Shigeru Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari has a complicated lineage. During Japan’s rapid modernization in the early 20th century, a man named Kunio Yanagita set out to preserve Japan’s cultural heritage of magic and the supernatural. Along the way, he met a young writer, Kizen Sasaki. Together they traveled Japan’s Tono region, today about five hours northeast of Tokyo by train, recording folktales and evaluating whether they might be true. In 1910, Yanagita published a chronicle of his travels and the stories he collected: Tono Monogatari (“Tales of Tono”). Many Japanese regard Tono Monogatari as a defining text of Japanese folklore, a Japanese equivalent of the tales of the Brothers Grimm.
In preparation for the compilation’s 100th anniversary, Shigeru Mizuki, one of Japan’s most beloved cartoonists, recreated Yanagita’s original, adding another layer of complexity. Like Yanagita, Mizuki traveled to Tono in search of the supernatural. Sometimes using quotes directly from Sasaki’s original, Muzuki retold the stories in graphic novel form, occasionally inserting himself as a character in the story. His edition is also called Tono Monogatari, and is now available in an English translation by Zack Davisson.
Mizuki’s volume is 256 pages, about twice as long as a recent translation of Yanagita’s prose original. Typical of manga, it has been printed to be read from “back to front” and from right to left. Human characters, especially men, tend to be unassuming. However, Mizuki’s landscapes are rich with detail. His artistic talents are on special display in the volume’s small number of interspersed color sections. A two-page color spread of the rice paddies of Tsuchibuchi Village, for example, captures the living beauty of rural Japan in evocative watercolor.
In Davisson’s English translation, new essays clarify some of the original’s cultural context. “Think of Japan as being covered by a layer of numinous, invisible energy,” he explains:
Shinto shrines gather and focus this energy into something like a battery, radiating spiritual power. This is kami. Kami are dual-natured. They possess two souls, the nigi-mitama gentle soul and the ara-mitama rough soul. They can manifest physically, but most often remain as energy. Kami need to be worshipped and entertained to ensure the nigi-mitama manifests instead of the ara-mitama.
Darker manifestations of energy are single-souled yokai, beings that range from mischievous to outright evil. It is kami or yokai who are behind most of the supernatural events in Tono Monogatari.
Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari essentially follows Yanagita’s original text until the final pages, when Mizuki visits Yanagita’s family home and encounters Yanagita’s ghost. Mizuki’s character provides an understated frame narration connecting the collection of 119 sometimes-disparate stories. (An endearingly self-effacing old man, Mizuki’s caricature also adds jokes about the aging of his almost-ninety-year-old body and the smell of his own flatulence.)
Like the tales of the Brothers Grimm, the folk stories chronicled in Tono Monogatari are elusive and the connections between them nebulous. Mysterious things happen with no obvious explanation. Stories end inconclusively. These are anecdotes of the weird and supernatural that strangers might tell each other around a campfire, sometimes without a segue between one and the next. They vary from the comic to the frightening to the outright macabre.
In one humorous story, for example, a man named Kikuchi designs famously beautiful gardens, illustrated by Mizuki in full color. Kikuchi spends his days searching the nearby mountains for plants, flowers and stones he can use. One day, he comes upon a man-shaped rock. When he tries to carry the rock home, the rock instead carries Kikuchi back to the place he found it. Kikuchi suffers no ill effects but spends the rest of his life taunted by the stone he can never have.
In a darker story, one sister murders another because the older sister has kept the crispy outside of a baked potato to herself. The victim transforms into a giant bird. Out of regret, the other becomes a cuckoo, known in the Tono region as a knife bird for its “knaaaiif-knaaaif” call.
Some readers may be left feeling a little unsatisfied by the book’s fragmentary nature, but there are other partial and full prose translations of Yanagita’s original Tono Monogatari in English. Mizuki’s edition is a culturally-important celebration of an enduring work of literature presented by one of Japan’s greatest popular artists.