Gegege no Kitaro is one of Japan’s most beloved manga characters, starring in countless madcap monster tales, many muddled in plot and almost always neatly wrapped up with a chuckle and a grin. Kitaro stories are not Shigeru Mizuki’s masterwork by any means—Showa, his multi-volume history of modern Japan full of autobiographical insight, might occupy that spot—but they are for all intents and purposes his bread and butter. And as bread and butter go, they can be pretty satisfying.
The Birth of Kitaro is a smartly curated short volume of early Kitaro stories, beginning with the character’s origin story: a monster baby born of a grotesque mummified father and a melting mother who dies as he is born, accompanied into life by his father’s disembodied talking eyeball and briefly raised by Mizuki’s cartoon self. When Kitaro is dismissed by an exasperated Mizuki, he sets off into the world to save unwitting humans from yokai threats.
Yokai, for the unitiated, are the multitudinous monsters of Japanese folklore; in this volume alone, they include a crab-cow monster, a face-stealing demon, and a wailing ghost woman. Though Mizuki’s Kitaro stories have a tendency to lose narrative focus in favor of zeroing in on the visual glee of grotesque and eerie characters, it is often worth it, as Kitaro becomes the cow-demon, a normal-seeming girl briefly flashes her vicious cat face, or a Buddhist protective deity shows up to tame a forest spirit. Mizuki draws on centuries of Japanese artistic styles and folk traditions to create and depict these monsters, and his joy in sharing them with a modern comic book audience is infectious. Much of modern manga—and dare I say the newly revived excitement over Pokémon—owes a great debt to the larger arc of Japanese monster folklore, and Kitaro stories are a fascinating link between the past and the present.
Though the Kitaro concept is an imperfect way to tell these stories, it is definitely efficient. The wisdom of this volume lies in its smart curation: previous Kitaro translations have featured more stories with less narrative flow, and since half of this seven-story volume is explicitly origin story and introduces other major characters, it gives the uninitiated reader some context for later tales. The Birth of Kitaro is itself the first in a seven-volume series which Drawn and Quarterly will release through the end of 2018. These pocket-paperback sized volumes have been planned out to tell the Kitaro story in an entertaining and comprehensive way. Though they are marketed as kid-friendly (complete with arguably unnecessary Highlights-style puzzles in the back), this first volume is a really useful introduction and the brief blurbs on the yokai stars of each story recap the book’s highlights well.
Though Kitaro is imperfect, it is undeniably interesting, and this collection captures its best qualities in its brevity and pacing. In the spirit of excellent comics over the decades and around the world, it shouts “Hey Kids! Comics!” and gets you hooked, like a good comic should.