By Brianna Anderson
Wilson, Seán Michael, and Akiko Shimojima. The Minamata Story: An Eco-Tragedy. Stone Bridge Press, 2021.
The opening pages of Seán Michael Wilson and Akiko Shimojima’s young adult manga The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy present a haunting depiction of an ecosystem disrupted by harmful human activities. The manga begins in the 1950s with two panels depicting a silhouetted person traveling in a small boat on the Yatsushiro Sea in the Minamata area of Southern Japan, backdropped by a lush landscape and setting sun. In the following six pages, however, the titular “eco-tragedy” violently interrupts this idyllic nature scene. A pipe spews dark toxic waste into the ocean, and the pollution invisibly travels through the ecosystem, moving from shrimp to a series of ever-larger fish that are harvested by fishermen. Domestic cats consume the caught fish and soon develop disturbing symptoms, with one animal stumbling around in a daze before plunging into the ocean in front of its shocked young owner (Figure 1).
The Minamata Story’s harrowing, mostly wordless opening scene–suffused only by onomatopoeia–serves several important purposes. First, the slow spread of the pollution through the food chain from fish to domestic cats highlights the devastating, far-reaching violence that harmful human actions inflict on environments. This slow destruction often goes unnoticed until it culminates in close-to-home, visually spectacular scenes of devastation, like ill cats hurling themselves into water. Secondly, the opening panels provide a horrifying introduction to Minamata disease: a debilitating and sometimes deadly neurological condition in humans and animals caused by the consumption of fish contaminated by methylmercury that the Chisso chemical factory illegally released into the ocean during the 1950s and 1960s. As Noriyukia Hachiya observes in their article “The History and the Present of Minamata Disease,” “Minamata disease is one of the most significant negative consequences associated with environmental pollution caused by industrial activity in the world… and persisting issues are far from abating even half a century after the first identification of the disease” (112). After introducing the disease and depicting its origins, The Minamata Story shifts to the present-day to investigate the enduring effects of the pollution through the perspective of Tomi, a half-British, half-Japanese college student. Tomi learns about Minamata disease after he selects the illness as the subject of his class research assignment. This contemporary narrative framework enables the manga to explore the intersections of environmental crises with disability, intergenerational trauma, and socioeconomic inequality through a vivid portrayal of the human toll of corporate pollution.
After Tomi shares his research topic with his family, his grandmother, Sato Kimura, reveals that she lived in Minamata (the illness’ namesake) before moving away in the 1970s. Kimura attributes her silence about this aspect of their family history to the stigma surrounding the disease, explaining that a “lot of people left Minamata in the ‘60s and ‘70s when the disease problem was the most widely known. And most of them felt it was a shameful thing and kept it a secret” (Wilson and Shimojima 19). Several flashbacks reveal other ways that this stigma impacted the town’s residents. For example, Kimura recounts a fistfight between fisherman and the Minamata Fish Retailers Union after the union refused to sell fish caught locally. A furious fisherman exclaims, “You selfish lot, how can we feed our families if you don’t sell our fish!” A retailer responds, “We can’t sell poison fish, idiot!” and the street erupts into a violent brawl (Wilson and Shimojima 21). Similarly, Ken, who has Minamata disease, recalls a frightening encounter with bullies during his childhood. One boy shoves Ken to the ground, yelling, “My father lost his job in Chisso because of sick fools like you! He had to move to Fukuoka! We hardly ever see him anymore!” Another boy tells the prostrate Ken, “Why don’t you just die!” (Wilson and Shimojima 39). Together, these troubling scenes portray Minamata disease as a form of environmental injustice: “the persistent inequitable distribution of pollution and other environmental burdens on low-income communities and communities of color” (Perls). Hence, while the pollution most visibly impacts the people killed or left permanently disabled by Minamata disease, the manga also teaches young readers about the ways that this environmental crisis exacerbated existing inequalities by causing the displacement and unemployment of factory employees, the financial ruin of economically vulnerable fishermen, and lingering psychological trauma.
The most emotionally affective scenes feature the disabled survivors of Minamata disease. Tomi and Kimura travel to the city together to visit Hotto Hausu, a daycare center and workplace for Minamata disease sufferers. The center serves as a community space where patients gather to socialize amongst one another, produce and sell “eco-bags” and bookmarks made from recycled materials, and give school talks. As Mrs. Kato, the center’s director, explains, “This all helps to tell the story of Minamata disease, both to the local people and to the world. We like to call all this ‘disseminating treasures from Minamata disease’” (Wilson and Shimojima 31). Several panels depict Tomi and Kimura interacting with the Minamata disease survivors as they construct their products and sing a song about the illness to schoolchildren. Shimojima doesn’t shy away from depicting the grim physical realities of the disease, drawing several patients in wheelchairs and illustrating people with facial and hand contortions. However, these scenes humanize rather than stigmatize the survivors by portraying patients engaging in everyday activities, laughing, and sharing their stories with Tomi and Kimura (Figure 2).
In this way, the manga serves as a powerful work of “graphic medicine,” which MK Czerwiec et al. defines as “a movement for change that challenges the dominant methods of scholarship in healthcare, offering a more inclusive perspective of medicine, illness, disability, caregiving, and being cared for. Comics give voice to those who are often not heard” (2). Tomi begins his investigation by seeking out firsthand accounts from the sufferers of the disease and other residents of Minamata who witnessed the pollution, rather than immediately consulting medical professionals. The protagonist’s investigation closely resembles the research that the manga’s author and illustrator undertook as they created the narrative. In an interview with Japan Forward, Wilson explained that an environmental campaigner “took me down to Minamata to meet with the disease sufferers and those who care for them. They took me on a tour of some key places connected to the issue… Then, we both researched it, for facts and visuals” (Busetto). Additionally, a paratextual endnote entitled “Characters in Profile” provides short biographies of five real people that Wilson and Shimojima used as inspiration for the Hotto Hausu characters, further spotlighting the personal narratives of people affected by Minamata disease. As a result, the manga internally and externally disrupts traditional hierarchies of medical knowledge, both through Tomi’s fictional research and through the paratextual biographies of real-world individuals impacted by the disease who informed the creation of the manga. This repeated emphasis on the firsthand accounts of disabled individuals provides an empathetic and personal portrayal of Minamata disease.
After his visit to Minamata, however, Tomi does meet with an elderly doctor employed at the university hospital who further highlights the injustices committed by the Chisso corporation. The doctor supplements Tomi’s gathered firsthand accounts with additional information about Minamata disease. Here, the narrative becomes a bit drier and more didactic, occasionally weighed down by lengthy speech bubbles filled with statistics. For instance, the doctor explains that Chisso failed to adequately identify and compensate all the victims of the disease, stating that “by spring 1997, when applications had pretty much ended, the number of people who had applied for certification as Minamata disease victims was more than 17,000. Of these 2,265 were accepted.” Brow furrowed, Tomi responds, “Wow, that’s not a lot. Only about… ah… 15% of those who applied” (Wilson and Shimojima 72). While young readers will likely not find this scene as riveting as the cat deaths or Ken’s emotional narrative of being bullied, the doctor does provide important contextual information that helps the audience understand how legal and social structures failed to protect Minamata disease survivors.
Troublingly, though, the doctor negatively portrays two patients he treated when the crisis first began. He recounts, “One patient rolled off his bed. The man’s bones showed through his pathetic layer of skin. It felt disgusting to touch. But his gaze burned with anger at the injustice of what had befallen him. His eyes’ horrific intensity stayed with me for many years” (Wilson and Shimojima 78). Describing another patient, he comments, “The poor girl’s body was covered in the most disgusting sores. Her parents looked in a daze. Utterly lost. She died later that month” (79). Figure 3 depicts the younger doctor pulling a bedsheet up, looking down at the unseen patient with a perturbed expression as her sobbing parents stand on either side of him. The following panel provides a closeup illustration of the girl’s bare, sore-covered legs.
On the one hand, these anecdotes use the visual-verbal manga medium to reinforce the horror of Minamata disease and the trauma that it inflicts on survivors, their families, and medical professionals. On the other hand, the doctor’s description of his patients as “disgusting,” “horrific,” and “pathetic” potentially dehumanizes Minamata disease sufferers by emphasizing the repulsion he feels while treating them, thereby perpetuating the negative stigma surrounding the victims. Read generously, the sharp juxtaposition of these portrayals with the earlier, positive depictions of the Hotto Hausu patients could perhaps serve as a commentary on the need for more empathetic treatment of the victims of environmental crises in medical institutions or for increased psychological support for the medical staff who treat them. However, the inclusion of these scenes does somewhat undermine the manga’s sympathetic representation of Minamata disease survivors by portraying the sufferers—if only briefly—as physically repellant.
Despite the potential dehumanization of Minamata disease survivors, the doctor does inspire Tomi to engage in activism. At the conclusion of the manga, Tomi presents his research to his college class. He ends his presentation by telling his peers that when the doctor was their age, he helped sufferers in Minamata get payment from the Chisso corporation. Tomi asks,
What have I done compared to that? And please ask yourself, what are you doing? What are you doing to help make things better? In lots of places around the world young people are protesting against injustice and environmental damage. Whatever their theory or language or culture is, the basic aim is the same: they are trying to make things better. I think we should be doing the same in Japan. And from now on, I will (Wilson and Shimojima 100-101).
The manga traces Tomi’s development from a disinterested student who only studies Minamata disease for his class assignment to an empowered activist who has developed an increased awareness of his own family history. Additionally, his presentation serves as a call to action for young adult readers to consider how they can engage in their own forms of activism. Overall, then, The Minamata Story: An Eco-Tragedy effectively uses visual and textual narration to educate young adult readers about environmental injustice and Minamata disease, as well as the need for stricter systems of accountability for corporations. Furthermore, the manga emphasizes the importance of youth activism to prevent future eco-tragedies and combat ongoing social injustices. As a result, The Minamata Story would make a valuable addition for courses or research projects on environmental injustice, graphic medicine, and young adult literature.
Busetto, Arielle. “New Manga Brings Attention to EcoTragedy of Minamata.” Japan Forward, 10 June 2021, https://japan-forward.com/new-manga-brings-attention-to-ecotragedy-of-minamata/. Accessed 18 November 2021.
Czerwiec, MK, Ian Williams, Susan Merrill Squier, Michael J. Green, Kimberly R. Myers, and Scott T. Smith. Graphic Medicine Manifesto. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.
Hachiya, Noriyuki. “The History and Present of Minamata Disease—Entering the Second Half a Century.” JMAJ, vol. 49, no. 3, 2006, pp. 112-118.
Perls, Hannah. “EPA Undermines its Own Environmental Justice Programs.” Environmental & Energy Law Program, 12 November 2020, https://eelp.law.harvard.edu/2020/11/epa-undermines-its-own-environmental-justice-programs/. Accessed 20 October 2021.