It seems very fitting to me that my first review here at Kronos’ Speakeasy is for The Birth of Kitaro, created by Shigeru Mizuki and recently published by Drawn & Quarterly; as I begin, so does the story of the little yokai boy, Kitaro.
I should probably preface the real meat of the review by saying that I love Kitaro. I’m relatively new to his stories; I heard about the anime Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro a handful of years ago while looking for something spooky to watch around Halloween time, and my attempts to watch the first series, created in the 1960s, have largely been unsuccessful, mostly because it’s hard to get used to old animation styles when you’ve been spoiled for so long with updated techniques, and because it’s hard to find good translations. Of course, there’s been a new Kitaro anime series every decade since the 60s, so I have plenty to choose from next time I decide to dive in!
Mizuki began writing the Kitaro series after serving in the military during World War II. For decades, he delighted a Japanese audience that was in sore need of a morale boost after the damage sustained by the war and its aftermath. The story follows Kitaro, the last of the Yurei Zoku, or Ghost Tribe, as he saves people from malicious yokai. (Yokai is a difficult word to translate; meaning something along the lines of “mysterious phenomenon,” it is most frequently translated as “monsters,” “spirits,” or “ghosts,” though these terms fail to portray how all-encompassing it is of weirdness in general.) As a society, Japan had, at this time, let go of many of its old superstitions in favor of looking to the future and embracing technology. But I think, perhaps, it is in human nature to go back to old tales for comfort or for explanations, and soon Mizuki’s fans were talking about the yokai in his stories as though they had always existed. (And to Mizuki’s credit, he did extensive research on yokai myths from the past, as well as made up new yokai of his own.)
Shigeru Mizuki passed away in November of last year, making it particularly timely that Drawn & Quarterly has decided to print his complete Kitaro works in standard manga-size volumes over the next few years (they previously printed a large collection of his stories called simply, Kitaro). And so they begin at the beginning, with our protagonist’s birth.
Little one-eyed Kitaro is born after his mother dies and is buried. His father, also dead but concerned for his infant son’s safety, concentrates all his lasting energy into one eyeball; thus, Medama Oyaji (Eyeball Dad) comes into being and convinces a businessman named Mizuki to care for his little monster son. By the age of six, Kitaro is deemed too strange and creepy to continue living in the Mizuki household, and he leaves to go live in a treehouse by the graveyard with Medama Oyaji (who often takes residence in Kitaro’s empty eye socket). With each chapter, new yokai are introduced, including the recurring characters Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man) and Neko Musume (Cat Girl).
The stories themselves are short and fairly simple, especially to anyone who has read more modern manga series. But there is a timelessness here, as Kitaro treads the line between human and monster, and the spooky gives way to the occasional bit of toilet humor. Mizuki’s artwork is fun and deceptive; it seems cartoonish and simple, but if you look closely at his lushly-drawn scenery, it is obvious that he had incredible talent. Zack Davisson’s translations are smooth and modern without trying to be too hip, and his historical notes at the beginning and end of the volume provide great insight for anyone new to manga, new to Japanese culture, or just new to the concept of yokai.
Mizuki’s yokai work has been a staple of Japanese pop culture for generations now, and it is my fervent hope that Drawn & Quarterly’s translations will help give it more traction Stateside. This volume, and the ones to come after it, are specifically being targeted to an all ages audience, with little games and puzzles at the back. I’m not sure if a child would choose Kitaro over, say, Pokemon, but I am glad to be able to provide the recommendation to that kid who, like me, wants something really weird and different, and who can appreciate both expanding their cultural horizons and laughing at a good old-fashioned poop joke.