At first glance, the hero of Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro appears to be a normal child. As the stories in this nearly 400 page collection unfold, however, Kitaro is revealed to be anything but normal. He lives in a cemetery, can measure “spirit energy” with his hair, houses his eyeball-shaped father in his left eye socket and wears a vest made out of the hairs of his ancestors. He’s also a yokai, or Japanese spirit monster, and is several hundred years old.
Kitaro’s creator Shigeru Mizuki is a pioneer and master of manga who is celebrated in Japan but has been largely unknown in North America until recently. Fortunately, Mizuki’s work has been made available to an English-reading audience by Drawn & Quarterly, who have begun to release handsome and affordable translations of his greatest works. Kitaro is the third in this series, following his war tale Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths and his memoir of childhood NonNonBa.
Kitaro, originally published in the 1960s, was Mizuki’s first major commercial success, and its appeal to a wide readership is evident. Mizuki’s artwork depicts cartoonish characters in beautifully rendered landscapes, and his storytelling mixes ghoulish folktales with comic strip humour.
These stories are deeply embedded in Japanese folklore, a mysterious world populated by millions of monsters known as the yokai, spirits who populate the countryside and get up to trouble. Kitaro is a superhero yokai, an immortal boy who, along with his eyeball-shaped father, protects innocent humans from the mischief and evil of his fellow monsters. These tales are great fun, mixing the antique world of Japanese folklore with the country’s culture during the 1960s. Kitaro plays midnight baseball with a team of ghouls, defeats countless evil yokai through the use of numerous superpowers, and, in a nod to the science fiction movies of the day, he is even transformed into an enormous monster who fights a giant robot in Tokyo.
Although Kitaro was clearly intended as mass entertainment (and remains enormously popular in its home country), these stories are durable, and Mizuki’s cartooning is brilliant in its range and invention. These richly-illustrated picaresque tales are filled with high drama, lots of laughs, terrifying monsters and the occasional side-trip to Hell.