While a new volume of Drawn & Quarterly's curated collection of stories from Shigeru Mizuki's GeGeGe no Kitarō series is always interesting, this particular book, Kitaro's Yokai Battles, may be of particular interest to readers who have been following the most recent animated adventures of the character. Not only is this because in the most recent installment of translator Zack Davisson's History of Kitaro feature discusses the origins of the show as an anime (and the interesting fact that it at least in part owes that to the theme song, which was written for a manga-inspired record by Mizuki himself), but also because some of the stories are the original source of episodes in this most recent season.
By far the most striking of that set, and of the book in general, is the story “Doro Tabo,” which was the basis for episode fifty-four, which aired in May 2019. In folklore, the Doro Tabo is a mud-based yokai who rises from ruined rice paddies, said to be the spirits of farmers who are angry to see their fields neglected or destroyed. At one point this presumably was an apt metaphor for the move to the city from the country, causing fields to lie fallow, or perhaps for wars that caused villages to be destroyed or abandoned. Today, as well as in 1969 when the story was written, the Doro Tabo forms an environmental metaphor, and while the 2019 update used the destruction of farmlands for construction as the impetus for the yokai's depredations, in 1969 it was the rise of militarization during World War Two that formed the basis. (At one point in the volume, someone makes a comment about “It must be communists!”, fully situating the 1967-1971 tales during the fears of American/Russian tensions and concerns about nuclear proliferation as well.) When Kitaro investigates the reason the Doro Tabo are destroying planes, he learns that the airbase is built on rice paddies that farmers were evicted from during World War Two, resulting in the farmers losing their livelihoods and dying, either as a result of a failed protest against the base, sickness once they were forced to leave, or suicide. Those farmers now inhabit their old fields as yokai, burning planes and killing pilots in revenge.
This is perhaps the most overtly political story in the book (and one of the most political of the volumes published thus far), and it serves as a protest over several things. Not only does it rail against modernization and the eviction of those living an agrarian, rural life, but it also brings up the issue of paving over farmland and destroying nature, while also making a statement about the crass lack of care that the Japanese government in 1969 showed the victims of their actions – the situation is not resolved until Kitaro makes the military pay for a proper memorial for the farmers to supplement the cairns built by the remaining villagers. This speaks to a theme that has been prevalent in the anime but also crops up across multiple manga stories, the idea that the modern world is losing its connection to not only nature, but also to its folkloric heritage and that we ignore the old stories at our own risk.
These themes are also explored in the “Amefuri Tengu” story (1968) included in the volume. In this tale, the emphasis is on the environment and respect for both it and residents of the natural/spiritual world when Kitaro discovers that a series of disappearances in a mountain village are due to the fact that the road to it has recently been paved. This has resulted in more cars coming to the village, and the resident amefuri tengu (a subspecies particularly susceptible to rain) is not happy. The cars' exhaust is making him sick, and so his answer is to simply use his wind powers to sweep away all drivers. It's simple logic – no drivers = no cars – and it speaks to the struggles the yokai have in adapting to aspects of a world that's modernizing around (and without) them. The story ends with a nicer compromise than the Doro Tabo's, which may be an indication of how the people of a small rural village are more willing to work with the old world in order to co-exist comfortably than the ultra-modern and urban folk who have run afoul of the Doro Tabo. What both stories truly have in common is the idea that both worlds are going to have to learn to live together, because while progress may not be stoppable, the loss of the old ways is not desirable.
Although the volume is without any appearances from Neko Musume, Nezumi Otoko plays a large role in several stories, working with his role as someone neither on the right side nor the wrong with any real consistency and often playing the part of the (gross) comedy relief. Sunakake Baba also has a part in one story, as does Itan Momen, but primarily it is just Kitaro on the job, with the odd appearance of his father as needed. More interesting is the longest story in the book, “Oboro Guruma” (1968), which features Kitaro creator (although Kitaro may think of him differently) Shigeru Mizuki, along with his wife Nunoe and daughter Hanako. In this metafictional piece, Mizuki takes a break from drawing manga to go have a cup of coffee and runs into Kitaro and Nezumi Otoko at the café. He invites them home with him (where they're totally uninterested in seeing his manga) and this somehow triggers a strange yokai event wherein numerous yokai invade the Mizuki household and they become trapped. It's a fun blend of both the scarier aspects of Mizuki's work and the lighter ones, with little Hanako being excited to play with child yokai even while her parents wonder if they're going to make it out of the situation. Even more fascinating is the way that after they're able to leave the house, there's nothing to indicate if it ever truly happened at all – or if it was all in Mizuki's imagination.
Whether or not you believe that yokai are real or that Mizuki met Kitaro and Nezumi Otoko in a coffee shop one day in 1968, this is a series worth reading. As good children's horror, a window into manga history, and a folkloric and cultural study, Kitaro's Yokai Battles is simply just a good book.