Translated and Sourced from Showa: A History of Japan, Remembering the war in New Guinea, and Other Sources
Mizuki Shigeru is Japan’s most famous living manga artist, and the greatest modern scholar and writer on Japanese folklore and yokai. But he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for a small tribe of Tolai villagers on Rabaul, on the island of New Guinea.
Mizuki Shigeru in WWII
During WWII, like many young men Mizuki Shigeru was drafted into the Army. As great an artist as Mizuki Shigeru is, he was a very poor soldier. And this is what probably saved his life. Because of his poor abilities as a soldier, he was initially assigned to a non-combat position in the bugle corp. But he hated playing the bugle, and in what he describes as one of the worst mistakes of his life, requested a transfer. He was sent to the front in Rabaul as a private in the 229th Infantry Regiment of the 38th Division.
He was constantly being smacked around by his superior officers for slacking off, and being sent on guard duty as punishment. One night when he was stationed far away on guard duty, the Allies attacked and his entire unit was wiped out. Only Mizuki Shigeru survived. Alone and on the run, he had his first encounter with the natives of New Guinea. And it wasn’t a friendly encounter. He was attacked by villagers who most likely planned to turn him into the Allies.
After a harrowing escape, he made his way to a Japanese base, where he was treated as a deserter. Assigned to a unit for a Suicide Charge, his life was saved again by a terrifying case of malaria. While being treated, his hospital was bombed and he lost his arm.
Mizuki Shigeru and Topetoro
While he was recovering from malaria and his lost limb, Mizuki Shigeru would often go for walks, dodging Allied strafing attacks. One walk he found a Tolai village tribe. They were cooking dinner, and Mizuki was so hungry he just sat down and started eating with them.
Here’s how Mizuki described it himself in an interview.
“Villagers used to live in a nice spot on top of the hills. Australian [planes] did not attack their villages. I used to visit their villages quite often. But when I went to their place, [Allied] planes used to appear in the sky. Then the villagers told me to go back to my camp. In fact, when I was walking alone on the trail, I was often strafed by the planes. I was wondering why they shot at me. They said that even if only one man was walking, the pilot could see him. They shot at me even when I was alone. Then I tried to be careful not to attract their attention. But they did not shoot villagers. So Japanese were hiding in holes. The Japanese killed a village chieftain, so villagers did not like us. But personally, I made good friends with them. When I first visited a village, I saw an old woman and I smiled at her, and she smiled back. She welcomed me. But I think now that she just sympathized with me, because I had only one arm. Now I think she just wanted to give me some food or something. Her name was Ikarian. “
Mizuki continued visiting Ikarian and her children, the boy Topetoro and the girl Epupe. He loved their lifestyle, their connection with the spirits and nature, and most of all their Shin Shin dance rituals. With the Tolai people, he found the yokai paradise he always dreamed of.
The Tolai accepted Mizuki as one of their own. They called him “Paul,” after one of the names in the Bible left behind by Christian missionaries, and he referred to them as “The People of the Forest.” The Tolai saved his life, keeping him supplied with food to make his body strong during bouts of malaria that killed his fellow soldiers. Epupe in particular loved Mizuki, and even tried to interfere in one of the many beatings Mizuki received from his superior officers. “Paul is Number One!” she shouted angrily in her broken English, not realizing how lowly Mizuki actually was amongst his own people.
He relationship with the Tolai was so close he almost deserted at the end of the war to go and live with them. Ikarian, Topetoro, and Epupe made him a garden patch, and were planning to build him a house.
“I started visiting her village more often, and I became like a member of her family. They looked after me well. They gave me fruit, and when I was sick in bed with malaria, they came to see me in the camp. When the war finished, they told me to run away from the army and come to live in their village. They make gardens, and their gardens are ready for harvesting very quickly. They told me that they would make a garden for me and build a house for me. They said they would look after me. So they told me to live with them. Ikarian told me to escape from the army. They were so keen. As I used to go to their village many times and had seen their life style, which looked very easy, much easier than the life in Japan. I used to think that village life was nice. And they were so keen to persuade me to escape from the army. I thought that it was not a bad idea. I thought I would not have to work so much. I could stay in bed all the time. I seriously thought about leaving the army there.”
Mizuki seriously considered their offer, and consulted with an army surgeon.
“I talked with an army surgeon. I sought his advice, explaining about the villagers’ invitation. He was very surprised. He was too annoyed to answer my question, but told me that I should see my parents in Japan first; then I could decide what to do. I followed his advice and went back to Japan.”
Along with visiting his parents, the surgeon told Mizuki Shigeru that his arm was not properly healed. The battlefield amputation was flawed (actually performed by a dentist), and he would need to go to a proper hospital in Japan or he could die. Mizuki left his Tolai family with a promise to return in seven years and live out his life in New Guinea. But other things got in the way of his promise.
“But when I went back, Japan was so chaotic under the rule of MacArthur. I had no time to think about returning to Rabaul. I had to live in Japan.”
Mizuki didn’t keep his promise. Life in post-war Japan was hard, and success constantly eluded him. He spent months in a veteran’s hospital waiting for surgery for his arm, and tried his hand at many trades from black market rice dealer to fish monger. Returning to his true love—art—he got work as a kamishibai artist and later transitioned to comic books. After twenty years in Japan, and many failures, Mizuki achieved success as a manga artist.
When his life and finances were finally stable, Mizuki returned to Rabaul and found his old friend Topetoro. His Tolai family had always been waiting for him, and kept his garden and house exactly as promised. Mizuki’s return was a cause for celebration, and the Tolai again performed the Shin Shin dance for him that he so loved.
While Mizuki never did move to live amongst the Tolai, over the following years he would return many times. The boy Topetoro became his lifelong friend.
The Rabaul Comics
Mizuki Shigeru has always treasured his time among the Tolai, and written several comics about Rabaul. Some of these are war comics, like Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, An Account of the War in Rabaul by Mizuki Shigeru (Mizuki Shigeru no Rabauru Senki), and the touching Account of War from Father to Daughter (Mizuki Shigeru no Musume ni Kataru Otosan no Senki) that he wrote for his daughter Etsuko.
A film version was made of his time during the war in Rabaul, called The Noble Death Witnessed by Kitaro (Kitaro Ga Mita Gyokusai).
He honored his friendship with Topetoro with the comic Fifty Years with Topetoro (Topetoro Tono 50 Nen)and wrote an extensive account of his time on Rabaul—both during the war and after—in Showa: A History of Japan.
Artifacts of New Guinea
Mizuki Shigeru not only loved the people and lifestyle, he also loved the yokai of New Guinea. Over the years he compiled a vast collection of New Guinea masks, statues, and artifacts. He made recordings of the songs and dances of the Tolai, and displayed his collection in his home in what was called the Natural History Room by his family. When things were stressful at work, Mizuki would go into his room, play the sounds of New Guinea and drift away in his mind to life among the Tolai, and his friend Topetoro.
Many of Mizuki’s New Guinea artifacts are now displayed in the Mizuki Shigeru Memorial Museum in his hometown of Sakaiminato, Tottori.
In 2003, the people of New Guinea honored Mizuki Shigeru’s long relationship with the Tolai by inaugurating Mizuki Shigeru Road in Rabaul.
Preorder Showa: A History of Japan
You can read all about Mizuki Shigeru’s adventures on Rabaul and life amongst the Tolai—and much, much more—in Showa: A History of Japan.
The first volume is available for pre-order on amazon.com (and probably other places as well).
Mizuki Shigeru’s adventures amongst the Tolai was one of my favorite parts of translating Showa: A History of Japan. Mizuki’s time on Rabaul is both terrifying and touching, and I often found myself getting a bit weepy mid-translation because I was so caught up in the story. It’s pretty powerful.
I was inspired to write this when I found this picture of Mizuki in New Guinea on this blog— the first photograph of this time I have ever seen. Maybe the only one publically available. I looked around but couldn’t find any others. I wanted to post the picture, and figured I better write an article to give it context for those who haven’t yet read Showa: A History of Japan.