Tono Monogatari is Shigeru Mizuki’s graphic narrative take on the classic Japanese book of legends, newly translated by Zack Davisson for Drawn & Quarterly. Mizuki (1922-2015) is well known for his work in the gekiga era with his yokai stories as well as his later nonfiction literary work. Tono Monogatari combines the two as Mizuki provides art to the tales collected by Kunio Yanagita and Kizen Sasaki in 1910. It is as fascinating of a read on folklore as it is enjoyable ghost-story manga.
The story behind Tono Monogatari is practically an epic in itself. As Davisson explains in the introductory essay, Japan was in a deep transition in the early twentieth century. Industrialization was sweeping across the country, modernizing it and instilling imperial mandates on scientific mindedness that prompted even yokai to be studied, categorized, and often debunked. Many feared that the culture would be lost, including Kunio Yanagita, an agent for the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce. As he traveled among the countryside of the north, he took it upon himself to write down the stories just as the Brothers Grimm had done decades before in Germany. Joining forces with Tono native and master storyteller Kizen Sasaki, Yanagita published this collection of more than one hundred stories of the Tono region.
Some of the stories are very short, simply descriptions of odd sightings like a sleeping giant in the woods. Others are plot-driven legends several pages long, establishing deep characters and incorporating moral lessons. Many of the lessons are straightforward: do not tamper with spirits or bad things will happen. Just as with the Grimms’ stories, Tono Monogatari tells of the strange beings that wander the mountains and the forests where humans rarely tread. The Japanese tales also show unique culture in the yokai of the village, some being good luck and others ill omens.
Mizuki does more than merely add illustrations to the original prose. Instead, he has converted them to graphic narrative, allowing the art to drive the emotions of the stories while short narrations give context. With the universal appeal of folktales, little context is needed in many cases, such as a woodcutter seeing a ghostly woman in the forest before soon dying from an inexplicable illness. At other points, the stories show insights into Japanese culture, like the mayoi-ga, mysterious beautiful houses that appear in the woods and encourage visitors to take gifts that will bring them prosperity.
In addition to his art, which often combines painstaking detail in settings and backgrounds with Mizuki’s whimsical caricatures as characters, Mizuki adds himself as commentator. His self-portrait is delightful as an older man with a round face and glasses, pondering over the story that has been presented just as the readers are. Through his virtual mouth, Mizuki gives additional comments and transitions between stories, even chatting with Sasaki himself at one point. The experience adds a new level to the reader, inviting them to partake in the mystical side of Tono as Mizuki does, noting at the end, “There’s no question. I must’ve lived in Tono in another life.”