Most audiences outside of Japan may not be familiar with the late Shigeru Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitaro, better known simply as Kitaro. Best known for popularizing Japanese folklore monsters and spirits known as yokai, the long-running children’s series was created in the 1960s and has since spawned multiple sequels, anime adaptations, and video games. The titular Kitaro is a young yokai boy, the last of the Ghost Tribe, who wanders around a feudal Japanese countryside helping both humans and yokai in his quest to unite the two worlds. Of course, it wouldn’t be a good hero’s tale without plenty of adversity. Kitaro’s good deeds and defense of the weak create hordes of both yokai and human enemies for him to ward off.
Mizuki’s comics predate anime and manga as genres, and thus it has little similarities with the manga fans are familiar with today. As a matter of fact, the artwork contained within the pages of Kitaro is much more in line with the visual style of American comic strips than the ones found in Astro Boy. If there was ever a time to use the term “Japanese comic book,” this would be it. This is not a criticism of Kitaro in any way, shape, or form, but fans looking to pick up the newest release may want to adjust their expectations accordingly.
The Trial Of Kitaro is the most recent of Drawn & Quarterly’s translations of the original publications and is actually a collection of several shorts, five to be precise, each spanning around 40 pages. Keeping in mind that Kitaro was targeting children, there are no philosophical monologues, pontificating leads, or melodramatic showdowns to be found. In its place lies simplistic personalities, common adventure tropes, and an abundance of toilet humor and slapstick. Case and point: during one of his travels, Kitaro encounters what amounts to a haunted toilet, in which one of the locals warns that “anyone who gets near it has to take a dump for some reason.”
Kitaro is aided – and hindered – by several characters that travel with him, namely the ghost of his father who lives in the detached eyeball of his own corpse—drawn as a kid-friendly cyclopian stick figure of sorts. His father is good-natured and supportive, often providing Kitaro, as well as the reader, with wisdom and knowledge of the yokai world. On the other hand, the greedy and dimwitted Nezumi Otoko (“Rat Man”) is both literally and figuratively a rat man. Constantly scheming and plotting, he causes more harm than good, but the kindhearted Kitaro still gives him the benefit of the doubt and keeps him around, usually as the punchline to many of the chapter’s jokes. The characters are two dimensional, but the polarizing nature of the cast works well as an entertaining if predictable group.
A veteran of World War II, Mizuki has often said in interviews that his wartime experience, including the loss of his fellow soldiers and left arm, impacted him and his imagination greatly. While it is hard to separate nature from nurture, his statement can be believed if this volume is anything to go off of. Although Kitaro is decidedly aimed at younger audiences, the events depicted within the short stories are often fairly bizarre and at times somewhat grotesque. In one such case, Kitaro bites an old yokai man’s nose, causing it to “pop” open and grow multiples of the demon. Another shocking instance sees a small yokai get crushed by a cruel villain who then pounds the body into food paste, only for the gruel to spawn severed eyes that slowly manifest and grow out of the dough. It’s not illustrated in the blood-and-guts torture-porn style of many modern manga franchises, but for a children's comic, and a popular one at that, it’s a little startling for a Western reader.
There is another side to Mizuki too. The former soldier’s wartime assignments also lead him to see the good in people and push for pacifism. This too is evident in not only Kitaro, who never stops trying to do the right thing, but also in the way the yokai and human worlds are depicted. Although there are always villains to fight, most of the yokai and human locals strive to live a simple yet peaceful life, doing what they can to help and reward Kitaro for his righteous ways.
Kitaro stands as a fun exploration into the past of Japanese manga and pop culture, and if any readers find those to be areas of interest, then The Trial Of Kitaro is designated required reading. While it’s hard to recommend the immature humor of Kitaro to adults and fans of contemporary manga, the franchise has as much heart as its optimistic protagonist, and that might just be enough to warrant a read.
The final showdown for the legendary yokai!
In the seventh volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s defining series, our beloved hero Kitaro stands accused of beating up his fellow yokai to protect the human populace. He is put on trial for crimes against yokai. Witnesses are called from both sides, but when Nezumi Otoko takes the stand, all bets are off. Will Nezumi Otoko be for Kitaro or against him? Only the biggest bribe will tell!
The Trial of Kitaro features five bizarre and amusing adventures. In every story, Kitaro has his hands full. He faces off against Kasha, a vicious demon cat; tries to quell a magical cooking pot; battes a sea monster; and solves the mystery of a three-eyed bird.