October has come around once more, which means another month of spooky themes and horrific characters. Today's selection is one of the forerunners of such a genre, and for once when it comes to older manga, it's not from the mind of Osamu Tezuka.
KITARO (GeGeGe no Kitaro), by Shigeru Mizuki. First published in 1965, and first published in North America in 2013.
Kitaro is a strange little boy who serves as a sort of middleman between the world of humans and the world of yokai. He is there to save the innocent while punishing those wicked yokai who would seek to hurt humans or humans who want to use yokai powers for their own gain, as the insects of the night chirp their approval.
This series is the wellspring for all things yokai in Japanese popular media. Everything from Yokai Watch to Black Bird owes its existence in part to this very series. It's so popular that it's been adapted to television numerous times, roughly once every decade. That's a powerful testament to the lasting power of this series, and having read through this collection I can see why it has remained so popular.
This book isn't a complete omnibus, but instead a selection of chapters from the series' full run - think of this like a greatest hits compilation. All the stories featured here are simple and self-contained stories about the collision of the ancient world of the yokai and the modern world of humans. Sometimes this conflict is played for humor, such as the story where Kitaro and friends face off against classic Western monsters like werewolves, witches, and a Frankenstein monster. Sometimes it riffs on then-current pop culture, like the story where Kitaro turns into giant, hairy, whale-like monster who fights a giant robot in the middle of Tokyo. He's even referred to as Kaiju Kitaro in that form! Most of the time, though, it's about little morality tales where Kitaro rewards the good and punishes the bad in clever and unwitting ways.
For a supernatural creature, Kitaro is rather endearing. He takes the form of a little mop-topped boy with a striped vest and gata. Of course, most little boys don't have their father living in their head as a sentient, speaking eyeball to give them advice. He doesn't exert control through physical force, but instead using reason, gentleness, and the occasional bit of trickery to solve problems. It's good that he's such a weirdly sweet character, because he's pretty much the only constant to all of these stories. The other yokai run the gambit in personality, from noble to petty to outright mean-spirited. They also vary in looks, with some taking traditional forms and others looking more abstract or incorporeal. The same goes for the handful of humans we see, although they tend to be divided into innocent victims or wrongdoers in need of punishment.
All of these characters come and go as the stories grow longer and longer in length. The longest of the lot is "Creature of the Deep," the same story that features Kaiju Kitaro. It's a story about a snooty scientist hoping to find fame and fortune by rediscovering an ancient creature. Honestly, this story goes on a little too long, far past the point where even the most oblivious, self-centered villain would have gotten a clue. Regardless of length, the moral of the stories remain simple and straightforward. Those that are good and just will always be able to find aid in others; those that seek to exploit others, no matter how petty the reason, will be punished. These are classic moral lessons that resonate with people of all ages, and that ultimately is the reason these stories have endured in Japanese pop culture. A good morality tale never goes out of style, and dressing it up with supernatural gives the younger readers a bit of a vicarious thrill while older reader can pick up on both the old and the new cultural references.
Mizuki's art can look a little crude to some readers, even those used to the different visual style found in older manga. Tezuka might have been a little cartoony at times, but it was almost always very polished. Mizuki, on the other hand, had a style that was rough and caricature-like, which ends up rather suiting the dark and grungy world of the spirits. He's good at making yokai easy to distinguish and appealing to the eye, with Kitaro being the most humanoid and familiar looking of the lot. They serve as good contrast to the dark and moody landscapes of both the human and spirit worlds. He clearly took a lot of these scenes from photo references, and he even refers to his own WWII past (and to a future work) by taking things to the lush jungles of Papua New Guinea. The art gets a lot of room to shine, thanks to Drawn & Quarterly's choice to print this in an oversized omnibus. It's just something of an acquired taste.
Kitaro is a charming classic, one where the clash between the past and present play out at the hands of a cute little yokai boy and his friends.
This series is published by Drawn & Quarterly. This series is complete in Japan with 9 volumes available. Selections from these volumes have been compiled into a single omnibus, which is currently in print.
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