Review: 'Kitaro' is virtuoso weirdness from JapanA comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Kitaro looks like a little boy, but he has secrets – dark, mysterious secrets that you don't really want to imagine needing in your life. He can slip into the shadows like many young boys do, but he also has one eye missing – with his father, Medama-oyaji, traveling with Kitaro as a walking eyeball that lives in his other eye socket. He also has the power to find mystical enemies using an antenna in his hair, and his sandals are jet-powered.
Yeah, Kitaro is a very strange boy. And millions of Japanese readers are delighted that Kitaro is so strange. He's an iconic character in Japan, as popular as Batman is here, and his adventures, which remind me a bit of The Addams Family, have sold in the millions. Drawn & Quarterly continues their reprints of Shigeru Mizuki's classic manga with a volume of Kitaro manga, and this book is pure delirious joy.
A lot of the power of these stories comes from their resonance with Japanese society. A yokai is a kind of mystical spirit in that folklore, so the idea of a yokai named Kitaro wandering the country saving people from disease, disgrace, losing baseball games and giant monster invasion has resonance, power and impact. And while some of the more unique aspects of Japanese society are lost on American readers (one tale keys off the fact that buildings in Japan usually don't have 4th floors – a fact totally lost on me as a reader though it's explained nicely in Zack Davisson's endnotes), that exotic flavor helps to give Mizuki's work its wonderfully surreal and charming power.
These stories are thoroughly grounded in Japanese society and culture, which gives them an unusual sort of unfamiliarity. Even when popular Western creatures like Dracula, a werewolf, Frankenstein's Monster or (my favorite) a classic westernized witch with a crooked nose and broomstick show up, they're shown through Mizuki's unique take on the characters. They feel both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, as if Mizuki is reintroducing our tropes back to us.
Because the tales Mizuki is telling are unfamiliar, they unfold in way that are unpredictable and odd, and in ways different from what we would expect from an American or British version of these them. The longest piece in this collection, "Creature from the Deep" rambles and wanders from a tale of jealousy and betrayal to the story of people lost on a desert island, to a giant monster story to a giant-monster-versus-robot story (published before Mechagodzilla appeared, I might add!) to a warm family conclusion. It's truly an epic tale, told gorgeously by Kitaro's artwork that moves effortlessly from a deeply detailed style for settings and backgrounds to a very loose but contained style for people to a thoroughly troubling style for its depiction of mystical creepy-crawlies.
I'd never read any Mizuki before this, and have never been much of a fan of manga, but I was captivated by this book in almost every possible way. I appreciated Mizuki's virtuoso art style, his charmingly weird tales and his delightful approach to his characters. Despite the creepy-crawlies, this book is completely accessible to anyone who loves Japanese comics or folklore – heck, for anybody who loves comics in general. I went into this book with no real expectations and came out wanting to read more about Kitaro and his strange friends.