Read a Random Post

Nonnonba (review)

Writer/Artist : Shigeru Mizuki

Translator : Jocelyne Allen

Published by : Drawn & Quarterly

Year : 2019 (Original Japanese text: 1977)

Time and time again we are reminded of how the past has been building up into our present, the structure of lost events being reproduced into the ever-changing and ever-still momentum of the “here and now”. Memories rise to the surface of not just our own personal experience, but also as a recurring dream (sometimes a nightmare) that shakes the foundations of our culture – the one we live in and which is, of course, the product of eons of different minds cohabiting in the same space and in different times.

Because of the interdependence of past and present (and future, if we are to believe – as we should – that “now” is an element that functions in relation to a “later” we care about) it comes out as natural, then, that old ideas are allowed to seep into a world we would like to deem as detached from what came before as possible. We fear, perhaps, the sin of being “old”, as in “old-fashioned”, in opposition to “modern”.

Such a deep cut between present and past is felt as a biological element that is part of the division between a culture inhabited by ghosts and spirits, and a modernity that is immersed in the everyday squalor of a life that bears upon us with the natural necessity of death even at a young age. The beauty of progress, for instance, becomes a statement concerning the irreparable detachment from a life too tiresome to be lived fully and the hopes and dreams of living in a world that is different from ours. Yet, do such spirits actually exist, a universe coexisting not just with but even in ours, as if hidden and apparent at the same time, as long as our eyes are attuned to it?

Such, then, in this manga entitled NonnoBa, is the question that the main protagonist , Mizuki’s alter ego, takes from spending time with NonnonBa, his grandmother. It is possible to learn of another world, of course, inhabited by spirits and ghosts (and much more), that can be understood if (and only if) the right tools to interpret it are learned. Yet, whether such world is real, as in tangible, or simply existing as a land of imagination, is something left to the reader to decide, and in its loss of clarity what we see is the beauty of the tale Mizuki is asking us to read with him. Memory, thus, becomes the way spirits are passed down from generation to generation, not through the discipline of rote learning, but thanks to the curiosity that blossoms in each of us as to what actually lies behind the trees when the moon is high and stars play hide-and-seek with a few passing clouds.

Yet, the world of yokai is not the only object of Mizuki’s memoir. Revisiting the past is, in this case, the chance to retrace the steps that led to the formation of the adult, as school, classmates, first (and tragic) loves, death, a father who cannot keep a job (not because he does not want to work), and poverty (accompanied, sometimes, by modern slavery), all of this set in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, coincide in forging a lost world which is the point from which the mangaka started and to which he feels he has to go back to, as if, memories being more concrete than we might be led to believe, something needed to be (re)told so to cauterize that very cut, in its biological abstractness, that is formed by the decisions we took when living in the unripe season of our youth.

NonnonBa, then, is part of Mizuki’s journey through his life-experiences (see, for instance, his Showa series, or his Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths [Editor’s note: the subject of a previous review –]).

By establishing the necessity of there being a dialogue between past and present (and, let us state it once again, future), the light of self-analysis becomes apparent not only for the subjective will of the artist (Mizuki reads himself), but also for the totality of the culture the book is immersed in (the self-analysis of Japan).

It creates an everlasting dialogue that transcends the boundary of its original borders (Japan) and enters the interrelationship that is the foundation of any product/producer of any human society.

We see ourselves, in other words, on the pages of this book, and thanks to it we reach one of the many points of the eternal journey of and through time.

The following is an interview with Jocelyne Allen, the translator of the wonderful English version of NonNonBa.

G.N. : How did you approach the translation of this book? The book, in fact, is full of cultural elements that need to be properly explained to readers who are not well versed in the vast cosmos of Japanese spirits and monsters.

J. A. : While there are a lot of specific cultural elements in the book, I tend to have faith in the reader’s ability to understand most of these things from the story and the surrounding context. There are notes, of course, to give more information if readers are interested, but I think most readers can accept that this is the world of the story when they encounter the setting of Showa-era Japan. Modern Japanese readers of the book are also fairly removed from the world depicted in the book, so I don’t think the setting is such a hurdle for English readers. They can still approach the book and have a similar experience to a Japanese reader. 

G. N. : There is another layer of “culture”, that is, the context the book is set in. What would you say there is an interplay between a Japan that is entering a new century and a Japan that is still linked to its old ways of thinking? Do present and past collide?

J. A. : There’s definitely an element of past and future colliding. The Showa era was very long and saw Japan move away from traditional ways of living through militarization and war and finally to the post-war rebuilding that saw the country grow into a global economic power. Mizuki often took up this period of change in his work, and I think he does give us a little slice of that in NonNonBa, especially in the characters of NonNonBa herself and his father. She’s very much part of the old, traditional world of ghosts and superstition, while he’s looking to the future, with the cinema and his daydreaming.

G. N. : Would you say that books like this one show that there is a difference between cultures, a difference no bridge can unite, or that we share the same characteristics, just under different colours? Can non-Japanese readers understand the novel or are they left wondering what it is all about?

J. A : I think books like this show how much we are the same, despite any surface cultural differences. Shigeru and his family go through the same things that we all go through, experience emotions we can all recognize, and live lives that are familiar deep down even while they are unfamiliar in terms of superficial detail. We have all been children and experienced the different losses and changes that growing up brings, and I think that makes a book like this very relatable, even if you personally have never eaten okazu or been to a temple or encountered a yokai.

G. N. : The character of the father is interesting as he allows the mangaka to introduce the idea of cinema. Do you think Mizuki is trying to show us how imagination can metamorphose through time (and technological progress), yet remain the same need for entering a different reality? In other words, would you say there is a link between NonNonBa’s tales of spirits and ghosts and cinema’s storytelling and its creation of “parallel worlds”?

J. A. : That’s an interesting idea! As I said before, I think Mizuki uses the cinema as a kind of harbinger of the future, a way to join it to the past and show how little Shigeru’s world is changing and will continue to change in the future. But yes, I do agree that he also uses it as a way to talk about creation and creativity, and how these change through time as our society changes and we gain new outlets of expression. I think the ghostly non-reality of cinema definitely has a parallel with the world of actual ghosts, and shows that we are always looking for more, something beyond ourselves as human being. 

G. N. :  Would you say NonNonBa’s world still exists today? Do Japanese still tell each other these tales, do they still talk about spirits and ghosts, or do they see these traditions as part of a past they feel disconnected from?

J. A. : NonNonBa’s world has largely died out. There are pockets of storytellers here and there. Tanabe Seia, for instance, is a modern author of spooky stories that draw heavily on Japanese folklore and traditions. She’s also a bit of a folklorist, collecting urban legends and ghost stories from people around the country. But for the most part, people are watching the dramas on TV and going to the cinema to fulfill that urge for stories. I think it’s pretty much the same as it is in most countries. Most people have a general idea of the superstitions and stories of the past, some believe them more than others, but those superstitions have little to do with everyday life.