Spirited Away to Tottori

It's a mere 80mn flight between Tokyo Haneda airport and Yonago, yet a world apart. And, from the moment you land, the mood is set. You have reached "Manga Kingdom"!

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s a mere 80mn flight between Tokyo Haneda airport and Yonago, yet a world apart. And, from the moment you land, the mood is set. You have reached “Manga Kingdom”!

Kitaro and friends under the magic umbrella at the Shigeru-Mizuki museum
Kitaro and friends under the magic umbrella at the Shigeru-Mizuki museum

Yonago Kitaro airport located along the Sea of Japan coast in the Chugoku region, in beautiful Tottori prefecture is only the starting point for an exploration into the surrealistic realm of mythical creatures that will unravel from then on….

Immediately greeted by a bunch of supernatural beings which ornate ceilings, windows, walls and even up to the airport buses, that is Manga mania!

Paying tribute to their illustrious son: Shigeru Mura better known under his “nom de plume”:  Shigeru Mizuki, the whole area celebrates the creation characters born of his extraordinary talent as a cartoonist.

Story telling in Japan has long been a tradition since way back when pre-television time, it was a great form of entertainment on long nights. In today’s Japan it still is popular in the form of “Rakugo”.

For Shigeru Mizuki drawing was a god’s given gift, so naturally he started to paint at an early age, encouraged by his own father who gave him his first oil painting set. Daydreaming was also one of his favorite occupation; which he agreed was still true in his later years. He once conceded:”I have remained the same as when I was about 4 or 5 years old…” Childhood memories stayed vivid in his mind, especially those incredible tales told by an old lady, he nicknamed NonNonba; some of which frighten the hell out of the little boy that he was then, but which he later depicted in a successful manga titled: “NonNonba to ore” (NonNonba and me) in 1977.

Growing up in Sakaiminato, an isolated fishing village back then, Mizuki lived in a kind of dream world. He spent happy years walking in the woods, performing rituals on the beach, or staring at the walls of old houses with NonNonba who would teach him the secrets of the invisible world. Thus introducing him to the magic world of Yokai. From then on, it would be an integral part of his imaginary world which he would only explore deeper and deeper as time went on. Even as a child, as though they frightened him, he still wanted to make “friends” with them, as he felt naturally attracted by the world above and beyond.

In ancient times, the Japanese imagined that inexplicable phenomena in the natural world was the deed of Yokai. Yokai is a collective name for all sorts of bizarre creatures and supernatural phenomena in Japanese folklore. They are, even today very popular in Japan. Many legends about the existence of Yokai persist around Japan, to this day. Over time these Yokai were given names and came to be venerated.

The Japanese, a polytheistic people, believe in a multitude of deities, this is underpinned by a religious tradition of animism, in animism, all things , animals, natural phenomena, even things that today we wouldn’t even consider alive like rocks, mountains and rivers, have spirits inhabiting them; absolutely anything can be a Yokai, if you decide to make it one.

In old japan, when people threw something out, they would take it first to a temple or a shrine and hold a ritual to appease its spirits and to give thanks. People still do, but to a much lesser degree.

In the 18th century, a craze for Yokai swept Japan. Even famous woodblock print artist created Yokai theme masterpieces, which brought Yokai to the attention of yet more people, and this flood of prints led to spin off like children’s card game or board game or toys…

People in old time Japan wanted to have the Yokai character they like, around them, incorporated into everyday objects. They put Yokai on folding screens, or sometimes even kimono, in the lining, so that, normally, it was invisible, and you could get a glimpse of the Yokai, only when the lining showed. Back then, giving just a flash or a pick at that kind of unusual design was considered highly sophisticated and quite fashionable…

With his series of Yokai works such as “Gegege no kitaro”, Mizuki revived perhaps that appeal which laid dormant. It became a huge success, from the book it went to anime and then on to a motion picture. If he was first introduced to Yokai by an old lady, he also developed his knowledge of ghouls, reading the works of folklorist Kunio Yanagita; and an unusual event encountered while a young soldier, finished to convince him, that they indeed do exist. Mizuki started drawing Yokai, because of an experience he had during WWII.  Caught up once in ferocious fighting on an island in the Pacific, he fortunately survived by fleeing into the dense jungle. And as he ran as far as he could in the dark hours, he suddenly found himself prevented by a strange force to move even one step further: so he resolved to simply lay down there and then, for the night. He felt as if a Yokai like a wall had stopped him. When he woke up, in the morning, he realized that he was only one step away from the edge of a cliff. Mizuki believed that a Yokai had saved his life.

The diverse Yokai that Mizuki has drawn over the years tap into the same sense of awe and wonder felt by the people of ancient Japan.

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