Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
The Birth of Kitaro
Kitaro is not only the last surviving member of the Ghost Tribe of yokai, he's also one of Japan's most enduring manga heroes. In this first repackaged collection of his adventures from 1966-8, we learn how Kitaro came to be, follow his troubles with his yokai friend Nezumi Otoko, and explore where the human and yokai worlds intersect in a series of short stories that play with the dark side of folklore and the lighter side of horror.
Before Natsume had his Book of Friends or Nate put on his Yokai Watch, there was Kitaro. Shigeru Mizuki's tales of the yokai boy have been popular since their publication in 1960, and technically even before that – Kitaro was a character used in early twentieth century illustrated storytelling (manga's precursor) and Mizuki's manga and its subsequent anime adaptations were just the latest variant of the character. They have become the version, however, much in the same way that Disney adaptations of fairy tales have eclipsed earlier tellings for many children, and Drawn & Quarterly's new curated editions aim to make Kitaro a better-known figure of children's literature for Anglophone kids. Rather than simply printing the series in its entirety for adult manga scholars, this multi-volume edition (composed entirely of previously unpublished work) is aimed squarely at younger readers, with games in the back as well as child-friendly explanations of each yokai in a glossary. Adults looking for a different Kitaro experience can still find it in either Kodansha's bilingual editions or Drawn & Quarterly's own 2013 single-volume release of Kitaro stories, but if you know a young reader you'd like to introduce to manga, this first volume is very appealing.
The Birth of Kitaro reprints stories from 1966 – 1968, beginning with Kitaro's birth. When a businessman named Mizuki is sent by his boss at the blood bank to investigate some strange blood that has been giving its recipients weird powers, he comes across a yokai couple living in an old temple. They are dying, largely due to humans meddling with the environment and taking over their territory, and Mizuki finds himself charged with caring for their infant son, Kitaro. Worried for his child, the last of the Ghost Tribe, Kitaro's father puts his soul into his eyeball as he is dying, and in this form he follows after his son. Mizuki and his mother do their best to raise Kitaro, but after a while they just can't do it anymore, and Kitaro and his dad set out into the world, where they end up becoming liaisons between yokai and humans. The story thus established, Kitaro travels from town to town, preventing deaths and typically thwarting the plans of his yokai buddy Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), who always has a scheme or twelve going on to no one's benefit but his own.
Nezumi Otoko is one of the characters who helps to make this story so much fun, despite its very dark subject matter, such as cars driving off of mountains and the elderly starving to death. He's the ultimate con artist, the man with a million bad ideas who just can't help himself when there's some way he might be able to take advantage of someone. His plans sometimes backfire, such as when he gets his face stolen by Nopperabo, a faceless yokai whose tale has recently migrated to Hawaii, or when Neko Musume (Cat Girl) hunts him in retribution for a scheme. He never truly means anyone real harm, he just can't quite understand that what he's doing is bad, making him a relatable character for many children. Kitaro usually does explain why he can't do what he's doing before saving him, so there is a lesson…not that he remembers it. This helps to make some of the scarier aspects more child-friendly, although not all kids will be able to handle some of the content.
For other readers, The Birth of Kitaro is thrillingly disgusting. The story about Nopperabo ends with Kitaro, who ate a spirit containing Nezumi Otoko's face deep fried, having to poop it out, and the image of Kitaro's dad's eyeball oozing and plopping out of its socket so that he can possess it really gives a sense of viscosity and, well, ooze. Nothing is particularly explicit, and it isn't likely to sound any parental or teacher/librarian alarms, but it feels just edgy enough that elementary school students can feel like they're reading something they maybe aren't supposed to. Mizuki's art is a wonderful mix of highly realistic backgrounds and cartoony characters of a type we don't tend to see in contemporary manga, with strange-looking spirits wandering around a world that looks like it really does exist somewhere. This really heightens the experience, lending credence to the idea of yokai walking among us while also making them less alarming than they otherwise might be. Yes, it's scary that Kitaro's single eye is clearly sideways in his head, a fact driven home by the fact that when he closes it, the lid obviously comes from the sides rather than top and bottom. His transformation into the cow spirit Gyuki is likewise frightening, but the story has established that he's actually pretty human-looking when compared to his parents, and also that it is possible for the Gyuki story to have a positive ending, so there's plenty of reassurance throughout.
As I mentioned, Drawn & Quarterly's new edition contains activities after the story, along with a glossary of the yokai who appear in the book. (There's also part one of an introduction to the character by way of preface; this likely will interest adults more than kids.) There's a maze, several different matching games, a word find, a spot-the-differences page, and, best of all, half of a drawing of Kitaro's dad on a grid with instructions for readers to draw the second half. There are answer keys for all but the word find and the spot-the-differences, and the word find mentions a yokai badge for those who can find all eighteen words; regretfully there does not appear to be an actual badge on offer. That would have been a nice touch, if kids could photocopy their completed word find and mail it in for a prize; perhaps later volumes could consider it.
The Birth of Kitaro is not only a great introduction to the works of Shigeru Mizuki (and if you enjoy it, I would suggest picking up Nonnonba), but also a neat way to bring less commercialized manga to younger readers. The stories are just scary enough to be thrilling to elementary aged kids, just gross enough to be awesome, and very impressive for older readers who can recognize the artistic accomplishments of a mangaka working in the days before easy photocopying and screen tones. If you haven't experienced Kitaro before, this is a perfect place to start.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A
+ Nicely packaged for younger readers, all stories have a slightly scary/gross appeal. Art is very impressive in its juxtaposition of realism with cartoony. Nice extras in the book.
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