Since 2011, Drawn and Quarterly has published three major Shigeru Mizuki books. The first was Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, a semi-autobiographical comic about Japanese soldiers in a bizarre, existential crisis at the end of World War II, when it was pretty clear they were defeated: continue to fight to the death anyway, or be put to death by their own leaders. The second wasNonNonBa, a childhood memoir about the artist’s relationship with his grandmother, and the interest in theyokai of Japanese folklore that became central to the artist’s long life of work.
The third and latest is Kitaro, a 400-page collection of 1967-1969 stories from Mizuki’s Ge Ge Ge no Kitaromanga. Of the three, it’s the book that is definitely the least interesting to talk about, and perhaps has the least literary value, being a more straightforward genre work focused more on entertainment than wrestling with the big issues of national identity that the two previous releases.
It's also the most fun and easy to read, however, and it bears an important, even foundational, place in the story of Mizuki’s life’s work: This is his signature work, the reason Mizuki is so famous, so beloved and so influential.
And he is influential. Like Osamu Tezuka in manga and Jack Kirby in American superhero comics, even newer or younger readers who might never have heard of those men or never read a single one of their works nevertheless unknowingly enjoy works by artists they influenced. In his introduction to the collection, Matt Alt not only situates Mizuki with a place of honor in the centuries-long history of yokai study and celebration, he also partially credits Mizuki’s comics with paving the way for Pokemon.
Alt also goes to some length to try to nail down exactly what a yokai is, beyond the definition of “Japanese spirit monster,” noting that it can be used synonymously with ghost, goblin and monster, and that Japanese animism allows for some eight million gods, of which yokai kind of sort of are. Were I to take a crack at it, I’d say they are the Japanese equivalent of the British Isles’ fairy population, mysterious spirit-like beings whose lives occasionally intersect with those of humans, treated with a sort of awe by those who believe in them, and with fascination by those who don’t (especially those who like reading, writing or drawing the fantastic and the local).
Kitaro reads very much like a companion to NonNonBa, the fictional fruit of the young Mizuki’s own interest in yokai, many specific versions of which the artist elevates to rather remarkable status in these stories, particularly in “The Great Yokai War,” where they become peers of sort with the likes of Dracula an Frankenstein’s Monster.
So, who is Kitaro? A little boy as creepy as he is mysterious, he lives in a strange house in a swamp, hangs out in graveyards and, with the help of his vast magical powers, friendly yokai and the more macabre members of the animal kingdom like crows and bugs, he regularly helps rescue humanity from bad yokai … and, occasionally, punishes wicked humans. At the end of each adventure, the crickets, toads and various creepy crawlies all chirp and croak Kitaro’s theme song, “Ge Ge Ge,” which is where the original title came from.
He has just one big, staring eye, his hair growing over his empty left eye-socket, which is where his yokai father lives, taking the form of an eyeball with a little body; he often pops out to assist Kitaro. The only other recurring character is Nezumi Otoko, Kitaro’s half-human, half-yokai, always-scheming frenemy, who usually helps him … except when he’s in conflict with him.
The real stars of the book, however, are the various ghosts and monsters that inhabit Kitaro’s world. One of Mizuki’s great achievements with the concept, as Alt points out, was in creating a premise allowing for heroic horror stories that allowed for so many different versions of the various ghost-monsters to cohabitate, sharing story space.
These are generally pretty scary in design and rendering; like Rumiko Takahashi’s work in Inu Yasha (the early volumes of which sport some resemblance to Mizuiki’s work here) and her earlier horror/fantasy work, the heroic, victim or just plain human characters are all kind of cute and more abstracted (Here, the cuteness is often of a sort of comic-strip caricature variety, rather than Takahashi’s cherubic youths), while the monsters are drawn with a more realistic, highly-detailed touch that makes their appearances all the more horrifying and, ironically, unreal within the context of the comic.
Herein are short stories of Kitaro terrorizing a pair of bad guys using only his disembodied hand, rescuing a village from an army of possessed cats who have turned the tables and made the humans their pets and saving children from yokai who have stolen their souls or images or otherwise endangered them. (You can read an entire short story, and see some of Kitaro’s yokai used to humorous effect, in this preview we ran in December.)
Perhaps of most interest to modern Western readers will be the two longer pieces in the book.
The first of these is the aforementioned “Great Yokai War,” a 50-pager in which Kitaro, his dad and Nezumi Otoko recruit a quartet of powerful local yokai to try and free an island off the coast of Japan that’s being invaded by “Western yokai,” like Frankensteain’s Monster, Dracula, a werewolf, a generic Halloween witch and their American leader, one of several scary-ass monsters whose main feature is a single, giant, staring eyeball.
And the second is “Creature From the Deep,” a 100-page epic in which Kitaro and a selfish boy-genius character travel to New Guinea to retrieve a blood sample from a giant monster that, according to the Yokai Dictionary in the back, has the head (and size) of a whale and the body of a yeti. Mizuki calls it a Zeuglodon (real creature, though its appearance differed just a hair).
Their expedition succeeds, but in order to claim all the credit for himself, the boy genius injects Kitaro with the blood in an attempt to kill him, which actually only results in turning our hero into a hairy whale-monster the size of five whales that visits Tokyo, with destructive results (unable to talk in his new form, Kitaro can’t communicate with his loved ones, whom he nevertheless attempts to visit).
Kaiju fans likely know that Godzilla’s Japanese name Gojira comes from smooshing gorira(gorilla) and kujira (whale) together, as that’s how the King of the Monsters was originally described in the conceptual phase (although by the time he made his debut he was more reptilian than anything else). Mizuki’s monster, on the other hand, looks exactly like a gorilla-whale.
In order to stop the Kitaro monster (and conceal his role in its creation), Kitaro’s boy-enemy constructs a giant robot Zeuglodon in to destroy the “soft flesh” version; the glossary notes that this is “one of the first Giant Robot vs. Monster battles in history” (indeed, Mechagodzilla didn’t come around until 1974).
Smart, scary, funny, full of exciting action and beautiful art, and with an element of educational content (at least on the subject of Japanese folklore), Kitaro has pretty much everything you’d want from a comic book.
And as good as it is, it’s not even Mizuki’s best work.