Following the trail of manga artist Shigeru Mizuki’s widespread appeal in Japan leads back to the city of Chofu in Tokyo, where the distinction between Mizuki’s worlds, real and imagined, often blurs.
The worlds created by Mizuki and the names of the characters that populate them have become household in Japan while his influence has been felt across the globe, from the jungles of Papua New Guinea to awards committees in Europe.
It’s in Chofu, though, that Mizuki lived for the duration of his career as a creator of manga, a career which spanned over half a century and told many stories featuring "yokai" -- spirits and monsters from Japanese folklore -- the most celebrated of which made the artist a household name in Japan, GeGeGe no Kitaro.
"For Mizuki, yokai were really like friends or family. He felt close to them. It’s thinking in this way that enabled him to create his manga," said Etsuko Mizuki, the youngest daughter of the legendary artist, during an interview in November last year at the offices of Mizuki Productions in central Chofu.
Like father, like daughter, Etsuko appears to share a belief in one of Mizuki’s favorite subjects.
"I think that yokai exist," she said. "They are in the dark places, the places where not much light can reach. Maybe places like shrines. Maybe."
With the sun shining bright outside during the interview the visible presence of yokai appeared limited to the covers of the volumes of Mizuki’s manga -- "Mizuki manga" -- that lined the shelves of the office meeting room, as well as in the figurines sat atop many of the surfaces. They even adopted a more international flavor by the office entrance, taking the form of wood-carved tribal masks, souvenirs from Mizuki’s globe-trotting yokai research.
The dangling prospect of "maybe" though might be enough to see fans of Mizuki and his yokai come to Chofu in order to explore the city after hours in the hopes of a yokai encounter, perhaps among the locales that Mizuki reimagined with his creative hand as the setting of a number of scenes in his manga.
One such location is Fudatenjin-Shrine, a few blocks north of the city’s busy Chofu station area.
In the world of Mizuki manga, Fudatenjin-Shrine features in a volume of Hakaba - Kitaro (Kitaro from the Graveyard), "The Weird One," in which Kitaro -- a yokai hero called upon by humans to deal with the more troublesome of his kind -- is said to live in the forest behind the shrine. (“Hakaba - Kitaro” was the original name for what became the manga "GeGeGe no Kitaro.")
In the evening, with lamps casting shadows over the shrine grounds, ancient Fudatenjin can certainly appear otherworldly, enough, perhaps, for Mizuki’s yokai to hide in the shadows.
Not that such a prospect should present anything to be scared of -- the yokai of Mizuki’s world aren’t here to cause fright, and their world was created in Chofu. Echoing how the chief protagonist in GeGeGe no Kitaro seeks to find harmony between humans and his fellow yokai, Mizuki portrayed yokai in such a way that they could be accepted by everyone, according to Etsuko.
"If people were scared of them, they wouldn’t like it," she said.
Although acceptance may prove difficult for some if the yokai can’t be seen. Perhaps some degree of imagination is required of the seeker.
In the meantime Mizuki’s yokai are running out of darkness. When the artist moved into town from nearby Shinjuku over half a century ago much of Chofu was nothing but fields. Today the city and its lights creep ever closer around Fudatenjin-Shrine, and the forest out back, imagined or otherwise, has given way to Tokyo’s yawning western suburbs.
Despite the yokai’s apparent preference for the dark though, just a short distance from Fudatenjin-Shrine’s quiet location in the receding shadows, the lights of Tenjin-dori -- a stretch of Chofu’s eateries, bars and local stores -- shrine bright and in their glow sit colorful statues of Mizuki’s yokai, that may even be said to bask in the street’s cheerfully lit and unashamed retro fun.
The setting could be fitting too, though -- if Mizuki wanted his characters and yokai to be approachable, they can be seen under the lights in one of the most salt-of-the-earth and unpretentious spots in the city.
And people have approached. Mizuki’s yokai, along with his stories, have been read about, watched on television, and celebrated in Japan to the extent that it might be hard to find an adult who hasn’t heard of Shigeru Mizuki or interacted with one of his creations, knowingly or otherwise.
"The existence of yokai is something that has been talked about for a long time in Japan, and there are many people that know about this so I think this is why it has been able to reach a lot of people," Etsuko said, speculating on the roots of Mizuki manga’s popularity, which spans generations and demographics to this day.
"Mizuki took information (about yokai) that existed only in academic papers and images, and through manga introduced yokai in a way that everyone could easily understand," added Tomohiro Haraguchi of Mizuki Productions, after providing a crash course in yokai history, which included reference to Kunio Yanagita and Inoue Enryo, 19th-20th century pioneers of research and thought about yokai. Today in Japan there are universities that have departments of folklore with students and faculty conducting research into yokai, according to Haraguchi.
The statues along Tenjin-dori are but one of many tributes to, and celebrations of, Mizuki manga that can be found throughout Chofu. Seeking them out might be one of the delights of a visit to the city which calls itself "Mizuki manga’s birthplace."
Not to be confused with Sakaiminato in Tottori Prefecture, the western Japan city where Mizuki was raised, Chofu is where the manga started, made a household name of the characters, and ended over 50 years later with Mizuki’s death on November 30, 2015 at the age of 93.
Today the city of Chofu, which coined the "Mizuki manga’s birthplace" phrase, and Mizuki Productions collaborate to showcase elements of Mizuki’s work through events, themed parks, and even a themed city bus, among other initiatives.
"We cooperate together (with the city) on this so that even after all this time, we can say that there was a person called Shigeru Mizuki, and what kind of person he was, and have people continue to read the manga he created and remember who he was," Haraguchi explained.
"We can’t do this alone, so to have the city of Chofu think in the same way and come up with such ideas, we are so grateful for this."
Since Mizuki’s passing, the city of Chofu has every year celebrated GeGeGe Ki -- a days-long celebration of the life and works of Mizuki held in November, around the anniversary of his passing. GeGeGe Ki sees a number of events scheduled around Chofu, centering on a stage set up in the city’s broad station-front plaza.
Kitaro Square, an example of the initiatives brought about between the city and Mizuki Productions, played host to a Mizuki manga-themed cosplay event during the GeGeGe Ki in 2020. On that bright autumn day the square’s stationary art objects representing yokai and other characters that appear in GeGeGe no Kitaro and other of Mizuki’s works were joined by an animated gaggle of Mizuki manga fans in cosplay.
"I heard a lot about yokai from my grandmother so I’ve been familiar with the world of Kitaro since I was child," explained cosplayer Yurina Arai (32) who was attending the event for the third year, this time dressed as Neko Musume, the cat-girl yokai from the GeGeGe no Kitaro world.
"When I did something wrong my parents would tell me, "Yokai will come and get you and Kitaro won't come to help." I used to think of yokai as being scary, but now not at all. I’m fascinated by them."
Standing next to Arai’s Neko Musume was Kitaro himself, cosplayed by Koryu Shimizu (27).
Shimizu might be considered proof that the efforts of the city and Mizuki Productions to introduce the world of Mizuki manga to new audiences do bear fruit.
"Actually, I wasn’t so familiar with GeGeGe no Kitaro. I moved to Chofu four or five years ago. GeGeGe no Kitaro is featured in a number of places around Chofu so I’ve had many chances to interact with it and I’ve become more and more fascinated by it," she explained.
Arai, however, had the experience of seeing the creator of her beloved characters in person, going about his life in Chofu.
"Before he passed away you would see him quite often here and there, at coffee shops, and he would go out to drink with his daughter."
"Even though he was this amazing manga artist he would appear quite normal with his daughter. This makes his world feel very close, for me. He was such an amazing person so I would think how amazing it was to see him out drinking coffee in such places."
Arai’s encounters are shared by other residents of Chofu who can recount seeing Mizuki riding his bike to and from the office, stopping to fuss over children, even in the local bookstores leafing through the pages of his own books.
While Chofu’s shadows may keep Mizuki’s yokai hidden, the man himself was very much out in the open and his connection with Chofu, "Mizuki manga’s birthplace," appears to be real and felt by people on the streets. He was, as one resident described, "a familiar celebrity."
Such connections aren’t always so welcome though. Etsuko told of how she suffered at the hands of classmates at school on accounts of her father’s work.
"I wasn’t particularly aware of (my father’s work, his fame) but my classmates at school would say things to me about it. Sometimes they would use it to make fun of me. They would say that what he was writing about were lies. I didn’t like it when they said things like that," she said.
"I mean, it was a world that you couldn’t see with your own eyes, you know?"
There are some dots, however, between Chofu and Mizuki that on the surface at least seem hard to connect. Chofu the city and Mizuki the cheerful Chofu resident appear a world away from the World War II battle grounds of Papua New Guinea and Mizuki the reluctant soldier stationed in the country while serving in Japan’s Imperial Army.
"He didn’t just create manga about yokai, he also created manga about war. "Like" is perhaps not the right term, but the manga about war left an impression on me," Etsuko responded when asked if she has a favorite story among her father’s manga.
Mizuki’s experiences of war have arguably left the greatest impression on overseas readers, too. In his 1973 manga, "Soin Gyokusai Seyo" (English title - Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths) Mizuki gave a damning and terrifying account of the terrifying stupidity of men with military authority gone mad in the jungle which saw him become one of only three Japanese manga artists to be awarded the Heritage Award at the Angouleme International Comic Festival, one of Europe’s largest.
Of course, the experience of war and suicide charges in the southwestern Pacific nation left the greatest impression upon Mizuki himself.
"I can’t explain very well but I think it had a profound influence on him, his manga," Etsuko said.
"There are lots of stories in which the bad yokai are killed but in the Kitaro manga the bad yokai are persuaded to return from where they came instead of having them killed. This comes from (Mizuki’s) experiences during the war, seeing his close friends die, seeing death up close, he decided he didn’t want there to be killing in his stories," Haraguchi explained.
Not before leaving readers with the devastating climax of Soin Gyokusai Seyo in which the words of the last man standing in his final throes echo a profound warning, "Guess everyone died feeling like this. No one to tell … just slipping away forgotten. With no one watching."
It's perhaps a testament to the man, his talent and mental fortitude that in both life and work Mizuki could make the switch from the darkest depths of the human condition to the cheeky humour of a yokai notorious for their pungent flatulence (GeGeGe no Kitaro’s "Nezumi Otoko").
Maybe it was Chofu, far removed from the jungle and deadly conflict, that was able to provide an environment in which Mizuki felt able to describe his WWII experiences. Not that even in Chofu does he seem to have been able to escape the horrors entirely.
"Whenever I write a story about the war, I can’t help the blind rage that surges up in me. My guess is, this anger is inspired by the ghosts of all those fallen soldiers," Mizuki wrote in 1991 in an afterword published in an English-language edition of Soin Gyokusai Seyo.
(Despite Mizuki’s giant reputation in Japan, translation of Mizuki manga into English has been a relatively recent undertaking, although it’s one that appears to have been welcomed by Mizuki and Etsuko.
"It’s a nice feeling. My father was pleased, too. He was like, "Yokai are spreading throughout the world," Etsuko said during the interview.)
The Koshu-kaido, that great historic avenue rumbling east-west between Tokyo and Kofu (Yamanashi Prefecture) runs right between Fudatenjin-Shrine and Tenjin-dori, separating the two as if a symbolic border between different worlds.
Head west along the Koshu-kaido, away from Fudatenjin, and on one side of the avenue and its roaring Tokyo traffic life is lived out in the open by office workers pouring out of the train station into the restaurants, bars and bright city lights. On the other side sprawls in silence a great swathe of suburban Tokyo -- at night a silent world of hidden possibilities where narrow lanes wind between homes, neighborhood temples and shrines, where the dark is interrupted by the lonely glow from living room windows. It’s here in this world where Mizuki now rests, in the cemetery at Kakushoji Temple.
On route to Mizuki’s resting place is the diminutive Shimoishiwara Hachiman Shrine which in any other circumstance might be easy to dismiss as just another shrine in Japan. In the hands of Mizuki though, and with enough imagination, Shimoishiwara Hachiman might present fans with a different prospect -- the shrine is portrayed in some of Mizuki’s manga as the place where GeGeGe no Kitaro’s Neko Musume lives, under the eaves of the main hall.
Fans and believers in yokai may get a thrill from exploring the quiet shrine grounds, taking in the exotic shapes and scrutinizing the shadows for signs of yokai activity. Although expectations should be kept in check -- as Etsuko said of her father’s work, "It was a world that you couldn’t see with your own eyes."
So then artists like Mizuki see for us and, in his case, create the visual elements of illustrations in manga like GeGeGe no Kitaro. More than this though, the artist creates magic and with it presents the gift of wonderful possibility. They fill the air with the electric excitement of new worlds for people to run free in.
The air of Mizuki’s world is charged in Chofu and calls for the visitor to let their own imagination run free.