Kyoto Journal

The Bride of Boneyard Kitaro

When Nunoe’s uncle told the family he’d found a match for her in a 39 year-old veteran who’d lost his left arm in the war and wrote comic books in Tokyo, Nunoe’s father rubbed his chin and said “make it happen.”

Nunoe blinked. Up until now, her father had turned away marriage proposals the way he did unwelcome peddlers. But then again, there just wasn’t a place for her in the house anymore. Her two older sisters had husbands, and her eldest brother’s wife was more than enough help in the family liquor store. Besides, Nunoe was 29, way past the age brides unpack their hope chests, and in Japan in 1960, especially in the village she lived — just a stitch in a quilt of rice fields, really — women married for love as often as they flew to the moon.

The cartoonist in question was Mura Shigeru, born in Sakai-Minato in Shimane Prefecture, across the bay from Yasugi, Nunoe’s village. Her uncle showed her a picture. Shigeru sat on a bicycle, right side to the camera. He had a pleasant smile, a good build. At a time when college graduates pulled down 18,000 yen a month, Shigeru got nearly twice that for each comic book he wrote. He also collected disability pay for his missing arm, and he had his own house! That absent arm bothered Nunoe, though. How much was gone? From the shoulder down? From the elbow? Would she have to feed and dress him? A few days after New Year’s, matchmakers from both families and Shigeru and his parents settled themselves in the parlor. Nunoe squirmed next to her father.

Maybe all the years Shigeru lived in Tokyo had citified him, but no, he talked to her father in the same dialect Nunoe spoke, and he seemed sincere. Of course, she didn’t say anything, she scarcely had the nerve to glance his way. He wore a suit, and the prosthetic limb that filled his left sleeve frustrated her effort to see how much real arm lurked inside. Her father certainly took a shine to him. When the matchmakers and Shigeru and his parents left, he said “that’s it, then” and Nunoe’s future was cast.

They held the wedding five days later, quick by any standard, but Shigeru had deadlines to meet, and the train to Tokyo took nearly twenty-four hours and cost a God-awful amount. Snow swirled like confetti on the day of the ceremony. When the twenty guests assembled for the group picture, Nunoe sat next to Shigeru for the first time. His artificial arm brushed against her. Tink! It clicked like a torque wrench. She drew a breath. How many times would she hear that noise in the years to come?

Nunoe’s eldest sister lived in Tokyo. Her husband worked in the Ginza, the ritziest area of the city. She had a chauffeur pick up Nunoe and Shigeru at the station. In the car, Nunoe craned her neck to see the tall buildings, shook her head in wonder at the people crowding the sidewalks. The buildings got shorter, though, the streets gradually emptied, and when Shigeru said “we’re here” Nunoe found herself hemmed in by rice fields just like in Yasugi. And the house! A stack of weather-beaten boards pinned together by rusty nails. Inside, wind whistled through cracks and frost feathered the windows.
Shigeru was broke. This was his road to penury:


REPATRIATED AT THE END OF THE WAR — he’d lost his arm fighting in New Guinea — he enrolled in art college in Tokyo. To make ends meet, he rented out bicycle cabs. Two years later, though, he realized he wouldn’t make it as an artist and quit school. Taxis had reappeared on the streets, and people would rather be caught dead than be seen pedaled around behind bicycles. He borrowed money from his parents and tried his hand at running an apartment house, but his roomers developed an allergy to rent and he sold the building. One of his tenants, though, was a kamishibai illustrator, and Shigeru, artistic blood stirred anew, learned the craft from him. He worked for a kamishibai publisher, but then television sets multiplied like mushrooms and the clack-clack of the kamishibai man rang no more. For the past three years, Shigeru had lived hand to mouth, writing comic books and wearing out the bell over the pawn shop’s door (the suit he’d worn the first time he met Nunoe was his brother’s, he’d hocked his own).

He hadn’t really lied to Nunoe. He did make 30,000 yen for every comic book he churned out, but only when publishers paid what they’d promised, which wasn’t often. And he did get compensation for his arm, but the cash went to his parents, and he was too proud to ask for it. His mother had said he’d make more as a lighthouse keeper than a cartoonist, he aimed to prove her wrong. And speaking of his mother, the only times he’d put on that stupid fake arm was when he’d met Nunoe at her house and later at the wedding, because his mother had told him to.

Shigeru had a kerosene heater, but no money for fuel. He and Nunoe bulked up in clothes and fed a greedy hibachi morsels of charcoal. They swapped smiles and promises for food. They rented out the room on the second floor and they and their lodger pointedly ignored one another when they shared the kitchen and the facilities. Shigeru woke at eleven, ate, and started to work. At seven, he knocked off for dinner and returned to his desk until the small hours of the morning. And the things he drew! Wretches writhing in Hell, corpse-eating monsters, dancing skeletons. He was especially proud of “Boneyard Kitaro,” the tale of a boy born in a cemetery, but just a glance at the pictures sent shivers down Nunoe’s spine. And the way he worked! He pressed the stump of his left arm onto the paper, face inches from the page, and scratched away for hours. Nunoe didn’t understand why Shigeru drew what he did, but he put his soul in his drawings, and admiration blossomed in her heart. When deadlines loomed, she helped him — inked backgrounds, stippled patterns, crosshatched roofs. Gradually, she saw past the grotesquerie, grinned at the characters that wiggled into life at the end of Shigeru’s pen, and looked forward to seeing what happened to them next.

Exhausted, Shigeru sometimes asked Nunoe to deliver manuscripts to publishers. She wasn’t to let them worm out of paying what they owed, and on the way home, she was to buy coffee beans, foreign cigarettes, canned chicken curry — all the things they couldn’t have when times were lean. Nunoe was of the mind they should save what he made because they didn’t know when he’d sell another comic book, but Shigeru was of the mind they should spend what he made because they didn’t know when he’d sell another comic book.

THE PUBLISHERS WERE BACK-ALLEY OUTFITS. Mildew scarred the wallpaper in the cramped offices, roach droppings peppered the floors. Pinch-faced editors leafed through the pages, shook their heads, muttered this was unsalable, swore they couldn’t even remember asking Shigeru to come up with this… this… whatever this was. Nunoe stood firm, but they worked on her, cut the fee in half, and she cried on the train, remembering Shigeru hunched over his desk, struggling to get his work on paper. At home, he told her she did well, that’s the way things were, next time might be better. Some publishers did recognize Shigeru’s talent. Mr. Nagai, for example, had printed Shigeru’s “Boneyard Kitaro” series. He’d always paid, but a malady had befallen him and he wasn’t in the business anymore.

On a visit, Nunoe told her sister (the one whose husband worked in the ritzy Ginza) how she and Shigeru lived. Her sister nearly dropped her tea cup. She said Shigeru had grossly misrepresented his situation and Nunoe should stay with her a few days to teach him a lesson. Nunoe would never leave Shigeru, but poverty had worn her down. Time apart might be good for the both of them. Nunoe sent a telegram, they didn’t have a phone.

WILL STAY HERE AWHILE. STOP.

Two days later, Shigeru showed up, hefting a watermelon the size of a roasting pig. While Nunoe’s sister grappled with the melon, he thanked her for putting his wife up. He looked at Nunoe. He asked if she were ready to go home. She knew what he meant. On the train, Shigeru didn’t speak. Nunoe kept her smile to herself. He’d gotten her back for a watermelon, granted it was a big one.


NUNOUE HAD TO FIND WORK, living next door to starvation was ridiculous. A guy from the Tax Bureau accused Shigeru of cheating on his taxes, nobody could get by on the amount he declared. Shigeru brought up a fist, bristling with red pawn tickets, and told the guy if he could get blood from a stone, he was welcome to try.

Maybe Nunoe could get on in the ritzy Ginza company where her sister’s husband worked. In a restaurant, Nunoe and her sister poked at the possibility over plates of sushi. Nunoe loved the shiny aroma of raw fish, but suddenly her appetite went on the blink. The next morning she took the lid off the pot of steaming rice. When the hot, starchy cloud smacked her in the face, she clapped her hand over her mouth and ran to the bathroom.

Nunoe gave up her plan to get a job. Nights, she wrestled with demons. Living this close to the bone, how would they feed a baby? In her last trimester, she developed pregnancy poisoning and went to the hospital once a week for tests. On Christmas Eve, she shook Shigeru awake to tell him she was off to see the doctor. Minutes later, footsteps crunched over the snow behind her. It was Shigeru, he’d gotten up to go with her, a first for him. He must have had a premonition, because the doctor told her the baby was ready to come out. Nunoe delivered a healthy baby girl. She looked like Shigeru, they named her Naoko.

Maybe Shigeru had pawned something because the house was as balmy as Bali when Nunoe brought Naoko home. Nunoe had planned to breastfeed, but nurses at the hospital said the Japanese tradition of suckling babies when they cried was old hat. Instead, Nunoe was to give Naoko prescribed amounts of powdered milk at prescribed times like mothers did in America, and if Naoko cried Nunoe wasn’t to cuddle her because that would spoil her. This, the nurses proclaimed, chins held high, was the American style of child development.

Nunoe did what they told her, but when the powdered milk ran out, she’d stopped lactating. She tried to buy more with IOUs Shigeru got from publishers. The pharmacist sympathized with her plight, but he only took cash. Humiliated, Nunoe felt as if her face had caught fire. They’d pawned everything — Nunoe’s wedding kimono, their shoes, everything. Worse, a publisher who’d owed Shigeru 200,000 yen went belly up. Shigeru made the rounds, but nobody would print him. Word was out that anything with his name on it wouldn’t sell. The only thing left to do was give up cartooning and go into signboard painting.

And then…


A VISITOR ARRIVED. He brought a gift, miso-flavored rice crackers. Perhaps Shigeru wouldn’t recognize him. He’d befallen a malady. He’d recovered, though, and started a publishing firm with a friend. They wondered if Shigeru would contribute, say for 300 yen a page? Of course, he’d pay in cash, up front.

It was Mr. Nagai! He’d published Shigeru’s “Boneyard Kitaro” before the malady befell him! A year later, Mr. Nagai bumped up the fee to 500 yen a page — Shigeru, Nunoe, and Naoko could eat for days on a thousand — and Nunoe thought she’d died and gone to heaven.

The day finally came, the day Nunoe just knew would come. There was a knock on the front door. The well-dressed man coughed into his fist and said he’d like a word with Shigeru, if he wasn’t busy. He handed Nunoe his card. He was an editor from Kodansha. Kodansha! (Think Time Warner, think IPC Media.) Nunoe nearly melted.

While the editor and Shigeru talked, Nunoe knelt behind the parlor door and strained to listen. Her heart beat like a bird cupped in her hands, flapping to get free. The editor asked Shigeru to draw a science fiction piece for Boy’s Magazine, and Nunoe almost danced for joy. Shigeru had drawn his first science fiction story not too long ago, it had been fantastic. But then Shigeru said “Thanks all the same, but science fiction isn’t my forte.” The bird in her hands stilled, and the taste of ashes burned in her mouth.
Nunoe showed the editor to the door and thanked him for coming. When she asked Shigeru why, he told her he was about to say yes, but then the faces of cartoonists who’d accepted commissions outside their genre floated into his vision. They’d failed to come up with the goods, and in this business, you screw up once and that’s it, they don’t give you another chance. Don’t worry, Kodansha will be back.

Nunoe swallowed her disappointment. Life was better, they had plenty to eat, and they’d redeemed everything from the pawn shop. She certainly couldn’t complain, but Kodansha… Kodansha!

Two years later, when cicadas’ cries shivered in the air, the editor from Kodansha coughed into his fist once again. He’d like a word with Shigeru, if he wasn’t busy. Nunoe knelt behind the parlor door and strained to listen. There’d been a change in policy. Shigeru could write whatever he wanted, but they needed it for the summer issue. This time, Shigeru took the job.

Nunoe knew Shigeru wasn’t golden just because Kodansha had given him the shot. If he didn’t knock one out of the park, the company would give him the heave-ho. He had to develop an idea that let him keep one foot in the supernatural and tickle the readers of Boy’s Magazine at the same time. That meant a tweak in theme and style. He tied a towel around his brow so sweat didn’t roll off his forehead and smudge the ink. They didn’t have an air conditioner, they couldn’t even afford a fan. He worked day after day, grappling for the look that would take him to the majors. On the floor around his desk, discarded sheets piled up as thick as autumn leaves.

Finally, he nailed down the look and penned “TV Boy” in his new style. To tell the truth, Nunoe couldn’t really get into the story, the adventures of a tyke who rode electrical waves in and out of television sets, but she did like the way Shigeru drew — the characters were rounder, softer, much more appealing.

The kids who bought Boy’s Magazine lapped up “TV Boy” like puppies do milk. Kodansha put him on commission — at 5,000 yen a page! Shigeru overhauled “Boneyard Kitaro” as a weekly series. The comic was still spooky, but in Shigeru’s softer, gentler hand, Kitaro and his cronies proved lovable to children and adults.

“TV Boy” pushed Shigeru over the top. In 1965, Kodansha honored him with their award for the best in juvenile comics (think Newberry, think Caldecott), and he was so swamped with commissions he had to hire assistants. The ceremony was held at the Imperial Hotel, but Nunoe didn’t go. In those days, wives didn’t accompany their famous husbands (decorum dictated deeds be downplayed). Besides, she had Naoko to look after, and she was heavy with their second child.

Shigeru wore a new suit for the occasion, the first he’d bought since their wedding day five years earlier, when Nunoe sat next to him for the group picture and heard his prosthetic arm go tink! for the first — and last — time.

Afterword

Under his pen name, Mizuki Shigeru, Shigeru was to receive awards throughout his long career (at this writing, he is 88) and become one of Japan’s most beloved cartoonists. When “Boneyard Kitaro” was optioned for a television series, the producers urged Shigeru to switch “boneyard” for something more easily digested. He suggested ge-ge-ge. In his infancy, unable to pronounce his name, he’d referred to himself with the three syllables. Thus “Boneyard Kitaro” morphed into “Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro.” Its latest incarnation was the 2008 film, Gegege no Kitaro: Kitaro and the Millennium Curse.

Shortly after Shigeru received Kodansha’s award for excellence in juvenile comics, Nunoe gave birth to their second daughter, Etsuko. Shigeru, busy drawing, left the child-raising to Nunoe. She prepared meals for her family, took Shigeru’s assistants under her wing, and when Shigeru’s parents grew infirm, they moved into the house and Nunoe took care of them, too. In her autobiography, Ge-ge-ge no Nyobo[3] (Ge-ge-ge Kitaro’s Wife), on which I based this story (and which NHK dramatized in a popular television series in 2010), Nunoe credits Shigeru’s success to his diligence, dodging the slightest suggestion that she played a role. This reader, however, turned the last page with the strong impression that the lady doth protest too much. Without the bride of Boneyard Kitaro, would the Kitaro we know today have ever gotten out of that cemetery?


The author extends his appreciation to Nunoe and Shigeru for their permission to adapt Nunoe’s autobiography for this article. I would also like to thank Suzuki Hiromasa of Jitsugyo-no-Nihon-sha (Nunoe’s publisher) for helping me get Nunoe’s story into the pages of Kyoto Journal.

 

[3] 武良布枝(むら ぬのえ)「ゲゲゲの女房」、実業之日本社、2008