Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #195 by Drew Barth

Legendary Status

The Spook season isn’t just for the ghosts, goblins, and skeletons we’re all used to seeing stalk the streets on Halloween night, it’s for the legends that accompany them. Much of the aesthetic we associate with spooks comes from the folklore and legends of Europe that formed our superstitions and folk beliefs. In that same vein lies a work of legends from an even more legendary creator: Shigeru Mizuki. While Mizuki’s Kitaro series is his most well-known work, it is his adaptation of Kunio Yanagita and Kizen Sasaki’s Tono Monogatari that gives life to Japan’s oldest legends. 

A collection of folklore and tales from central Japan, the Tono Monogatari is considered by many to be an equivalent to Grimm’s Fairy Tales in its content. But what’s created by Mizuki isn’t simply a graphic adaptation of Yanagita and Sasaki’s words—this is the kind of work that fits right into Mizuki’s considerable canon on its own. Resplendent with spirits, yokai, mountain creatures, and superstition, Mizuki goes beyond adaptation and inserts himself into these tales, acting as a guide as he walks through the Tono region as these stories are told to or experienced by him. And these can be stories that center on the various spirits that portend disaster and good luck or simply exist to explain why a certain noise is made during a light rain in the area. It gives a more intimate perspective on stories that have been told for hundreds of years, but Mizuki’s style makes them feel new again. 

While Mizuki himself has written about yokai and Japanese history extensively, and having the two come together in his adaptation of Tono Monogatari really helps to introduce readers to the kind of mangaka he was. There is a dedication to the craft in every page—the blending of his animated characters with the almost photo realistic backgrounds immerses the eye into the world of these stories to the point that you feel almost almost disappointed when you have to look away and see your normal hands among the world. These are the stories that Mizuki grew up with and he pours himself into them only as someone who has been reading and studying them for decades can. With him walking along the same paths as Yanagita and Sasaki had done more than a century ago, we feel less like we’re reading his work, but more like we’re walking with Mizuki as he tells us the stories of Tono.

While stories from Tono Monogatari and Grimm’s Fairy Tales act as compendiums for folklore and legends of the past, it’s these kinds of adaptations that make them feel more alive than any film with the budget of a small country’s GDP. Mizuki is the kind of mangaka that is able to seamlessly blend himself into the world of the story in a way that makes perfect sense and, as a result, helps modern readers feel a closer connection to these centuries old stories.

Get excited. Get legendary.

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Drew Barth at Miami Book Fair in 2019.

Drew Barth (Episode 331, 485, & 510) resides in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida.