Even for Japanese manga, Kitaro is an unlikely hero. His father (or rather, all that’s left of him: an eyeball that’s sprouted legs and arms) lives in his left eye-socket, and takes occasional baths in cups of tea. Kitaro wears a vest made out of the hairs of his ancestors, which gives him supernatural powers, and even when he doesn’t have it, he can still fire his hair like spikes at his enemies. And, although he’s part-demon himself, he spends most of his time fighting even nastier demons in order to protect humanity (well, except for those unsavory specimens of humanity he sometimes decides to teach a lesson to…).
Kitaro has been a mainstay of Japanese pop culture since the ‘60s, with origins that can be traced back even earlier. Most have become familiar with him through the work of Shigeru Mizuki, the renowned manga artist whose vast archives of material are only now being made widely accessible in English-language translation, thanks to Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly.
But although Kitaro is the hero of this enormous, sweeping series, the actual subject of the series are the yokai – the Japanese demon-spirits that inhabit the world depicted in the series. Well, depending how strongly you take to Japanese folk-beliefs, they inhabit our world, too. Yokai form an important part of Japanese folklore and culture, which has traditionally acknowledged a plethora of spirits as inhabiting everyday objects and natural phenomena.
The spirit-demons of this work, the yokai, have been the subject of folktales, stories and art for centuries; with each region having its own unique store of yokai. Mizuki was immersed in stories of the yokai by the elderly villagers he spent time with as a child, especially the old village-woman known as Nonnonba, who lived with his family for a period of time and whose story he tells in the graphic novel of that name.
When Mizuki was struggling to earn a living as a comics artist following World War II – a war in which he lost an arm, and which he has written about extensively in such comics as Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths and Showa: A History of Japan, both also published in English by Drawn & Quarterly – he was asked to update a short-lived manga horror series from the ‘30s called Kitaro of the Graveyard (said to be a retelling of an even earlier folktale). What he eventually came up with and refined during the ‘60s was the series that spawned generations of Kitaro lovers, and to which he affixed his own childhood nickname – GeGe – to make it sound less frightening to prospective readers.
The result was a smashing success, which has spawned several films and television series (live-action and animated), as well as several video games. It also marked the beginning of his renown as a comics artist. Today, this award-winning master has an airport named after him as well as various streets in multiple countries, his hometown features a cultural centre and theme park based on the Kitaro series, and there’s even been a TV drama made about his wife.
But he takes his work on the yokai quite seriously, and is recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on these spirits. He’s acknowledged as a professional folklorist and is a member of the Japanese Society for Cultural Anthropology: a sort of Indiana Jones of the spirit-world, he’s traveled around the globe conducting research into spirit folklore. It’s this very serious background that informs his deceptively light-hearted comics.
The collection Kitaro released by Drawn & Quarterly in 2013 is only a small selection of stories from the exponentially larger Japanese-language GeGeGe no Kitaro series. But it’s a good collection: over 300 pages of Kitaro adventures to endear you to this icon of Japanese pop culture. And, while a short-lived and long out of print English translation of some of the stories did come out in 2002, the modern translation does an excellent job of reframing the stories in the present-day, with colloquialisms and dialogue that the contemporary reader can easily absorb and relate to. The evocative, dense artwork characteristic of Mizuki’s style works especially well in these stories, conveying a tremendous sense of the latent power of dark spaces: dense forests and swamps and graveyards, and shadowy modern metropolises alike.
While many of Mizuki’s other works in translation tell absorbing, harrowing and powerfully moralistic stories about the horrors of war, Kitaro is inhabited more by a sense of wonder at the mysterious and spirit-filled world in which we live. The stories too are moralistic, but in a more ambiguous and child-like way. Kitaro is usually out to help humanity, but sometimes he’s out to teach us a lesson, too. And his close association with the spirit world sometimes leaves us just slightly uncertain what to expect.
He has a gang of yokai he hangs out with and who often accompany him on adventures (they even have a baseball team)… but sometimes they wind up on the wrong side as well. The most fascinating thing about these stories, however, are the yokai themselves. They range from a traditional Japanese daruma doll that carries an army of other darumas in its belly, to the Tantanbo (a giant disembodied head with missile-like spit and laser-beam eyes), to the yasha, a “soul-swallowing night demon” whose true form is only hair. If you’ve ever wondered where the ideas behind so many Japanese horror films come from, you’ll find the origins of many of them here among the yokai.
Unlike his very graphic war comics, Kitaro is also quite suitable for younger children, although it will be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Some of the plots are spooky, but the one-eyed Kitaro and his quirky gang of followers are always there to save the day. It also reads well in association (either before or after) with the collection Nonnonba, which is the story of the old village woman who taught Mizuki all about the yokai as a child. That work serves nicely as a bridge between these spirit-stories, and his anti-war histories like Showa, the first volume of which incorporates episodes from this period of his childhood as well.
Kitaro is an absorbing and delightful introduction to Mizuki’s work, and whether you read it before or after his books that deal with the more human frailties of war and politics, it’s sure to leave you wanting more.
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