, because anyone — if assigned to certain positions — would have become a war criminal.

After the war, as you developed a career as a cartoonist, a lot of the topics you covered were related to Japan’s military history. Why?

Because it was interesting. Back then, there was a genre of those kind of stories, many of which were drawn by returning soldiers. Because they were interesting, and because they were familiar to me, they were easy to draw.

You’ve became a star cartoonist with a series of yokai works, such as “Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro,” but you have also drawn Hitler’s biography. What made you interested in Hitler?

The fact that he was a dictator and a manipulator interested me. After all, he had the power to attract people. He was popular because he was an eloquent speaker. He failed in conquering Russia, but what went wrong was that he did not grasp Russia’s national strength adequately. Japan lost because it did not grasp the U.S. national strength adequately. The Japanese people believed they could beat America back then, but to me that was a far-fetched belief. We had such a poor understanding of America’s strength. Germany didn’t know Russia’s strength either.

What do you think about Japan today? Japan has enjoyed peace for the last six decades, albeit in a security alliance with the United States.

Japan lost to America, so it is complying with its orders. Japan belongs to America. It’s that simple. Japan, on its surface, might be an independent country, but in reality it’s a U.S. state.

Is that good or bad?

If we can live peacefully, that’s OK, I think. Compared to the times when we had to be at war all the time, I think it’s safer today, so it’s good.

What is a typical day like for you?

Normal. After getting up at 9 a.m., I go to sleep at 10 or 11 p.m. I must sleep at least 10 hours every day.

Well, that might be one of the keys to living a long life. What are the other keys?

Enough sleep. People tend to scorn people who sleep a lot, and we have the expression, damin wo musaboru [literally, “sleep lazily,” but actually meaning, “idling your time away”], but that’s not good. Sleep is important — for your health, your brain, everything. I slept so much that I kept missing the morning classes in school, but sleeping well and living long is not bad at all.

At 82, what are your dreams in life?

Dreams? No! My only hope is to live longer, if only for another year or two. You are too greedy if you have dreams at my age.

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