Sunday, January 24, 2010

Manga Review: Kitaro, #1 and #1

(Graveyard Kitaro, chapter illustration.)

The creator of "Gegege no Kitaro" is probably 10 times more fascinating than the history of the manga title that he is best known for. Having served in WWII, Shigeru Mizuki suffered from malaria, and had his left arm blown off during an American air raid. Since he had been left handed, he had to relearn how to draw and write with his right hand. He was then captured and held as a prisoner of war in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. After the war, he returned to Japan, where he found work as a movie theater operator. Finally, in 1957, he debuted as a manga artist with "Rocket Man". Always attracted to ghost stories, his works revolve around both monsters and the military. Currently, his art is used to advertise a veteran's museum in Tokyo.

(Mizuki visits his first ghoul at the blood bank, from Hakuba Kitaro.)

"Kitaro" started out as a kamishibai story, performed by traveling storytellers that would accompany their narration with pictures painted on stiff panels. Shigeru himself worked as a kamishibai artist and "Hakaba Kitaro" ("Graveyard Kitaro") was one of the stories he illustrated. Kamishibai became very popular following WWII as a way for unemployed men to make some money, but it eventually faded away with the growth of households owning TVs. According to the wiki, Shigeru created his first manga version of Hakaba Kitaro in 1959, for a rental book publisher, and created at least 6 volumes in this series. In 1966, he toned it down for children, and renamed it "Gegege no Kitaro" for Weekly Shonen Magazine. Both "Hakaba" and "Gegege" have been animated, and "Gegege" has been performed as a live-action movie.

(Graveyard Kitaro, with his bad eye on the right side, and the buck teeth.)

I've written about the Kitaro goods shop at the Jindaiji shrine grounds and the Kitaro Street, both in Chofu, and the little art gallery on the second floor of the goods shop. The main museum, though, is in Sakaiminato.

Hakaba Kitaro, by Shigeru Mizuki, Grade B
"Hakaba Kitaro" (or, "Kitaro of the Graveyard" if you prefer) started out as a series of ghost stories for an older audience. We get the origins of both Kitaro and his father in the first chapter. A man named Mizuki works at a monster blood bank, where he's told a well-kept secret - their blood really comes from monsters. Mizuki is tasked with tracking down a specific monster that is suffering from a blood disease. Mizuki is a typical human, not believing in monsters until he sees them with his own eyes, and then reacts with fear and loathing. The monster in question is a mole man, and together with his wife is expecting a baby. They're hoping that they'll live long enough to see the baby, but both of them pass away soon after. Mizuki, when checking up on them, finds the baby crawling around in a nearby graveyard - cute and human-looking enough - and decides to kill it to rid the planet of monsters. But his resolve soon fails and he throws it at a gravestone, badly damaging the eye socket. The father's spirit hasn't passed on yet, and it moves into his own eye, becoming an eyeball monster. The baby, and the eyeball, make their way to Mizuki's house, and out of guilt Mizuki decides to care for Kitaro for a while. And, since his left eye no longer works, Kitaro uses his empty socket as a home for his father.

(Original covers of the early books.)

What's amazing in this first book is that the human characters are generally drawn realistically. It's like looking at a 1950's Harper's magazine. And the backgrounds are all highly-detailed. It's just Kitaro himself and a few of the monsters that come off looking cartoonish. The bad eye switches from the left side to the right from the first story to the second, and the upper buck teeth just show up in the second story without explanation. Kitaro is fairly worldly early on, comfortable living in both the human and monster worlds. He acts as kind of a balancing force against malevolent beings in both environments. Initially, he doesn't resort to violence directly, just using arcane skills to defeat an opponent. He also likes smoking cigarettes when a case is finished.

(How Kitaro lost his eye.)

The first story, "Okashi-na Yatsu", (the strange guy) of the book continues past the origin story. A high school boy comes to Kitaro's house, asking for help. Seems that a poltergeist of some sort is causing a disturbance in his parent's house. Both of his parents are gone, and he's living well with a servant on the compensation money. He's willing to pay for the help. Nezumi Otoko and the Eyeball visit the house, where they discover something like a paper cutout of a human floating through walls and making spooky noises. A couple of days later, the boy's girlfriend comes by the house, complaining of Nezumi Otoko's presence, and trying to strangle the boy. This is followed by a weird little man that has been commissioned to draw the girlfriend's portrait. This is actually Kitaro in disguise, and he uses the "106 Questions" (what is your favorite color, what do you eat for breakfast, etc.) incantation to trap the girl's soul in the portrait. In fact, the girl had died 2-3 days before, and the poltergeist had taken over her body in order to possess the high school boy. Kitaro then shows his client that a hidden cave on the family's grounds contains the actual body of the spirit - it was a master of the occult that learned how to overcome death hundreds of years ago, and needed a new host body and lots of money to go out and party. The portrait is burned and the occult master finally receives death.

(How Kitaro's father turned into an eye.)

In second story, "Kaiki Ichiban Shobu" (Strange Events One-Round Showdown), Mizuki shows back up, this time as an unsuccessful manga artist writing ghost stories, forced to become an assistant to a professional killer for lack of money. The killer has just returned from America, where he'd been lying low, and he wants to check on rumors that his old house is haunted. The two visit the house, which is now occupied by Kitaro. When a group of ghouls show up for a dance party that night, they're offended by the humans' reactions and send the two to purgatory. Eventually they make their way back to the house. Kitaro is seen looking into a refrigerator, and the two trap him inside, although his hand gets severed and it roams free throughout the house. The next day, the killer's wife, who he'd married in the U.S., arrives in Japan and they try to set up home in the haunted house. Unfortunately, the antics from the hand get fairly desperate before it's finally trapped and nailed to a board. Mizuki takes the board outside to bury, but another monster knocks him unconscious and takes the hand. Later, he wakes up and returns to the house to find the killer and his wife hanging by a rope from the rafters. Mizuki hears some splashing noises and follows them to the kitchen where Kitaro and his father (the eyeball) are taking a bath. Kitaro tells Mizuki that the man had been lucky - if he'd stayed in the house another 5 minutes, he'd also have died. Mizuki realizes that Kitaro had actually saved his life and goes back home happily, but regretting ever having doubted in the supernatural. Presumably, his horror manga will be more successful now that he's no longer just making this stuff up.

Gegege no Kitaro, by Shigeru Mizuki, Grade A
Shigeru took several story ideas from "Hakaba" and reworked them for this new children's series. Kitaro's character was redrawn to be softer and less malformed, while just about everything else remained the same. Nezumi Otoko, for instance, is pretty much unchanged. Kitaro doesn't smoke as obviously now, and rather than inhabiting an abandoned house, he lives in a tree house in the distant woods. He's also redefined to primarily be a protective force for children threatened by monsters.

(Note the softer features and lack of buck teeth. The empty socket is back on the left side.)

In the first story, Kitaro is already well-known. He's enlisted by a university to join an expedition to an isolated South Asian island, where an immortal beast has been found, and gather its blood for research. A young scientific genius resents Kitaro's presence (it offends his scientific values to have a monster on the ship), and after the immortal monster kills off the rest of the expedition, the genius infects Kitaro with the monster's blood. The genius hopes to win the Nobel prize for developing an immortality drug and he's afraid that Kitaro will try to share the credit. But, instead of dying, Kitaro turns into a copy of the immortal monster. After being attacked by the military, and by the university's giant robot program, the situation resolves itself, Kitaro returns to normal, and the genius apologizes for losing sight of his reason for becoming a scientist in the first place (to help others). 106 pages.

(The cat master.)

In the second story, "Cat Master", a town is terrorized by cats that are being controlled by a ascetic who'd abandoned his body long ago. Kitaro uses the 106 Questions incantation to trap the ascetic's spirit, and he's destroyed when the portrait is burned. This is a shorter retelling of the"Okashi-na Yatsu" story above.

(The immortal monster, Kitaro, and the young genius scientist.)

Then we have "Yasha", a guitar-playing youkai that traps children's souls in balloons; "Obake Nighter", with a boy that's found Kitaro's always-hit-homeruns bat having to play a night game against Kitaro's team of monsters, with the human team's souls at stake; and "Kyuuketsuki", an underground monster freed up to the surface by a recent earthquake, turning humans into trees. One common element to all the stories is that when Kitaro returns home at the end each time, the creatures around him hum the "Gegege" theme song.

I'll admit that when I grew up, "Johnny Quest" would air on broadcast TV every Friday evening, and I hated watching it because my bedroom was right next to the door to the attic, and I *knew* what was lurking on the other side at night. And when I saw "Godzilla" for the first time on TV, at home, age 12, alone, I couldn't sleep for a week. I have no idea what would have happened if I'd read "Hakaba Kitaro" back then.

Now, Kitaro is one of my favorite stories. I love the variety in the monsters, and the earlier TV series can be lots of fun. I especially enjoy listening to the opening theme song.

Summary: Author Shigeru Mizuki collects monster stories, and he makes up a lot of his own for this long-running series based on an earlier story teller's tale. "Hakaba Kitaro" is aimed at an older audience, but there's still a child-like innocence to the behavior of the supporting characters. "Gegege no Kitaro" was then retooled for children, and it's almost as if the monsters were upgraded to be even scarier. Both titles are great if you like spooky stuff, and at least some of the Gegege stories have been released commercially in English. Highly recommended.


A.B. said...

I'm glad you took my suggestion on Mizuki. Great post! It's amazing that American publishers haven't leaped all over his work. From what I understand, he's pretty popular in France, and I know that he won an award at Angouleme too.

TSOTE said...

Thanks. I would have gotten around to Mizuki eventually anyway because I like Kitaro. But, I hadn't been aware of the kamishibai/Hakaba link until you'd mentioned it, so that was a big help.

I think Mizuki is a little hard to package, because he's a bit too "adult" for what American publishers think is "children's material". If I had some backing, I'd consider trying to get him printed in the U.S. myself.

Space Gojira said...

Anyone know where to find the original manga or a fan translated version?

TSOTE said...

Space Gojira - as far as I know, Kitaro hasn't been fan translated. The easiest way to get used copies of the original manga is probably to order it from the Mandarake website.

Sen said...

Thank you for this post on Mizuki. I've always loved Kitaro.Do you happen to know of Japanese manga characters or monsters who were the result of radiation exposure? Is there a way to contact you directly? I'm doing some research and would love to be in touch with a Japanese monster expert.

TSOTE said...

Sen, thanks for dropping by. I wouldn't say that I'm a monster expert, just someone that reads too much. There aren't that many monsters I know of that are specifically the result of radiation exposure, but there's lots of manga on the market now, and there's bound to be something similar to what you're looking for. To contact me directly, click on the link given in the "News" section at the top of this blog.

joan pablo said...

i wanna know where can i download the hakaba kitaro manga if you know where can you leave a link please? excellent post by the way

TSOTE said...

Joan, thanks. Unfortunately, no. Don't know of any download sources yet.