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NonNonBa, Shigeru Mizuki
posted April 5, 2007
 

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By Bart Beaty

In January, Angouleme festival goers were shocked when the prize for Best Album was awarded to NonNonBa (Editions Cornelius), the first time the award had ever gone to a manga. I was among those surprised by the decision, and I had to scramble to pick up a copy in Paris the next day since I had already passed up the option of buying this 415-page, 29Euro monster during the festival itself. Despite the fact that I generally love all things published by Cornelius, a publisher with exceedingly high selection and production standards, this really didn't seem to be my sort of thing. But given the stamp of approval by the Angouleme jury, I was swayed.

I shouldn't have been.

I've been absent from this site for the past couple of weeks not simply because it is the end of the academic term, because I was out of town, because my son brought home a nasty cold from daycare, but because NonNonBa is one of the dullest comic books I have ever read, and, having pledged to review all the Angou award winners, it was in a "must read" position. Maybe I'm not the right audience for this book, or maybe the jury is just smarter than I am, or maybe my expectations were raised too high by the prestige of the prize. Whatever the case, allow me to go on record as saying: I hated NonNonBa.

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It took me about eight days to read this book, forcing myself to read 50 turgid pages each day. During that time I often distracted myself by searching for information about the book online, with the vain hope that I would stumble across some clue as to why this book is so praised. What I learned is that Shigeru Mizuki is the beloved creator of GeGeGe no Kitarou, a manga series about youkai (Japanese spirits) that was originally serialized beginning in 1966. Adored in his native land, where streets are named for him and museums are dedicated to his work, Mizuki is far less known in Europe and the United States. He published in the cutting edge anthology Garo, and was one of the artists who defined a non-Tezuka way of doing manga. And he largely popularized the genre of storytelling featuring Japanese demons and spirits.

So far so good. But what has that got to do with NonNonBa? Well, NonNonBa is a break from his best known work. It is an autobiographical story about growing up in 1930s Japan, in which the author details experiences from his youth and his personal interactions with youkai. That is, the book is blend of youthful reminiscence and the type of soft horror for which the author is well celebrated. But as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't work.

Some will say that I am hardly the critic to complain about slow-paced or plot-absent comic books, and I will admit that I've championed more than my fair share of rambling works. But, in my defense, those works were always driven by unique visual sensibilities and expansions of the comics form. This is not the case with NonNonBa. Mizuki's work literally sucked the life right out of me. The story revolves around the domestic life of the young Shigeru, his two brothers, their friends, their parents and the people in his town. None of the characters is well developed or interesting, and the book relies on sentimental stereotypes at almost every turn. Divided into two sections, each part ends with the departure of a young woman. When one of them dies, it is not moving in any way because when an undeveloped stereotype passes in comics, it's not something that we feel with our hearts.

More problematically, the book has no forward narrative momentum at all. There is nothing that entices the reader to continue. Once you've read one short story about a young boy with a dull home life who talks to demons you've pretty much read them all. But this just keeps going and going. The art does absolutely nothing to hold the attention. I was impressed to learn that Mizuki lost his arm during the war and re-taught himself how to draw with his other hand, but that doesn't mitigate the fact that his pages are generally too wordy and stiff, that his characters lack dynamics, and that the entire work is extremely flat.

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Ultimately the problem here is that the book is simply its concept: an autobiographical work combining an element of the fantastic, a book that says "hey, youth is a magical time of imagination". Thanks, got it. NonNonBa really exists on a very shallow level where nothing further is made of that simplistic observation. Once you get past the obvious moral of the story, you realize that this big book is really paper thin.

I know that NonNonBa has been widely praised in France as an exemplar of new or serious manga, manga for adults, but I don't see it. Given the influence of manga in the French comics scene at the moment it was inevitable that a manga was soon to win the award for Best Book, but I really wish it hadn't been this one. In my opinion, two vastly superior mangas were nominated for this prize this year (Kazuichi Hanawa's Avant la prison and Hideki Arai's Ki-Itchi). I'm not sure why this proved more convincing to the jury beyond the fact that this one is so much more exquisitely packaged by Cornelius, and much more easily fits into some established French cartooning conventions because of its use of autobiography. As I've said, the book is magnificently presented by Cornelius, but in the end I was left with the feeling that the jury had, at last, seriously erred in picking this little known manga as its grand prize winner. Oh well, you can't win them all.

*****

NonNonBa, Shigeru Mizuki, Editions Cornelius, 2915492255 (ISBN), March 2007, 29 euros

*****

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