Having just recently finished Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan, it seemed like a golden opportunity to sample his most enduring work Gegege no Kitaro. So when D+Q offered us a review copy of The Birth of Kitaro we jumped at the chance.
If you have ever enjoyed Mushishi, Natsume Yuujinchou, Mononoke, xxxHolic, Kekkaishi, or Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan then you owe a great deal of thanks to Shigeru Mizuki. Much like Osamu Tezuka, Go Nagai, or Rumiko Takahashi he is an artist that has influenced countless titles in an unmistakable manner. Every manga and anime that has spirits, demons, ghouls, ghosts, gods, devils, or monsters has a touch of Gegege no Kitaro in it. In fact most of them are either borrowing heavily for the structure of Gegege no Kitaro or dipping into the cavalcade of mythical Japanese creatures that Shigeru Mizuki popularized. In fact most of them do both.
Yokai existed before Shigeru Mizuki started writing about them and would have been the topic of anime and manga even if he had never been born. They are an integral part of the Volksgeist of Japan. What Shigeru Mizuki did was put his own very particular take on the concept that has become just and much part of Japanese storytelling as the Yokai themselves.
The first story, the literal birth of Kitaro, reminded me a lot of American horror comics from the mid-century. Even the style is a bit reminiscent of it. The style changes to the more familiar one once we jump into the Kitaro stories proper.
While we don’t get much of an introduction to just who Kitaro is in the world of yokai, each story highlights different aspects of his character. Some show off his way of thinking while others see him using one of his many powers. I did find the leap from the first story to the second jarring, I wished there had been more of a transition so we could start off with a better understanding of Kitaro’s job in the world. As it is you sort of piece it together over the course of the selected stories.
I was surprised there wasn’t the first appearance of Nezumi Otoko in this collection since he factors in to the series so much. But not being familiar with Kitaro I’m not sure if there is a reason for this omittance. In this volume, many times Nezumi is our lead-in to the story as he travels around and gets into mischief. I do have to question why Kitaro doesn’t just vanquish him! But maybe I’m overthinking it.
I loved that there was a yokai index at the end of the book. There are just not a lot of resources in English and yet there are so many anime and manga that take from it so I’m always eager to learn more. In fact, which stories I liked best were directly related to how interesting the yokai were to me.
All the talk I did in the intro about how influential Shigeru Mizuki was is not just to have an interesting start to the post. It is impossible to read this book and not see how the stories within would become a blueprint for so many series after it. Kitaro’s journey as a person who is both blessed and cursed by powers that let him interact with spirits has become a template for the genre. His role as a bridge between the world of humans and yokai keep him from ever truly being a part of either despite the fact he is so vital for both. You see this all the time in series like Mushishi, Natsume Yuujinchou, and xxxHolic. Each of those series feel different from each other but the DNA of Gegege no Kitaro is clearly part of their very nature.
I really wanted to like The Birth of Kitaro more than I did. It has the episodic nature of a lot of classic manga like Astro Boy or Black Jack. The stories often have an ever-changing cast of humans and yokai who come into conflict with a few recurring characters besides Kitaro to give the world within the series a bit of atmosphere. Also most of the stories have an examination of morality while they tell their short stories. I have really enjoyed series like Astro Boy or Black Jack that use this formula but I never could get into any of the stories. I like Kitaro’s origin story but everything past that never hooked me again. I admit ii might have something to do with the fact that horror is probably my least favorite genre of manga.
I think the thing that annoyed me the most is it often seemed like Nezumi Otoko was the main character of the series. He is often the instigator of many of the stories in this book and Kitaro main job mostly seems to be to come in and clean up the mess that Nezumi Otoko has created. Kitaro often pops in only at the very end of the story meaning that we get to know more of Nezumi Otoko and his petty schemes than Kitaro and his much more interesting self-imposed duty.
I was surprised by the games section in the back! In fact this new series of Kitaro books is aimed at younger readers. I kinda question how many children will actually get a chance to read Kitaro, but I like that they are creating opportunities to engage with that audience.
While this book didn’t make me want to run out and read all the Kitaro stories, I really enjoyed the episodic nature of the book and finally having a better understanding of the Kitaro legacy. And that experience is what makes The Birth of Kitaro a great opportunity for American manga fans who want to know more about manga’s history.
Despite the fact that I never clicked with the story I came away from The Birth of Kitaro feeling rewarded. As a book free of any greater context it left very little impression on me. I neither hated or loved the book. As a piece of history that helped define so much of what would come after its debut The Birth of Kitaro was a fascinating read. I could feel the ideas presented in the book constantly echoing into the future. This makes it far more fascinating if you’re any sort of historian of manga. It is like when you read some of the more mediocre Tezuka manga like Swallowing the Earth. Swallowing the Earth is not very entertaining but it gives the reader tremendous insight to Tezuka as an artist as well as his impact in the medium. The Birth of Kitaro has that same function for Shigeru Mizuki and the yokai genre.
I think what I would actually want to read from Shigeru Mizuki is one of the Yokai Encyclopedias he created. I think those would express his creativity, passion, and love of Japanese mythology far better.