In his introduction, Matt Alt describes Kitaro as “quite possibly the single most famous Japanese manga series you’ve never heard of, even if you happen to be a manga fan.” In this series, Mizuki transforms classic yokai monsters from Japanese folklore into modern, approachable-yet-scary characters.
The main character, Kitaro, is a yokai himself. No one knows anything about him—not his age, where he came from, or what type of yokai he might be. They only know that he lives in the graveyard and has many mysterious powers, which he uses to help humans thwart the plots of evil yokai: his body parts can survive on their own, he has camouflage skills like a chameleon, etc. In his adventures, Kitaro is aided by his father, Medama Oyaji, a yokai expert who happens to be a disembodied eyeball that lives inside Kitaro’s empty eye socket; and Mezumi Otoko, a half-human, half-yokai who wants to be bad but often winds up doing good instead.
At nearly 400 pages, this large graphic novel contains classic stories from 1967–1969, though unfortunately it is an incomplete collection. The book contains 13 entries, some of which are only a few pages long, while others are like short novellas. The stories move at a quick pace and the volume can be read in just a few hours. Some highlights of the collection include “The Hand,” “Yasha,” “The Great Yokai War,” and “Creature from the Deep.”
In “The Hand,” French vampire La Seine and his servant, Mammoth the Killer, have traveled to Japan to feast on the fresh blood of the unsuspecting populace. La Seine has heard of the powerful Kitaro and asks to meet with him, intending to dispatch the yokai before Kitaro kills him instead. When Kitaro arrives, he is shot with a gun and transforms into a pile of dust. As La Seine marvels at the ease of his task, he fails to notice one of Kitaro’s hands crawling away—a mistake that will soon come back to haunt him.
“Yasha” features a strange twist when a singing yokai mesmerizes children in order to steal their souls. As Kitaro attempts to rescue a young boy named Shota, he is attacked by the Yasha. Kitaro disables its body, only to discover that the Yasha is actually a large mound of ragged hair; it steals souls to inhabit the body, which is just an empty shell.
In “The Great Yokai War,” readers see Kitaro and his friends travel to a small island to resolve a dispute between the eastern yokai, who are traditional Japanese folk monsters, and the western yokai, which consist of American horror movie legends including the Wolfman, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s Monster.
“Creature of the Deep,” one of the collection’s longest entries, is also its silliest. When scientists find a zeuglodon—a half-whale, half-yeti yokai that was thought to be extinct—Kitaro joins them on their quest to obtain a blood sample from the creature, in hopes that it could lead to human immortality. After Kitaro is injected with the blood, he becomes Kaiyu Kitaro, a gigantic monster bent on destroying Tokyo. When he faces off against the Mecha Zeuglodon built by scientists to protect the city, the story becomes an epic mecha-battle to rival the likes of Godzilla vs. Mothra.
The artwork of Kitaro is traditional manga style: black and white pages with characters that are individually differentiated enough to avoid confusing the reader. There is little content that might cause controversy; the humor is light and it is not especially dark for a horror story. The most disturbing images might be the few occasions when we see Medama Oyaji climbing in and out of Kitaro’s eye socket.
This is definitely a recommended purchase for a teen collection, as it will appeal to teens who love manga that are looking for something a little different than the usual fare.
A recommended purchase for teen collections, this book is really appropriate for all ages. The only thing that might deter younger readers is the length (400+ pages). The content isn’t too scary or violent to prevent younger readers from enjoying and it’s actually a good title to introduce young kids to manga. Thanks to a glossary at the back of the volume, people with an added interest in Japanese folklore can learn a bit about the origins of the many yokai described in these stories. I recommend giving this to teens and tweens who want a manga series that can stand alone in one volume, as well as those who like the quirky horror humor of shows like The Addams Family.
by Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: 10+