Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Manga Review: Shigeru Mizuki's Kitaro

Author: Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly
432 pages

Meet Kitaro. He’s just like any other boy, except for a few small differences: he only has one eye, his hair is an antenna that senses paranormal activity, his geta sandals are jet-powered, and he can blend into his surroundings like a chameleon. Oh, and he’s a three-hundred-and-fifty-year-old yokai (spirit monster). With all the offbeat humor of an Addams Family story, Kitaro is a lighthearted romp in which the bad guys always get what’s coming to them. (Source: D&Q)

Reviewing a yokai book, especially a Shigeru Mizuki book, is a daunting task. Mizuki is considered Japan's resident expert on yokai tales in manga; according to the book's foreward, there's an entire segment of the Japanese population who owes their knowledge of the yokai world to GeGeGe no Kitaro. It makes sense: every chapter is a field study on a different variety of ayakashi as they wreck mischief on the human world.

And at the center of the story is the mysterious boy Kitaro, the human-looking yokai with one eye whose powers with the supernatural are a thing of legend. If something goes wrong, the world calls upon Kitaro for guidance, and he works his magic to the 'ge ge ge' chorus of the beasts all around him. He dutifully serves the realm of humans but his life is fully entrenched in the yokai world, and his ability to slide between these two spheres is a major reason why both sides look up to him. 

And yet, possibly as a shock to modern readers used to the more gentle brand of yokai worker, Kitaro is a jerk. A jerk with a heart of gold, yes, but even that golden heart is wrapped up in an extra layer of jerk sauce. But even in Kitaro, we can see the basis upon which more modern supernatural protagonists of the same lifestyle will be built upon, from Yuki Urushibara's Mushishi to Takashi Natsume of Natsume Yuujinchou. Even Osamu Tezuka's Dororo and Black Jack, two wildly divergent characters, carry shades of Kitaro.

Kitaro, released by Drawn & Quarterly in 2013, is a collection of chapters from the Shigeru Mizuki manga GeGeGe no Kitaro, specifically from the years 1967 through 1969 as they are considered to be the peak of the series. The basic set up of a Kitaro chapter is familiar and is often one of two scenarios: a yokai causes trouble for the human world, and the human world calls upon Kitaro to set it right, or a human acts in a horrible fashion and happens to run across Kitaro and his personal style of justice. Either way, it always ends with Kitaro setting things straight and restoring balance before resuming his seemingly never ending journey as a yokai drifter among men, content to wander and never settle down.

Compared to the supernatural wanderers of modern era manga, Kitaro is an aberration in the design. He's a short kid-looking boy who pals around with vulgar, often grotesque, sometimes amoral yokai and only has one eye; his empty eye socket is taken up by his father Medama, whose spirit resides in an eyeball and often helps Kitaro out in a pinch. Kitaro can have a blunt, unforgiving attitude but if someone is in trouble, he would be the first in line to help them out. He doesn't seem to have any qualms about being a yokai boy of power in a human world that depends on him, and any doubts on his position among his peers are never expressed.

It's worth mentioning that, on the occasion when Kitaro needs back up, his allies are also yokai, although they look much less human than him. Nezumi is the closest thing Kitaro has to a human companion, being half-yokai half-human, but it doesn't help that he has both the face and a personality of an oversized rat. Perhaps in this way, Nezumi represents why Kitaro even bothers with humans: he is all of the best and the worst aspects of humanity in a semi-yokai form and he is interesting in a way a lot of yokai aren't. That is our appeal, in one sense, to Kitaro as humans: we keep his life interesting (although he probably didn't appreciate being turned into a huge monster and being attacked by the government, but what can you do?).


The humans in Kitaro are often selfish and shortsighted but for the most part they mean well and will pay respect to Kitaro when the boy has saved their lives. If any character has any outward vehemence towards Kitaro and his yokai ways, they are often quickly established as the antagonistic force in the story, and are either punished or made to become humble in the face of Kitaro's power. In an era of fiction in which overpowered protagonists seem like angry, benevolent gods, Kitaro is more like a messy-haired kid who just happens to have amazing abilities and who doesn't care what other people think of him but helps them out anyway because he's the best person for the job and if Kitaro doesn't, who will?

If anything, the story of Kitaro is a detailed, action-filed case study of the yokai and ayakashi of Japanese lore that have been the stuff of stories for thousands of years. It just so happens that, thanks to the research and detail Shigeru Mizuki has put into crafting each individual yokai and their habits, he has been seen as the de facto professor of yokai stories. He even throws in a few nods to the monsters of the West with cameos from Dracula and Frankenstein among others. If you were able to study the whole of GeGeGe no Kitaro's run in full you could easily construct a detailed encyclopedia of the prominent yokai in Japanese traditional folklore. Although, it looks like Shigeru Mizuki may have beaten us to the punch, judging by his Wikipedia page. I would gladly read a Graphic World of Japanese Phantoms.

From start to finish, Mizuki's Kitaro is a classic collection of supernatural stories that are both entertaining and culturally educational without being dry. Kitaro and his yokai friends are an absolute treasure from a now past era of storytelling in manga, a more serialized manga deeply entrenched in the culture of its country of origin. You can see Kitaro as a landmark of early manga or a significant origin of modern fantasy/supernatural stories or even a literal artifact of yokai history to be studied by future generations, but it will always be one thing above all and that is a really fun to read book of a yokai boy who can make miracles happen.

PS: Does not the Shigeru Mizuki Road and Museum look like one of the coolest places in Japan to visit? I want one of those painted Kitaro charms!

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