Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Great Tanuki War GN
The tanuki have had enough of humans, so they've rallied themselves to take over Japan. Not only have they broken free of their seal, but they've brought the yo-kaiju and giant catfish yokai to help them. Can Kitaro and Nezumi Otoko save the country?
Most of us are familiar with the Japanese monsters known as tanuki, and to a lesser degree their real-life animal counterpart, as the friendly raccoon dogs who shapeshift and play tricks, or maybe as the statues with giant testicles. Those tanuki are nowhere to be found in the latest volume of Drawn & Quarterly's release of Shigeru Mizuki's GeGeGe no Kitarō manga, however – Mizuki's tanuki are monstrous and bent on the destruction of humans, vengeful little creatures who travel with their own war drums.
This is by far the least episodic of the Kitaro books thus far. Even though there are still three stories in the volume, ranging in date from 1967 – 1971, all of them are centered on a much more vicious brand of tanuki than we typically see in modern manga, creating a feeling of continuity. The main story, which takes up most of the book, is the tale of the eponymous great tanuki war. The war is sparked when humans begin construction of a new dam in Yamanaka, angering the 800 Tanuki of Shikoku, who some readers may know as the specific tanuki behind the legend of the kitsune/tanuki battle for control of Shikoku. These are not cute and friendly animals, but more like the rabid variety of raccoon (dog), out for blood and not easy to stop. The Yamanaka dam is the last straw for them, and they vow to take humans out by enslaving the women and turning the men into sausage.
While there certainly have been violent stories in the previous Kitaro volumes before, they felt more like dark fantasy than full-out horror. That definitely changes with this book, which can be genuinely scary in places. The yo-kaiju (a combination of a yokai and a kaiju, or giant monster, just like it sounds) is the stuff of nightmares, and the tanuki themselves are scraggly and toothy, having the look of starved beasts who think you'll make a fine meal. Interestingly enough, the leaders of the tanuki army comport themselves like humans – the women wear elaborate 19th century-style wigs and the men top hats and three-piece suits. The implication is that the late Edo period was the last time they emerged from their hideaway, and therefore these are the garments that they have on hand. It helps to convey the fear of what the tanuki represent for humans, adding the idea of a vengeful ghost to the already ravenous countenances of the yokai.
Naturally Kitaro is considered the last best hope for the people of Japan as the one yokai they feel they can trust. However, the even Kitaro has trouble dealing with the tanuki, and for much of the story there's no real certainty that he's going to be able to pull this off. The Japanese prime minister by turns trusts and distrusts him, which can be quite painful to see. We as readers know how hard Kitaro is working to save the country; we see him pull out all of his hair in order to shoot it like mythological porcupine quills at the tanuki, giant catfish, and yo-kaiju, and see him reduced to a literal pool of goo. We know exactly how hard he's working and what he's doing, even after the humans have given up on his aid.
All of this feels a bit like a reaction to world events when the story was written - during the Vietnam War and the Six Day War. This last may seem like a very random reference, but at one point in the book the prime minister is told to “act like Moshe Dayan,” an influential Israeli leader during the Six Day War, as well as earlier conflicts. Given Mizuki's own experiences in World War Two, it isn't surprising to see references to other armed conflicts in his work, and there's a good chance that the story of the tanuki war is his way of framing current events for his younger readers to understand. It's also interesting to think of it in this way because the aggressors, the tanuki, are emphatically not human, even though they at times dress like people and have the same desire to live in the open as people. Whether or not this is an intentional link to real-world wars, it serves as an interesting parallel.
Shigeru Mizuki's Kitaro stories remain some of the most influential works of horror and folkloric dark fantasy in the manga world. Although this volume is much more violent than many modern tanuki tales, it is still fascinating to look for the little pieces that would later surface in other works, and if you're searching for them, you can find elements of, for example, The Eccentric Family hidden within. This being a much darker and more violent book than its predecessors, it may not be quite as child-friendly (though as always that depends on the child), but even with that draw scaled back, this is still a wonderful piece of manga history.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Interesting war parallels, good scary monsters, Kitaro's efforts come through without the need for overbearing narration
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