Is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama… and Mahatma Gandhi, Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela. Read all about them in the Japanese comics promoting positive messages.
Heather Wax | May 2009 issue
When Eiji Han Shimizu, 38, grew up in Yokohama, Japan, he loved comic books, “manga” in Japanese, especially those of Osamu Tezuka, the legendary Japanese artist who created Astro Boy and Black Jack. Tezuka’s manga were action-packed, filled with characters who fought crime, helped the marginalized and battled evil forces.
To Shimizu, who as a boy repeatedly encountered discrimination and “uncomfortable, unpleasant remarks” about his South Korean background, these were every bit as important as the more serious manga that taught him about politics, history, philosophy and romance. “In Japan, we receive information about everything through manga,” Shimizu says. “Manga is not just a genre, it’s a medium. So I knew the power of this storytelling vehicle.”
Now he’s harnessing that power to tell the inspiring stories of true-life heroes like civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., former South African president Nelson Mandela and Myanmar’s pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
Shimizu got his chance to make manga one winter night in 2005, when he received a phone call from Roko Belic, a young filmmaker in San Francisco. Shimizu, who has an MBA from the University of Miami, was working at the largest magazine publisher in Japan, where he created new projects and managed joint ventures with big media companies like Lonely Planet and Yahoo. The two men got talking, and Belic asked if Shimizu would be interested in working on a documentary about happiness. “I could travel around the world, anywhere I wanted to go. It was too good to be true,” he recalls. “The passion for doing something good for humanity was always in me, but I had been too busy doing moneymaking stuff.”
It didn’t take Shimizu long to make a decision. He quit his job and told Belic he’d join the film if he could have time to work on his own project too—an idea he’d been tossing around in his head for as long as he could remember. Shimizu wanted to create a series of manga that would “inspire and promote positive messages.”
His idea was still crude. Should he reinterpret the classics, the books of writers like Shakespeare, Dickens and Dostoyevsky? Maybe he should focus on great athletes. It wasn’t until he traveled to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), during a pilgrimage to Mother Teresa’s home for the dying and destitute, that the right idea finally struck him. “I vividly felt her presence where hundreds of volunteers around the world serve with the poorest of the poor,” he says. “It became clearer and clearer that, first and foremost, I wanted to make manga about the spiritual and political leaders who changed the world for the better.”
So in 2006, Shimizu launched Emotional Content, a network of independent manga and anime artists (anime is a Japanese style of cartoon animation generally defined by intricate story lines, adult themes and wide-eyed characters) in Japan that would create what he calls “bio-graphic novels” about “true-life superheroes.” The first subject: the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, spiritual leader of Tibet. For this book, Shimizu enlisted illustrator Tetsu Saiwai, a 20-year veteran who’d previously drawn educational manga on human rights issues. Saiwai had spent time in Lhasa, and had the right aesthetic. The way he draws faces would emphasize the Dalai Lama’s softness and portray him as friendly and approachable. Together, Shimizu and Saiwai mapped out a storyboard.
In Shimizu’s manga, real lives are sliced, diced and reassembled into a complete picture, drawn in black and white. We see the Dalai Lama in childhood and adolescence and at the time he takes the throne. We see his family, his training in religious austerity and the attacks by the Chinese army. We see his harrowing escape to India, where he set up the Tibetan exile community in the town of Dharamsala. And again and again, we observe his devotion to a doctrine of non-violence that profoundly shapes every choice he makes.
When Shimizu talks about inspiring people to “rediscover and value true heroism” through his books, this is what he’s talking about. We’re accustomed to thinking of comic book heroes as vigilantes battling crime and injustice through face-to-face—or mask-to-mask—combat with the enemy. The willingness to stay and fight, we think, is what makes them courageous. In Shimizu’s manga, this assumption is turned on its head. “Superheroes in graphic novels don’t have to be able to fly, cast lasers from their eyes or have six-pack abs,” he likes to say. “Without the help of these powers or appearances, there have been great role models in our history who have fought for others with their courage, self-sacrifice, compassion and determination. I believe that these are the true qualities of superheroes.”
The Department of Education in Dharamsala has asked for permission to translate the Dalai Lama manga so it can be used to teach young refugees in the Tibetan Children’s Village, a settlement that provides homes and schools for the hundreds of orphans and destitute youth who arrive from Tibet each year. Officials believe the book will help these children develop a deep understanding of Tibetan culture and identity. After all, most kids want to read this kind of book—the text is minimal, the drawings are charming and the history is highly personalized. A complicated narrative is boiled down to fewer than 200 pages. “Even to many avid biography readers, thousands of pages in a bulky book format can sometimes be intimidating and may hinder their intellectual pursuits,” says Shimizu. “I hope to reinvent biographies into something more accessible for a wider audience worldwide by employing an unconventional yet easy-to-read medium.”
Last year, Shimizu’s publishing company, Emotional Content, released a manga biography of Mother Teresa and followed it with a biography of Che Guevara, which includes intimate family stories that portray him “as a human just like us, instead of a legendary revolutionary,” Shimizu says. He wonders what some of his Cuban-American friends in Miami will think about the book and his meeting with Guevara’s son. He wonders, too, whether he can still travel freely in China. He’s had to sacrifice a lot, he says.
Yet alongside upcoming manga on King, Mandela and Suu Kyi, he’s also working on comics on Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, Beatles musician John Lennon and Dutch Holocaust figure Anne Frank. Proceeds from the books will go to charity, and a big Japanese publisher has agreed to print and distribute the series on a large scale.
“Delivering the lives of these heroes in a very animated way, using these mediums, we can effectively protest against human rights violations, atrocities and exploitation rampant throughout the world,” Shimizu says, “as well as spread and advocate the fundamental, precious values of altruism, compassion and philanthropy to people of all ages and walks of life.”
Heather Wax, who writes about science and religion, recently discovered her father has read hundreds of comic books.