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Archive for March, 2016

Hitler

Hitler

Shigeru Mizuki (manga author) maybe well-known for stories of Yokai (Japanese spooky monsters, trolls and other supernatural creatures), but I have only ever read his war stories. Mizuki himself served in the Japanese Imperial Army and just about survived (not in one piece though, he lost his dominant left arm), and his rage about the tragedy of war and the wasteful deaths of countless soldiers is only readily apparent in the semi-autobiographical Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.

Hitler (published in English in 2015) is another such work of the more serious gekiga (dramatic pictures) tradition as opposed to the more whimsical manga (which does cover a wide range of genres that don’t really seem all that whimsical—history, drama, science-fiction, in addition to the fantasy genre that many associate it with). According to Wikipedia, gekiga is “akin to Americans who started using the term ‘graphic novel’ as opposed to ‘comic book'”. I think the exact differences between this comparison, and indeed, between a graphic novel and comic itself is open to debate. Another master, Osamu Tezuka, also experimented with the darker gekiga. I’ve read Message to Adolf, coincidentally also having to do with Hitler, but a fictional political thriller very different from Mizuki’s Hitler.

Serious or not,

…Shigeru Mizuki’s Hitler…shows his signature combination of realistic, high-contrast backgrounds traced from photographs, and characters drawn in a cartoony style. Humans are rarely beautiful in Mizuki’s world: they usually appear as loopy, lackluster characters, acting as misshapen as they look.

– From the introduction to Hitler by Fredrik L. Schodt, noted scholar in manga and anime.

In Hitler, the cartoony humans look mostly goofy and grumpy—bad-tempered, angry, depressed, morose, or tormented. With the exception of the cover, where Hitler looks as realistic as the background, the great dictator is usually either comically enraged or woefully miserable inside the book.

Mizuki’s focus is on Hitler, the person, and not on his role in the Holocaust. Through his detailed portrait and comprehensive notes, Mizuki covers Hitler’s beginnings as an impoverished and not particularly talented art student, his winning the Iron Cross, and traces his political career that seems to be driven by some strange destiny: his joining the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) which came to known as the Nazi Party, the Beer Hall Putsch, his close relationship with his half-niece Geli and her subsequent suicide which supposedly left him a broken man, the Night of the Long Knives where Hitler purged his enemies and cemented his authority, the rousing speeches and political maneuvers that led to the rise of this former vagrant to Chancellor and later Fuhrer of Germany, his role in the War, and his final downfall.

With his trademark toothbrush mustache, hair slicked back with pomade, Mizuki depicts in Hitler a melodramatic patriotism (“my pains are nothing compared to the wounds suffered by my beloved Fatherland”, Hitler weeps), megalomania (“I am swelling with talent”, he claims mournfully), and a deep-rooted anti-semitism, without delving much into the Holocaust itself.

“I am poor and unpopular. This is entirely the fault of the Jews…Thousands of bowlegged Jews invade our land like an army. They tempt and steal our women. I boil for the sake of all German woman”, Mizuki’s Hitler rages to his landlady.

“Jews are the lowest of the inferior races. You know that”, he tells a virtually imprisoned Geli whom he discovers with a boy he presumes to be a Jew (“You don’t need to say his name. I know he’s Jewish”).  “Even one kiss taints a woman forever. You’ll be Jewified. Understand?” Her “betrayal” is compounded by the coming true of his greatest fear: a Jewified Geli.

Furthermore, Hitler squarely blames Germany’s depression, unemployment, hunger and poverty on the “global Jewish conspiracy”.

The Nazis promise a sense of belonging and escape from this economic hole, as well as the chance to blame someone else. People flock to the banner.

Hitler ends with Hitler’s demise, and his gift to Germany—a country in ruins.

What was the significance of Mizuki’s focus on this one person in particular?

My destiny would have been different. In other words, I would have avoided my wretched life in the military, and I might still have my arm. So how could I not be interested in Hitler, and in knowing what sort of a man he really was?”

Schodt writes further that:

But in a darkly humorous style only Mizuki can pull off, we see Hitler as a very ordinary human, who through a historical fluke, assumes power over his nation and leads it to ruin…at the core, he was just a miserable human. And because he was human, it’s important for us to know him as such. There are Hitlers in every era, culture and ethnic group, and perhaps deep inside all of us. Best then, to know them, and know them well.

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On the Move: A Life

On the Move

I don’t know when I first heard of Oliver Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat has been on my TBR pile for years and I remember reading it, only to abandon it soon afterwards. And then, of course, like many others, I read his February 2015 Op-Ed in the New York Times and like many others was moved by this essay, where Sacks announced he had terminal cancer and declared “there is no time for anything inessential”…”but there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). I then listened to and was drawn inexplicably to his voice, on RadioLab, and YouTube. Then came his final Op-Ed in August 2015, where he alludes to his imminent death as the Sabbath of his life—an eternal and well-deserved rest.

In the final days of 2015, I began reading On the Move: A Life that Sacks completed shortly before learning about his metastatic cancer. His memoir is consequently free from his thoughts on what it means to live with terminal cancer (mercifully for me, who is not brave enough to read about this disease and what it does to life). It also means that the book seems to have a celebratory spirit overall—Sacks is glad to be alive and looks forward to living a good life. That is not say his life has been without pain, heartbreak, loss of loved ones, or broken bones and sciatica. But, oh, what a remarkable life Sacks lived! What a prodigious intellect the man had! And what a prolific writer he was (not just of published books, but unpublished journals that spanned six decades, letters, clinical notes and other correspondence).

Sacks was not just a neurologist (and a celebrity in the later years of his life). He was a (sometimes foolhardy) world traveler and adventurer, meeter of interesting people (from truckers to Nobel prize-winners), and a documenter of interesting stories and accounts. A young Sacks traveled across America in a circuit that took him from…

Las Vegas, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Albuquerque, Carlsbad Caverns, New Orleans, Birmingham, Atlanta, Blue Ridge Parkway to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston…Montreal…Quebec. Toronto, Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Chicago, Milwaukee. The Twin Cities…Glacier and Waterton National Parks…Yellowstone Park, Bear Lake, Salt Lake City. Back to San Francisco. 8000 miles. 50 days. $400. If I avoid: sunstroke, frostbite, imprisonment, earthquakes, food poisoning and mechanical disaster—why, it should be the greatest time of my life!

…on a secondhand BMW R69.

In 1961, Sacks set a California state record when he performed a full squat with 600 pounds across his shoulders. In the late 1970s, Sacks spent his weekends swimming, sometimes around City Island, that took him about six hours. On one such swim, he saw a house he liked and met the realtor still in his swimming trunks. Soon afterwards he bought that house.

Sacks also writes in that last New York Times essay about reflecting on “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself”. That four sentence paragraph above by no means summarizes his rich life, but offers glimpses into how very extraordinary it was. Sacks’ life was, of course, also shaped by his family (both his mother and father were Jewish physicians), his homosexuality and how people around him viewed it, and his experiences as a neurologist.

“It has sometimes seemed to me that I have lived at a certain distance from life”,  Sacks writes towards the end of the book. Indeed. It seems like Sacks has his first real relationship at the ripe age of seventy-seven. While this was not by choice—there are a few stories of unrequited love and discouraging experiences in the book—I couldn’t help but wonder how much this ‘distance’ contributed to his full life. How much did the absence of family, children, or relationships to complicate his life throughout his most productive decades (again, not by choice) contribute to his uncommon prolificacy? Sacks was also fortunate to live a relatively long life in a very particular time (1933-2015), although I do recognize that a long life alone does not guarantee a productive life.

What have I learned from Sacks on how to experience life more fully? I believe that at least two of his habits contributed in no small way to his singularly rich life: journaling and correspondence. Sacks was a lifelong journaler. He writes of a keeping a journal by his bedside, by the lakeside when he swam, and the book has pictures of him writing away on car roofs, train stations, trains, at his desk, on a couch with a friend (Jonathan Miller), and even at Machu Pichu. He writes that he rarely looked at his journals, “the act of writing is enough”. I think about what this constant processing and writing down words and ideas can do to one’s extent of understanding and awareness. Writing down what you feel, think, see and hear forces you to slow down and contemplate, even if briefly, even if you are never going to revisit your  own writing. Sacks also wrote long letters and maintained regular, even if not frequent, correspondence  with a diverse circle of friends and scholars (poets, scientists, writers, researchers, actors), always exchanging, debating, discussing and questioning ideas. “I find these old letters a great treasure”, he writes, “a corrective to the deceits of memory and fantasy”. What a wonderful way to appreciate points of view, to nurture learning and curiosity. I can’t think of a better antidote to insularity and bigotry.

I did not, however, think that On the Move was an exceptionally well-written book (sacrilege?), or maybe it needed more artful editing. Or perhaps, it was impossible to whittle down what must have originally been a behemoth into a mere 382 pages. I remember that I struggled to read The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat several years ago. Did I think it too technical? Was I not in the right frame of mind for this genre? Did I not particularly enjoy what I was reading? Did I give up too easily? I do not remember. Well-written or not, I find Oliver Sacks, the person, infinitely more fascinating than Dr. Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist*.

*On a similar note, I remember listening to Maurice Sendak on Fresh Air, soon after his death in May 2012. I had read Where the Wild Things Are (1963), In the Night Kitchen (1970), and Outside Over There (1981), but I am not going to pretend I completely ‘got’ his books. However, I did ‘get’ Sendak, the person, and  remember being moved to tears listening to him talking.

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