Mizuki Shigeru: Giving form to kehai

Interview by Mizuho Toyoshima

I am of the generation that grew up watching Mizuki’s ghost manga on television. As children he gave form to our imaginings about ghosts and gener­ated fear as well as excitement. We accepted his creations as real. This is, of course, a childhood experience and has faded with passage info adulthood, but when I went to Mizuki’s office, I found that I became excited and a little afraid. This was true right up to the point when I saw his face. He is of average height and build. His left arm is gone from the shoulder as a result of an injury he suffered in New Guinea during World War II. But his face is bright and red with a gentle mouth and eyes. I relaxed. So this was the man who had created all those ghosts. It seemed impossible, and as my mind mulled over these incongruities he began to talk about kehai….



Mizuki Shigeru: Kehai always predicates the appearance of a ghost or specter. One kind of ghost is a buruburu (literally: the shivers). When you go to a cemetery for example, it’s the job of the buruburu to make the back of your neck feel cold. In a graveyard when you feel the kehai of something unexplainable about to make its appearance that’s when the buruburu shows up. We sense kehai with buruburu leading the way. A ghost doesn’t just all of a sudden appear out of nowhere; they are of necessity, always announced prior to their actual appearance by a sensa­tion of kehai or something eerie. In other words, without the feeling of fear no ghost will make its presence known. Even as the object of the fear is vague and inexplicable you feel afraid. Kehai does not involve being taken by surprise. To be startled is an entirely different experience. Kehai concerns the state of affairs that precede an event.

I have long been meddling with ghosts, but for a person to see a ghost is an impossibility, when people believe they’ve seen one they’ve really just mista­kenly seen an animal or noctiluca or what have you. Sounds, on the other hand, they exist, but not tangible forms. When you think about the absence of form, that’s kehai. In other words, people who sense kehai strongly give it form for the first time. I don’t see ghosts either; I just sense their kehai. And since in my case I’m not a musician, I’m not satisfied until something has a form. So I give form to kehai, and ghosts are the form I hap­pen to have chosen. I think ghosts are spirits or ki or other such formless entities. Up until three or four years ago I was unsure and therefore wouldn’t say anything about it, but recently it seems that spirits have fallen in line with my descriptions of them.

I think we are capable of perceiving more than just what our five senses report. It may be possible to sense, say, the “ethereal pause” as it’s known in psychics. I guess it was because I had an environment that allowed me to see such things relatively easily that I started to draw ghosts.

Some people say that you can’t under­stand ghosts until you’ve understood the whole of the spiritual world, but even if you spend a lifetime you can’t learn how the spiritual world works.

Kehai and ghosts: even if these two designations are clearly different, they are, I think, definitely related. Recently, even professor Stephen Hawking has been making some strange announce­ments. On this earth there are some things that are not visible to the eyes and this has to be the case. I think these things are kehai. And if there can exist things as strange as black holes, that consume all things, it’s not at all unusual for such things as formless spirits or ki to exist.

So this is what happens when I sense ghosts, or rather, the departed souls of the dead and also ki, or rather kehai, and give form to the images they inspire.

Ghosts have to be created. When artists of the past have depicted them, assigning specific shapes, I think it’s appropriate to accept these depictions and use them as they are if I feel I can’t do better. This is an easy determination to make. You can feel if it’s right.

So that’s why when it comes to the ori­gins of my work, not everything is of my own creation. I borrow from China and so forth. The ghosts that appear in Yanagita Kunio‘s collections of folk tales, though, have no forms. In that case I had no choice but to do them myself.


People in Africa and New Guinea for example give vivid form to the unseen. (He brings out a very large photographic print. In it a large group of nearly naked men wearing fantastically large masks and holding or wearing a great variety of other accessories are standing in a line behind a fire in a nocturnal forest set­). These masks depict the spirit of the forest. They are made to smell strongly like the forest. There are about thirty different variations of the mask. The faces on them all appear the same at first, but they are all subtly different. They dance about the fire in order to exorcise illness or “bad air.” The forest spirit comes and performs the exorcism for them. With sound and dance they give form to the unseen forest spirit. (He points at the groin of one of the dancers.) Look at the end of his penis. It has a hood attached. A bit unexpected? Well, with this attached they dance into a frenzy and put themselves into trance states.

In Japan this kind of thing certainly must have occurred throughout the Jomon and Yayoi periods (until AD 300). Even today this sort of thing can be seen at the fire festivals for instance. Japan is quite advanced in this regard, and varied. So, contrary to expectation, we often find it easy to understand this sort of thing.

Kehai fills a place. In overflows. It is even present in cities, but the kehai of the city is different from the kehai that I can sense. The mysteries of ki are not to be felt in the city. Kehai can be tremendously powerful in a place where there are few people. In my experience, New Guinea and Africa are such places. In animism, they speak of trees and rocks having voices. I had thought this is true only of the distant past, but when I went to Africa I realized that it was just a matter of properly opening the conversation. The trees and rocks are indeed talking. The trees must really be alive at those times. I had never felt any­thing so conducive to kehai. This was in an area of Africa remote enough to have escaped the slave trade. Whether or not one is able to hear the conversations of the rocks and trees is, I suppose, related to geography. Japan is, of course, entirely different geographically from Africa. And much of Japan has a popu­lation density that simply generates too much static interference.


Humans were born onto this earth unable to forgo some awareness and, at the some time, they have to work. Because no one wants to be poor and all desire their own piece of prosperity. So we devote all our energies solely to this task, unwittingly glossing over these problems. In our world today we place the businessmen and industrialists at the center of society. I think that originally the most basic thing in life was the process of acquiring food, but, in Japan people work like slaves for money. They say “eight-hour workday,” but everyone works eleven hours, because if you’re careless your income will fall off to nothing. You must work yourself numb. In the past, life was interesting primarily because there was time enough to sense such things as kehai. But if you work more than eight hours a day your capacity to sense such things will be extinguished.

Look at me—I’m supposed to have freedom because I work freelance, but as it turns out, if you don’t link yourself to the rotating wheels of society you don’t make any money. So inevitably you’re pulled into the system. With deadlines and what have you, all of a sudden you wake up one morning and realize you’re seventy-years old. It’s already too late for anything. Without enough time to feel what it is like to be alive to have fun…you’re sucked up into these ever-spinning wheels.

The fact is, precisely because in our society it’s a terrible thing not to have money, the businessmen and industrialists keep us so busy. In New Guinea or Africa—places that still have kehai—the native populations lead very full lives. By comparison, the level of happiness in Japan is very low. There, the sky is truly blue and the air is good. Where it is said there is little wealth I sensed tremendous richness. To leave the development of a nation in the hands of the industrialists, as we have done in Japan, is a mistake.

Politicians also use money to survive. They all love money. It seems that indus­trialists and the like, who are the harbin­gers of such ideas, will inevitably con­tinue to control the world. But this seems strange to me. I feel we would be much better off if we left the country in the hands of people who thought more care­fully about how people were really meant to live. People whose throats are clogged with their own breath are entirely too numerous in our world today. In such a world kehai has no place.


Manga artist and ghost specialist Mizuki Shigeru was born in Tottori Prefecture in 1924. After serving in World War II, he worked in various jobs before starting to draw for a TV animation program. This led him into manga. He created “Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro”, “Little Devil” and other popular television, and was recognized through many accolades. Several of Mizuki’s ghosts and phantoms appeared in the first issue of Kyoto Journal. This interview was also published in Japanese in issue KJ21.

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Mizuho Toyoshima

Author's Bio

Mizuho Toyoshima is KJ’s Consulting Editor.


Header image: Futakuchi-onna by Mizuki Shigeru. You can find out more about Mizuki’s weird and wonderful characters in KJ Issue 2.