In the mid-1950s, strange symptoms swept through Minamata in Kyushu, the southernmost island in Japan. Fish died, cats became manic, and children started developing neurological issues like trouble speaking and walking. It all originated with the Chissa chemical factory and its waste disposal into the surrounding waters. Sean Michael Wilson and Akiko Shimojima’s comic, The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy, tells the story of this disease, the stigma surrounding it, and the survivors who are still alive today.
The story mainly takes place in the present day as university student Tomi comes home one day with a new assignment: researching Minamata Disease. What Tomi doesn’t know until then is that his grandmother and mother are from Minamata and never talked about it because of the stigma that arose from the general fear that the disease was contagious. Instead, it was contracted from fish that were contaminated from the toxins in the waters. Tomi asks his grandmother for more information about the disease and life in Minamata, which leads to the two of them traveling to Minamata to visit a home for survivors and a doctor who has been treating patients with the disease for a long time.
The illustrations in the book are helpful in showing how the disease started and the ways in which fish and cats were affected. After the cats died out, rats became the next group of animals to suffer from the toxins. The survivors at the residential home recall the influx of rats back in the 1950s and how they, too, became manic. There’s something about a dancing rat that may be better conveyed through illustrations than words.
The story may seem removed from American audiences, especially students who would seem to be the target readership—clouded by time, cultural and geographical distance—but if the current pandemic has taught us anything, cautionary tales need to be taken as you find them.