The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide Gegege no Kitaro
How would you rate episode 1 of
GeGeGe no Kitarō (TV 2018) ?
What is this?
In 2018, yokai are basically forgotten, relegated to the world of internet mythology. Or at least they were until a YouTuber trying to get more views rips an ancient seal off of a stone and suddenly people start turning into trees in the middle of Tokyo. While scientists float various theories, elementary schooler Yuta insists that yokai are the cause, and his older neighbor Mana decides to humor him by writing a letter to someone named “Kitaro” asking for help and dropping it in the so-called yokai mailbox. She never expected Kitaro and his Eyeball Father to show up to help! Now Mana has to learn to see the unseen as Kitaro works to seal the Nobiagari again – and whatever other yokai may follow it. Gegege no Kitaro (2018) is based on a manga and streams on Crunchyroll, Saturdays at 10:30 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
I really like the way Gegege no Kitaro sets up its two main characters. Where most supernatural shows tend to fling a hapless human protagonist into a world of ghosts and monsters, this one makes its “fish out of water” scenario work both ways. Ordinary girl Mana's challenge lays in accepting the yokai side of the world and learning to deal with it, while Kitaro and his tiny eyeball dad are playing catch-up with the constantly connected nature of modern technology and society. This helps to level the playing field between them, with each of the two protagonists needing to learn something from the other. For a new take on an old franchise, that dynamic helps its more dated elements remain relevant.
This show also looks quite good, and the imagery of people turning into trees is handled especially well. Kitaro's appearance makes him seem out of place among the more modern character designs of Mana and her fellow humans, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, he's not a regular human, so it makes sense that he'd be visibly different from the average person on the street. I'm not as sold on Kitaro's dad, whose tiny size and eyeball-for-a-head appearance makes him look too much like a goofy mascot character for my liking. His role as comedy relief in this episode also turned me off more than I expected.
Given its aspirations toward supernatural horror, this episode is lacking in the horror department. The comedic elements take away from the spookiness, and there are some other issues as well. The tree transformations are cool to watch, but I don't expect them to give me nightmares any time soon. The Nobiagari suffers from a similar problem of having a neat design but not being particularly scary. The problem seems to stem from the way Mana is brought into the story. The stakes for her are just too low; the tree incident isn't her fault, she doesn't seem to know anyone who's been affected, and Kitaro repeatedly tells her that she's free to go home and leave the ghost-busting up to him. That robs the episode of any feeling that Mana is somehow in over her head, and supernatural stuff is a lot less scary when you have the option to calmly walk away from it.
To be fair, I'm not really part of the audience Gegege no Kitaro needs to scare. This show is clearly aimed at a younger audience, and in that context it does a decent job of being creepy without terrifying the bejeezus out of its viewers. If I were in its core age group or had more of a connection to its source material, I could certainly see myself sticking around for more. As it stands, this looks like a perfectly solid show that just isn't for me.
It's only the first day of the Preview Guide, and we already have a show that came out of nowhere to charm the pants off me. I had never heard of the long-running GeGeGe no Kitaro franchise before doing a bit of research for this writeup, and I certainly wasn't expecting to be so enamored with a series I knew next to nothing about. I'm happy to report that the first episode of this 2018 GeGeGe series was positively delightful, and I'm eager to see what this series will have to offer this season.
One of the chief pleasures of this premiere was how wonderfully morbid it was. Despite clearly being aimed at a younger crowd, GeGeGe doesn't hold back with its social commentary and some genuinely creepy body horror. From the moment this episode's Logan Paul stand-in was horribly twisted into the form of a tree (along with dozens of onlookers), I was all in on wherever this show was going, and the rest of the premiere didn't disappoint. Mana makes for an excellent protagonist, and her increasingly weird journey into the world of Kitaro, Eyeball Father, and all sorts of spooky yokai was consistently entertaining. I was especially surprised by just how much violence is done to poor Kitaro throughout the episode; not only does he suffer his own leafy fate early in the episode, but the series' first cliffhanger has Mana witness an arrow getting lodged in Kitaro's back. He's obviously not dead, but I have always had a special appreciation for kids' shows that are willing to flirt with the darker realms of adventure storytelling, and GeGeGe no Kitaro doesn't seem to be pulling any punches for its younger audience members.
The show also sports a great visual aesthetic. Many shots are filled with rich contrasts and deep sketchy shadows that contribute to an impressively eerie mood; Yokai Watch this is most definitely not. The show doesn't skimp on the action scenes either, though I found the episode's climax to be the most straightforward part of the episode, and I'm much more interested in this show's take on kid-friendly, spooky mysteries than I am in Kitaro's bevy of special moves.
In the end, GeGeGe no Kitaro was a lovely surprise, combining moody atmosphere and well-written youth entertainment into a charmingly weird little package. I love spooky children's stories, and GeGeGe does an excellent job of telling a tale that's compelling enough for adults but fun enough for the younger crowd too. If the show can keep up the quality of its production values and writing, this could be one of the season's sleeper hits.
Kitaro, the source manga for this series, dates back to the late 1950s. Its first anime adaptation came out in 1968, and this new version marks the seventh TV series inspired by it over the ensuing half-century. That history can lead to great misconceptions if given too much weight though, since anyone walking into this series expecting some hoary old material will have their expectations blown away quickly. The first episode takes the basic premise – a boy who's a supernatural yokai hunter – and beautifully updates it for the current time.
The animation for the first episode by Toei Animation is pretty remarkable. It retains only the faintest hints of older character designs and combines its updated aesthetic with sharp production values (including some nice CG work), especially for a series clearly meant for younger audiences. In the process it manages to evoke an older feel while remaining accessible to those weaned on more recent animation styles. It also straddles a fine line between being more kid-friendly material that's just dark and thrilling enough to appeal to older audiences too. Given an English dub and a more marketable name, I could see this having some breakthrough potential with the same upper-elementary crowd that enjoys stuff like R. L. Stine's influential books.
Aside from the visuals, the other key to the first episode's success is how adeptly it adjusts its concepts for the current era. Smart phones play a major role in the story, as does live streaming, in an otherwise timeless tale about people being turned into Vampire Trees after a yokai plants seeds in them. I have little doubt that current tech will continue to play a role in future scenarios too. The one significant downside is that the writing is very blunt about portraying obsession with smart phones and social media views in a negative light, to the point of making a shameless streaming video attention hound the person who's ultimately responsible for the whole incident. It's not wrong to point out some of the problems associated with abusing social media, but did they need to use a sledgehammer to beat the point home?
Otherwise this looks like it could be fun. It even has a cliffhanger ending to suggest that it won't purely be a “monster of the week” story.
Alright, this one probably warrants some explanation. GeGeGe no Kitaro is a venerable manga franchise that's received anime adaptations on and off for a full sixty years now, all focused on yokai hunter Kitaro and his various adventures. Though the adaptations change, Kitaro and his yokai world remain firmly situated within the original series' mid-century setting, meaning part of the appeal of each new adaptation is long-time fans seeing how Kitaro handles some new modern era (“oh wow, TVs sure have gotten small!”). Of course, on top of that, this is also intended to be a generally accessible fantasy show for fairly young audiences. Those twin appeals mean Kitaro is most directly aimed at two crowds that don't include me: long-time franchise fans and children.
All that said, even if Kitaro's latest adaptation isn't necessarily intended for me, it still seems like a nicely executed and perfectly enjoyable show. This first episode runs us through the show's setup as quickly as possible, introducing ordinary modern-day girl Mana, setting up a conflict involving some blood-sucking trees, and then letting Mana see Kitaro and his eyeball dad in action. It's a propulsive and confident vignette, succeeding well as a mix of fantasy, action, and horror regardless of your familiarity with the franchise. On top of that, instead of coming off as distracting or out of place, the show's emphasis on Kitaro and his father's reactions to modern technology actually felt charming. I particularly liked the savagery with which this episode continuously dunked on the “youtube star who makes a public nuisance of himself” profession. If Logan Paul's terrible decisions somehow end up becoming anime shorthand for “everything wrong with kids these days,” I can't say I'd offer too many complaints.
Aesthetically, I'd put Kitaro at solidly above average. The old-fashioned designs of the show's leads and yokai actually didn't feel too out of place next to more modern secondary characters, and there was a crispness to this show's character art and linework that helped it to feel nicely cinematic throughout. The lighting and layouts also deserve notice; though there were some occasionally bland backgrounds, the show regularly set up striking compositions that made strong use of this premiere's spiraling vampire trees. Even the animation was pretty consistent, with a couple extended cuts near the end really selling the intensity of Kitaro's battle.
Overall, Kitaro didn't really stand out enough to keep me watching, but it offered a handsome premiere in pretty much all regards and succeeded at integrating its classic variables with more modern scenery. If its spirit-hunting premise sounds appealing to you, definitely give it a shot.
GeGeGe no Kitaro has something that it wants to say about technology and our reliance on it. That's not quite what I was expecting of this latest adaptation of Shigeru Mizuki's classic manga, but it does make sense – human folly has always played a part in the series, and what makes us more foolish than our love of the internet and its related gadgets? It actually makes for a pretty good misdirect in the beginning as well: when a less-than-brilliant YouTuber initially starts turning into a tree after filming a stunt where he plays in Shibuya's Scramble Crossing against the walk signal, the first thought is that somehow it was the fact that he was filming on his phone that triggered it. When everyone standing around taking pictures of the event also begins transforming, it seems all but certain, especially after the shots of everyone snapping pictures instead of helping him. But as it turns out, the phones were just the means for the tree vampire yokai Nobiagari to catch his victims unaware – a red herring. The implication seems to be that smartphones help people to act stupidly (Nobiagari initially escapes because that same dumb YouTuber removes his seal as a stunt), but they're just the latest in a line of tools that do the same thing.
At least one yokai is being set up to use them against people (I'm 99% positive that it was Cat Girl who answered Mana's question online), so it will be interesting to see how that plot thread carries through, especially since Mana looks like she's not going anywhere. That makes sense for this reboot, which is setting itself up as a children's horror show. That's initially what it was anyway, but today we're much more likely to want a self-insert point-of-view character than fiction in the 1960s, and Mana is a normal enough kid that she works in that capacity. The fact that it's a kids’ show at this point only cuts down on gore; there's plenty of scary imagery in the episode, with the people turning into trees being particularly good. The Nobiagari's design, with his centipede-like body with hands for feet, is definitely uncomfortable, and the use of shadow is very well done. Kitaro himself, as well as Eyeball Father, aren't as creepy as in the manga, but again, that makes sense for a more modern audience of children. (And children's horror can be just as scary as the adult stuff – re-read some Mary Downing Hahn if you need proof!)
The visuals are neat even beyond the use of shadows, and there's a lot of good decisions in terms of sound as well. The “karan-koro” (or “clop-clop” as the subtitles put it) is haunting and you can really hear the onomatopoeia Yuto describes in an impressively clear way. The music isn't overwhelming, and Mana manages to keep the screechiness to a minimum while Kitaro sounds calm and subdued. Images of him regrowing Momotaro-style are very cool, and his classic attacks are all present and don't look too corny, which was a bit of a risk for “hair needles.” This is one of those episodes I actually like more and more as I think about it, and with its cliffhanger ending and the potential introduction of Rat Man in the next episode, I'll definitely be tuning in for more.
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