When Manga Gets Real – Mostly Manga, and Me

David Wybenga, a JCMU English Language instructor in Hikone, has been drawn to Japanese comics, or manga, ever since he was a child. For #5 in his series “Mostly Manga, and Me,” David discusses the biographies in manga, many of which remain influential well beyond the world of graphic novels.


When I was an elementary school student in 4th or 5th grade, my teacher organized a reading contest. We’d go to the library and choose books to read.  After reading them we’d give a verbal summary to the teacher and then get a point on a chart for each book read. To get more points I had to expand beyond the picture book section of the library, and I discovered reading biographies. To this day I remember reading biographies of Davy Crocket, George Washington Carver and Anne Frank. I found something extra exciting about reading about the adventures and exploits of real people.

That sentiment has continued throughout my reading life and I am always excited when I discover a new biography in manga, and even more exciting – an autobiography. For this article I want to briefly review 5 of my favorite autobiographical manga. Each one has an amazing and unique insight to Japanese culture that you would find nowhere else but in these manga. These are books I would recommend specifically to adults due to their mature or darker themes.  All are available in English.

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Disappearance Diary
by Hideo Azuma

Mr. Azuma (sometimes written Aduma) has had a successful career as manga artist, along with his wife who was his assistant.  For a period of time his niche was in such high demand that the daily pressure from his various editors pushed him over the edge. He literally walked out one day for a pack of cigarettes and didn’t come back. He spent weeks drinking, sleeping in fields and then eventually taking day labor jobs in order to avoid coming back home and facing his life. Eventually, through a series of events, he did come home. And then he wrote a manga about it. Disappearance Diary is a fascinating look at the social phenomena of people who drop out.

What is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko

Igarashi Megumi uses the name Rokudenashiko (good-for-nothing girl) for her artistic endeavours. You may have read or heard about her in the English media. Her story was once told by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Ms. Igarashi created all kinds of comical art of her particular body part. I’ll leave the details for those interested to go read her manga. She was arrested twice on obscenity changes.  In her book, the story in manga is interspersed with short written essays on cultural details and the law.  Thoroughly unique, educational and fascinating.

shigeru-mizuki
NonNonBa
by Mizuki Shigeru
Onwards Towards our Noble Deaths by Mizuki Shigeru

Mr. Shigeru is a legend and iconic figure who passed away at the age of 93, in 2015. Along with Tezuka Osamu, he is one of the most well known and influential of all manga artists. His prolific work spans many genres and is read literally among all ages. In spite of this, he was in his mid to late 80s before his work found significant English translation. Among them I want to refer to two of seminal autobiographical works. NonNonBa is the telling of the influence of his grandmother on him when he was a little boy. According to him, she was strong, and strict and full of strange stories of Japanese legendary magical creatures called Yokai. Her stories shaped his imagination and built his interest in these supernatural characters, of which he became the leading national expert.

His second book that I want to mention is a classic. Onwards Towards our Noble Deaths tells the true WWII story of Mizuki in Papua New Guinea. In sufferable conditions, and under confusing orders, Mizuki’s troop is devastated and nearly everyone is killed. Mizuki himself lost his arm and against the orders of his superiors, managed to survive. His techniques make use of both surrealism and hyper-realism. The resulting dream-like state is eerily chilling.

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Doing Time by Kazuichi Hanawa

Mr. Hanawa wrote a number of horror and dark fantasy stories, many of which were published in the alternative manga magazine GARO. As far as I know, this is his only autobiographical work. In contrast, the art style in Doing Time is drawn in a very realistic style and quite dissimilar to his other comics. Mr. Hanawa collected model guns, some of which were converted to shoot, so he could enjoy target practice. He broke a number of laws in the process. He was arrested, convicted and sent to prison.  In this manga we see up close the day-to-day life of a prisoner in Japan. This is a story that is surprising in every way.  In all my reading about Japan, or in watching many films, I have never encountered this kind of story.

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These 5 books may not be easy to find but they are well worth searching out.  If you want to explore the edges of Japanese society, these books will school you more than the best of documentaries. Topics of art, the law and obscenity, alcoholism and dropping out, a storytelling grand mom, the savageness of war, and time in prison can all be found in manga (for adults). Read well and enjoy. If you have any reactions, feel free to post here or send me a note.

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