Perplexed by that drawing of a shaggy-headed, one-eyed boy, with an eyeball-shaped critter perched on top of his head? You may be amazed to discover that Japanese storyteller Shigeru Mizuki has spun hundreds of tales about this cartoon creation of his—a supernatural hero named “Kitaro.”
October 31 means spooky fun for kids in North America and parts of western Europe. The thrills and chills of Halloween ‘haunted houses,’ eerie hayrides, and ghastly costumes also appeal to many tweens and teens. Now, thanks to a brand-new translation into English, we readers of Japanese manga (comic books and graphic novels, typeset back-to-front) have a special Halloween treat. With Kitaro (2013), we can finally enjoy the popular cartoon character who, for more than fifty years, has brought supernatural adventures year-round to Japanese readers young and old. In Japan, the character of Kitaro is as popular and well-known as Charlie Brown and Garfield are in the United States. Like those characters and their cartoon pals, Kitaro and his associates have also starred in successful TV series, specials, and movies. Kitaro’s creator, Shigeru Mizuki, is as famous in Japan as Charlie Brown’s creator, Charles Shulz, is here in North America. His hometown of Sakaiminato hosts a Mizuki museum and has even erected statues of 133 different supernatural creatures who figure in Kitaro’s adventures as enemies or allies.
Like Kitaro himself, these creatures are “yokai”—a Japanese word that includes the wide range of supernatural creatures described in Japanese folktales first told hundreds of years ago. Often shape shifters, these spirits, ghosts, and demons may do good or evil. One part of Shigeru Mizuki’s achievements is his compilation of the many different local stories about yokai told all across Japan, bringing these to life through his drawn tales. When we meet these supernatural beings alongside Kitaro, the yokai character developed by Mizuki, the fun begins! Kitaro only (mostly) looks like an ordinary boy; this kind-hearted, brave figure is really the child of two ghosts, born in a graveyard, whose dead father has resurrected himself into an eye-ball sized helper who now lives inside Kitaro’s empty eyesocket! After popping up and out to aid Kitaro with tough problems, this creature likes to relax in a teacup bath. That kind of “yucky” detail is sure to entertain young readers, especially ones who appreciate the fake goo, gore, and grim elements of Halloween.
Kitaro is himself a shape shifter. In “The Cat Master,” one of the 15 stories in this 400 page collection, Kitaro slyly changes himself into a ball of yarn to defeat a human-sized, supernaturally-strong cat. The evil yokai Neko Senin has used this form to attack villagers. After defeating Neko Senin, Kitaro as usual refuses any reward for his help. He wanders away, serenaded by the approving chorus of insects whose chirping noises—“Ge ge ge”—are a standard part of these tales and frequently appear in the titles of some Japanese collections and Kitaro TV shows. This detail—along with others about Japanese locations, customs, and history—is asterisked within the story and explained at the end of the anthology in brief notes. As each new yokai is introduced in the collection, an asterisk also refers readers to a helpful, illustrated guide to yokai located right after these notes.
In other stories, readers learn that Kitaro has an antenna-like hair that sticks straight up to help him locate spirits. He also keeps a pet snake in his stomach—a useful ally to wrap around and trap pesky villains! In one story, Kitaro tackles some supernatural villains that need no introduction to western readers: Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula. But one of my personal favorites here harkens back to monstrous Japanese creatures that may be almost as well-known by western readers—skyscraper-sized Godzilla and other huge figures who in 1950s and 1960s movies rose out of the ocean to terrorize Tokyo and other major cities. In “Creature from the Deep,” an evil scientist transforms unsuspecting Kitaro into one of these rampaging creatures! We see crowds of terrified people fleeing from him. With his last bit of self-awareness, Kitaro stops his destructive rampage and deliberately sinks down into radioactive waters that spell his doom. Only the efforts of his yokai father and another friendly yokai save noble Kitaro and help him catch the evil scientist.
In “Creature from the Deep” and other stories, Mizuki makes effective use of dark silhouettes to convey the danger posed by certain creatures and locations. Mizuki’s drawing of cityscapes and landscapes in realistic detail—a contrast to the less realistic, cartoon-like appearance of Kitaro and other figures—is typical not only of Mizuki but of his generation of post-World War II Japanese graphic artists. These detailed panels are visually rich and satisfying, as well as effectively paced. Even though Mizuki seldom draws outside of panel frames and only infrequently uses overlapping or irregularly-shaped panels, their rare appearance at dramatic high points adds further “punch” at these appropriate moments. Similarly, Mizuki’s infrequent use of full page or double page images heightens their impact on the reader.
Readers who enjoy Kitaro may take further delight in Mizuki’s autobiographical NonNonBa (2012), a graphic novel depicting his boyhood in 1920s and 1930s Japan. NonNonBa is the nickname of the elderly neighbor who first taught young Shigeru about the spirits called called yokai. She also helped him cope with the harsh realities of disease and poverty in that place and time. Along with sadness and loss, this quiet novel of daily life contains moments of boyish fun and mayhem, parental wisdom and foolishness, and an awareness of mystical beliefs and connections that has remained important to Mizuki throughout his long life. (He is now a remarkable 92 years old!) NonNonBa, which contains helpful end notes similar to Kitaro’s, won an Angouleme award, an honor conferred by European graphic artists. Before these recent English translations, Mizuki’s books had been translated into French and Italian.
Having savored both Kitaro and NonNonBa, I now look forward to reading Shigeru Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (2011; published in Japan in 1973), an account of being a soldier in Papua New Guinea during World War II. Mizuki lost his left arm during that conflict. This loss, along with other wartime experiences, has led him to criticize war in interviews as well as his graphic works. The ironically-titled Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths won an Eisner Award after its English publication. This work as well as another recent Mizuki translation into English is far removed from the light-hearted, fake violence and thrilling chills of Halloween and the happy endings of Kitaro tales.
Mizuki’s Showa: 1926 – 1939: A History of Japan (2013) is the first volume of two covering the reign of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, which lasted until 1989. Showa—looking at the situations and events, often brutal themselves, that led up to the official start of World War II—will be published on October 22, 2013. Its Canadian publisher, Drawn & Quarterly Press has announced that Showa’s narrator is one of Mizuki’s often friendly yokai. I wonder if and how Mizuki has used this character to make complex history accessible to readers of all ages.