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An Artist Draws His Journey Away From War And Death, With Gratitude

Gratitude can seem like kind of a cheesy concept sometimes. In a post last month, How to Be Happy in Five Minutes a Day, the site MakeUseOf.com assumed it would take less time than that to think of three things you were grateful for. There's family, or if not family, a friend. If not a friend, a pet. If nothing else, life.

But how do you muster gratitude if you can hardly believe you deserve your life? What if your leaders, your nation and even, it seems, nature itself are all saying, "Just hurry up and die already"? That's what author Shigeru Mizuki endures in Showa 1944-1953: A History of Japan, the third volume in his 2,000-plus-page autobiographical graphic novel about his country before, during and after World War II.

A grunt stationed in New Guinea at the end of the war, Mizuki is at the mercy of officers who lust psychopathically for heroic death (both their subordinates' and their own). His company is sent on a suicide mission and then, when they miraculously make it back, treated as criminals. "Why are you still alive?" his superiors repeatedly snap. He's laid low with malaria and even loses an arm to an Allied bomb.

And yet, a profound sense of gratitude beams out from this book. That's partly because young Mizuki didn't just survive the war; he went on to become a highly respected manga artist and celebrity.

Now 92, he's sold millions of copies of his series Gegege no Kitaro and seen his work adapted into TV shows, video games and films. He's won numerous awards for his works about the war, which controversially emphasize Japan's culpability. He even has a street named after him in his hometown.

There's also something of a happy ending in this volume. Beginning in the New Guinean jungle, it continues through the Potsdam conference, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the war and nearly a decade of reconstruction — a vast period.

Throughout, it alternates between sweeping depictions of history and accounts of Mizuki's own experiences. At the end the young man, who's suffered years of privations along with the rest of the country, is about to begin a hopeful career in the brand-new world of manga.

Still, that's not the whole reason Showa contains a sense of thankfulness. There's just something uncannily, well ... wise about Mizuki. In one segment he'll be an icy judge, in another a cynical gadfly, then a daffy outcast. His drawing style varies wildly: He'll lavish detail on a jungle backdrop, then put two overtly cartoony soldiers in front of it. But he depicts Japan's military leaders with more realism, and his re-creations of actual photos of dead bodies — both during and after the war — are utterly somber.

One surprisingly powerful cartoon is Rat Man, a robed Yokai, or phantom — a character originally from Gegege no Kitaro who acts as a sort of alter ego and all-seeing narrator. He's a compelling example of Mizuki's artistic skill: Bucktoothed, bewhiskered and drawn with just a few lines, he nonetheless expresses vast emotions. His face seems to twist with horror when he describes top generals, their eyes streaming tears as they crouch in a bomb shelter, begging Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki to let them send millions more to die.

Mizuki's ire is largely reserved for military men like these, rather than for the American invaders. As is evident from the ironic title of his award-winning 1973 book about the war, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, he finds their ideology to be beyond forgiveness. " 'Noble death' is headquarters' answer to almost everything," Rat Man notes. "Shigeru Mizuki only escapes that fate by fantastic luck. It is like some magical thread of destiny pulling him from death's door over and over again. He has nothing to do with his own survival."

"Some magical thread of destiny" — that's an awesomely universal and positive idea coming from someone with Mizuki's experience, especially when placed alongside his fury at the men, the government and the country who told him to die. Without giving up his justifiable bitterness, Mizuki has still managed to summon gratitude. But it probably took him a little longer than five minutes.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at @EtelkaL

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