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Mizuki’s Hitler

Shigeru Mizuki is a name that nearly all Japanese people recognize immediately. There are streets named after him and trains decorated in his honor, and has even been designated as a certified cultural expert on Japanese mythology. In Japan he is best known (and almost exclusively known) for his yokai manga, “Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro.” Yet in many parts of the world, he is better known for his historical and autobiographical work regarding wartime Japan. This is due in part to the Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly, which has released beautiful collections of his more mature “geki-ga” – an artform he helped pioneer. For instance his sprawling 2000+ page history series “Showa” which follows Japan through the tumultuous prewar era, into the fires of war and out of the ashes of defeat all the way up to the booming bubble period. His own wartime memoirs “Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths” provides a scathing criticism of military leadership while portraying the plight of the soldiers neither as heroes nor as victims, but simply as ordinary people caught up in a drama that was far too big for them to understand.

For those familiar with Mizuki’s documentary work, the latest English edition of his comic book “Hitler” is much in the same vein. In classic Shigeru Mizuki style, he neither condemns nor condones what is going on, but merely presents the characters in their naked humanity. Humanizing Hitler is something most authors would shy away from, and many readers for that matter. And yet Mizuki does a wonderful job of portraying one of history’s most notorious monsters in a very human light. Mizuki’s Hitler is in turns insecure and slightly neurotic, and in the next moment self-aggrandizing and hubristic.

a splash page from Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler

The book follows the life of Adolf Hitler from his early days in art school all the way up to his suicide at the end of the war. Along the way, we meet well known characters such as Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler. Mizuki offers a rare look at their early lives, how they come to be involved with Hitler and Nazism and how they end-up in their respective positions.

Although the book speaks extensively about Hitler’s (and much of Europe’s) turn to antisemitism, the book is shockingly bereft of any mention of the holocaust. As a matter of fact, there is only one panel that mentions it at all, and it seems sort of ancillary to the story, almost as if it were merely an afterthought. This may have to do with the fact that Japanese education regarding World War II heavily focuses on the Pacific theater and considers the holocaust quite far removed from Japanese society.

Although the storytelling is quite direct, there is still a strong narrative thread the pulls it along. The story is complimented with Mizuki’s distinctive artwork. Much like his autobiographical work or his “Showa” series, Mizuki combines highly detailed drawings, tracings and in some cases even actual photographs, with wispy, rounded characters. At times their contorted faces look a bit grotesque, but the juxtaposition of the quick sketchy character design and the highly detailed backgrounds evokes a strong reaction from the reader, especially when coupled with violence.

Best of all, this book is meticulously annotated, much like the previous TMizuki books published by Drawn and Quarterly. The book includes a full glossary of terms, names and places not included in the original text. For people hungry for details, these explanations help to provide a fuller understanding of the historical figures and their place in the narrative. For example, instead of simply learning about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, you can actually read about Joachim von Ribbentrop and how he became responsible for negotiations with the soviets.

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