NonNonBa is the definitive work by acclaimed Gekiga-ka Shigeru Mizuki, a poetic memoir detailing his interest in yokai (spirit monsters). Mizuki’s childhood experiences with yokai influenced the course of his life and oeuvre; he is now known as the forefather of yokai manga. Within the pages of NonNonBa, Mizuki explores the legacy left him by his childhood explorations of the spirit world, explorations encouraged by his grandmother, a grumpy old woman named NonNonBa. NonNonBa is a touching work about childhood and growing up, as well as a fascinating portrayal of Japan in a moment of transition. - Amazon.com
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Drawn & Quarterly
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Growing up, our world is small, consisting of the neighborhood we grow up in and where our parents decide to take us. The way we view and understand the world is limited to what we have been exposed to, which then limits our understanding and knowledge of what is around us. While this may at first sound like ignorance to an adult, a child may take it as an opportunity. An opportunity to fill in the blanks through the power of imagination. In NonNonBa, young Shigeru Mizuki does exactly that. Growing up in Sakaiminato in the early 20th century before World War II, Mizuki is part of a Japan that is slowly catching up to China and other Western countries, but is still steeped in the old ways and traditions of Japan.
The person who exposes Mizuki the most to the ancient lore and traditions of Japan is the woman this manga is named after, NonNonBa. An old woman who lives in poverty and makes money by working as a maid for Mizuki's family, the old woman becomes the child's best friend. Throughout their friendship, NonNonBa teaches the young Mizuki about yokai. Yokai is a term used to describe certain Japanese monsters and ghosts, though are more ambiguous than what we as Westerners usually perceive as monsters. In Japanese, there are other words that describe ghosts and monsters: bakemono (monsters), mononoke (ghosts) and yurei (ghosts/spirits). The first two words are terms by which yokai are classified, making it even more ambiguous exactly what they may be. Whatever the case, yokai are natural and spiritual forces that, while being dead or neither alive nor dead, are at once beings that are a part of the natural order and disrupt the natural order.
Through the pages of NonNonBa, we learn about the exact sort of madness and mischief that yokai are capable of creating, and through the eyes of the young Mizuki we are exposed to a Japan that is at once modernizing and brimming with spiritual life that makes the country the unique place that it is. Exposed to water-tigers, large stone creatures, and the souls of lost travelers, the young Mizuki, like children in other stories that have come before and after NonNonBa, is able to tap into and interact with the spirit world that is closed off to those adults who don't have the strong faith and child-like spirit NonNonBa still possesses in her old age.
There are many stories that happen throughout the pages of NonNonBa, and many of them lend to painting a picture of a harsh and unforgiving reality that was Japan in the early 20th century (Mizuki covers the travails and tribulations of early 20th century Japan in more detail in his Showa epic), but in the end they never lead to a loss of innocence. If there is any gift NonNonBa gave to the elder Mizuki who wrote this work, it was the gift of never losing a sense of wonder and innocence towards the world. Yokai may make the world a dangerous place, but they also make it an exciting one, enlivening the human predicament and creating a sense of mystery and awe that teaches man to be humble in the face of forces he himself will never tame. NonNonBa is many things: a crash course in Japanese mythology and cultural anthropology, a coming-of-age tale of Mizuki learning about yokai while fighting other young boys in neighborhood wars, and an exhortation to never lose faith in the mystery and adventure that is the world we live in. If nothing else, the world can be a mean and unforgiving place, but yokai bring out that inner child within us, making Japan a wonderful place, even though it may be a little crazy at times.