Showa: almost a century of weird

25 01 2016
I have just finished reading Shigeru Mizuki’s three-part manga epic “Showa,” a history of Japan from the 1920s through to to the death of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously re-named “Showa,” in 1989. What struck me on reading the volumes was how Japan’s progress in our lifetime, which I had assumed to be a stable and placid accumulation of wealth from the end of the war until the burst of the bubble was actually much more dramatic; there were Communist plots, recessions, terrorist outbreaks and assassinations. But also covered in the book are a selection of some of the bizarre fads and shocking crimes which captured the public imagination, and various strange figures who surfed the Showa zeitigeist.
For example in  1977 craze for marine dinosaurs swept the nation after a Japanese trawler discovered a supposed plesiosaur off New Zealand in 1977, known as the Zuiyo-maru corpse.
Elsewhere there is the strange story of the “Fiend with Twenty Faces” extortionist who poisoned candies on shop shelves around Japan and tried to blackmail their manufacturers for millions, all the while leaving taunting cryptic messages with the press, and the emergence of the hedonistic “Sun-zoku” 1950s youth tribe who dressed in bright-coloured prints and aspired to be bourgeois playboys, inspired by a racy novel by later-Governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara. A decade and a half later the “futen-zoku”, Japanese hippies, set up camp in Shinjuku where they apparently slept in bushes outside Shinjuku station and transformed parts of the district into their own Haight-Ashbury.
Three Japanese soldiers emerged from the jungles of the South Pacific in the 1970s, where they had been living since World War Two, either unwilling to believe that the war was over or simply at a loss as to what to do next. One soldier, on return to Japan, found himself disoriented and disappointed by the direction in which Japanese society had moved, and promptly moved to Brazil. Another, an indigenous Taiwanese villager who had been recruited when that island was a Japanese colony, could speak neither Japanese nor Chinese and died in Taiwan just a few years later of lung cancer.
In the 1980s Issei Sagawa became an unlikely (and unsavoury) celebrity after killing, cooking and eating a Dutch girl and evading the justice system, spending only eight months in an institution before he was released to do the morning talk show circuit, promoting his new cookbook and writing restaurant reviews(!) along the way. He lives freely in Tokyo to this day.
There are plenty of strange occurrences in the Showa era that aren’t captured in the book too: a 1984 frilled neck lizard “boom” after the Australian creature was featured in a Mitsubishi television commercial, seismic appetites for tirimasu and red wine which erupted and then evaporated shortly after and the later 2008 banana diet which swept the country.

Showa on show

3 07 2015

My current book, Showa, is a part-history, part-memoir graphic novel from Shigeru Mizuki, sometimes credited as the inventor of the “gekiga” or “serious comic”, a genre with which I have become increasingly obsessed this year.

Apparently, he is a household name in Japan, best known for his tales of yokai, the various and sometimes bizarre creatures that people Japan’s supernatural world, and which also make a few fleeting and interesting appearances in this book.

Showa though, as its name implies, is more focused on history – the Showa era where Japan, under Emperor Hirihito (renamed Showa after his death) lead Japan into the disastrous World War. It is an interesting document – honest about Japan’s wars, intrigues and atrocities in China, illuminating about the turbulence of its domestic politics ( I had no idea, for example, that there was a virtual civil war in Tokyo in 1937 after numerous attempted coup d’etat) and also possessed of a warm human touch as it tells the tale of the author’s own life, growing up in small town Japan.

Occasionally it also veers off to decribe sensation events of popular crazes of the day ( the excitement of donuts hitting Japan for the first time, the sensational murder case on which film “In the Realm of the Senses” was based and the fascinating true stories of Yoshiko Okada, a Japanese film star who made a misguided and idealistic defection to the Soviet Union and was promptly imprisoned, and Yoshiko Kawashima, a Qing princess who worked as a cross-dressing spy for the Japanese in Shanghai in the 1930s.)

All of this makes it an engrossing read and I am now looking forward to Volume 2 – covering the war years – which I had at first avoided due to its no-doubt-dark nature.