Yokai are the traditional monsters of Japan. They are the things that go bump in the night; the footsteps you hear behind you even though no one is there, or the creaking around the house late at night. They can take on any shape, be it human or animal, and even inanimate objects can come to life. Kitaro, the protagonist of this book, is one such being, and he uses his extraordinary powers to help both humans and yokai alike.
By Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly, July 2013
396 pgs., $24.95
At the 2014 American Library Association Midwinter conventions, YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association announced their Great Graphic Novels list for 2014. Of the 78 titles listed, 10 of them were manga. This title, Kitaro, was one of them. The series was originally published from 1966-1970; this omnibus contains select stories from the 1967-1969 time period that are considered classics.
Kitaro of the Graveyard is the last of the Ghost Tribe yokai. He looks like a boy with a striped vest and a mess of hair that covers one eye. He is actually 350 years old, and his hair covers up his empty eye socket, where his father, the walking, talking eyeball, Medama-Oyaji stays. Kitaro is well known in both the yokai and human communities for his extraordinary powers: He has a hair that can detect spiritual energy. He can flatten himself like a pancake, or burrow underground when he’s in danger. He can shoot his hairs out like a porcupine and remotely command his vest, which is knitted from the hairs of his ancestors. With all of these powers, Kitaro seems like he would be a pretty cool guy.
And he is. Kitaro uses his powers to help both humans and yokai and to teach a lesson to those who would bother or harass others. Kitaro wants humans and yokai to live in peace, and to that end, he gives his assistance to humans harassed by yokai for free. He won’t take any compensation for his help, no matter what he has to go through. When dealing with bad or mischievous yokai, Kitaro isn’t afraid to jump right in and face the troublemaker head on. He takes on not only traditional Japanese yokai but also Western monsters such as Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolfman. He doesn’t have to face them alone. Other yokai come when Kitaro asks for help, such as Konnaki Jiji, Sunakake Baba, and Ittamomen. One yokai that is more trouble than help is Nezumi Otoko, the half-human, half-yokai friend of Kitaro. He tries in his own way, but he usually ends up having to be pulled out of the fire by Kitaro, whether he wants it or not. Kitaro will take on any yokai and use all of the powers at his disposal to stop them and restore the balance between the human and yokai worlds.
When Kitaro deals with humans, he is more hands-off. He tends to give them the rope, and it’s up to them whether they hang themselves. Two criminals steal some things from Kitaro’s home and end up driving straight to their doom. Two haughty men who wrangle with Kitaro take a train ride through the darkness. And when a boy finds Kitaro’s baseball bat and won’t return it, he and his team have to play for their souls to try to keep it. These stories have a comeuppance feel, as they are warnings to both the humans and the readers that there are some forces that aren’t to be meddled with. This is best shown in “Creature From the Deep,” where Kitaro joins a scientific expedition to study an ancient creature discovered by a scientist named Yamada. Yamada wants all the fame and glory of the expedition for himself and tries to get rid of Kitaro, and. He eventually turns him into the monster and then tries to hunt him down so no one can discover what he has done. But all Kitaro thinks about is trying to be normal again and see his family and friends. The story ends happily, but not until Yamada learns the error of his ways and does everything he can to fix what he did.
While Kitaro is filled with monsters and eerie creatures, it keeps a light-hearted tone. The battles Kitaro has with the other yokai have a slapstick feel to them, and there’s never any blood or wounds. Some of the interactions between humans and yokai play up the humor, such as when a Daruma yokai opens up a business in a building and other yokai come to do business with him, causing the other tenants and landlord to run away in fear. Every story ends with insects cheering Kitaro’s victories with the cries of “Ge ge ge ge.” Shigeru’s art adds to the humor with its cartoonish style.
Kitaro is a fun, eerie romp into Japan’s supernatural world. It can be silly, campy, and even poignant, but above all it is a great read. Teens who are hungry for something in a spooky vein or want something different than the usual ghosts and monsters of the west will love the creative and varied yokai of Japan. This is a great addition to any teen or graphic novel collection.