By Julio Perez Jr. (Kyoto-shi, 2011-13) for JQ magazine. A bibliophile, writer, translator, and graduate from Columbia University, Julio currently keeps the lights on by working at JTB USA while writing freelance in New York. Follow his enthusiasm for Japan, literature, and comic books on his blog and Twitter @brittlejules.
What has hair as sharp as needles, a tongue like a chameleon’s, and one empty eye socket to keep its father in? If you could only guess some kind of crazy monster…well, then you’re not far off!
Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro: The Birth of Kitaro is a manga volume collecting seven classic paranormal stories of the titular character from the 1960s. They include Kitaro’s origin, and yokai files with more information about his fascinating friends and enemies that endure in myth and pop culture. All are translated and written by none other than our very own Shigeru Mizuki expert (and JQ interviewee), Zack Davisson (Nara-ken, 2001-04; Osaka-shi, 2004-06).
But who is Kitaro? And what are yokai?
Kitaro is one of many yokai (basically a mysterious Japanese monster/spirit/phenomenon) that have been making waves across the world through movies, anime, video games and, of course, manga. Born from two other human-like yokai who were unable to raise him due to sickness, Kitaro was entrusted to the care of humans at a young age. Even while growing up, he could not disguise his heritage or hide from the adventures it would bring him.
Despite his child-like stature, Kitaro is a giant in the genre of yokai stories in Japan thanks to the brilliance of his creator, the legendary late artist Shigeru Mizuki. Since earlier this decade, Drawn and Quarterly has been a major force in publishing Mizuki’s works into English (nine books to date) and contributing to the boom in America of Mizuki’s work and yokai. You may already be familiar with his eerie adventures in Drawn and Quarterly’s first collection of Kitaro stories released in 2013 and translated by Jocelyn Allen. Beginning with this volume, and continuing in several more to come, more of Kitaro’s hijinks can be enjoyed in a format and price point friendly to all ages.
Kitaro appears to be a normal human boy, but of course part of his charm is that he is so much more. He is perhaps the last of a Ghost Tribe of yokai and has inherited many useful, if unsettling, powers. Not unlike Superman, he uses these abilities to help regular people, even though they’re cut from a different cloth. Over time, his reputation as a person who helps humans avoid terrible fates at the hands of other yokai brings him into exciting adventures. In many stories, Kitaro acts as a paranormal investigator, called in by the Yokai Post, to solve mysterious deaths and disappearances that will appeal to any fan of The X-Files.
This volume shows the first appearances of three characters that are easily to pick out from the lineup of the usual suspects in his supporting cast. First is his father Medama Oyaji (who has been reduced to a single eyeball by means you’ll have to see to believe!), then Nezumi Otoko (the man who is like a rat, or perhaps the rat who is like a man! He’s kind of dirty and smelly like both can be), and of course Neko Musume (she appears to be a young girl, but has traits like a ferocious kitty if she gets a whiff of tasty fish or rodents).
Of this lineup, Nezumi Otoko is probably gets the most of the spotlight. Ever the Daffy Duck to Kitaro’s Bugs Bunny, Nezumi Otoko is at times Kitaro’s friend, and others his rival. He is often at the impetus of many adventures, if not contributing to their comedic resolution. Mizuki himself has said that Nezumi Otoko is his favorite creation because the character allows him to not only create the sticky scenarios we enjoy watching Kitaro fight and think his way out of, but also because he serves as a mouthpiece for social satire and criticism. This facet of the character shines at its finest in one of Mizuki’s other popular works, as the narrator of the manga series Showa: A History of Japan, which is available in English in four volumes and also translated by Davisson.
If you enjoy jaunts into the fun and mysterious realm of comics and mythology, don’t hesitate to pick up this affordable volume that offers a perfect introduction to a series that has captivated the imagination of generations. If you enjoy the mysterious and paranormal stories associated with yokai in supernatural anime like Mushishi, adventurous comics like Wayward, or the cute characters of the Yo-kai Watch series which has been giving Pokémon a run for its money, then you should get to know Kitaro, the granddaddy of the genre.
This is also a great manga for younger readers who can enjoy monsters and tasteful grotesqueness. Above all, The Birth of Kitaro is funny, action-packed, and captivating in its creative portrayal of monstrous yokai and humans. Mizuki’s sense of humor expressed in text and in art deserves appreciation, and you deserve to appreciate it. So pick it up right away and keep any eye you can spare on the lookout for the next collection of Kitaro’s classic adventures, Kitaro Meets Nurarihyon, coming in October.
For more information on The Birth of Kitaro, click here.
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