This kid friendly version of Shigeru Mizuki's Kitaro serves as a perfect introduction to the classic yokai manga.
Title: Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro: The Birth of Kitaro
Publisher: Kodansha (JP), Drawn and Quarterly (US)
Creator: Shigeru Mizuki
Serialized in: Weekly Shonen Magazine
Translation: Zack Davisson
Original Release Date: May 31, 2016
A review copy of The Birth of Kitaro was provided by Drawn & Quarterly.
Kitaro isn’t exactly a regular boy, not quite. Kitaro is a yokai, a term which translator (and well known “monster scholar”) Zack Davisson mentions can be broadly translated as “mysterious phenomenon.” From Kitaro’s father whose spirit inhabits his own eyeball, to Kitaro’s mostly friendly but also tricky rat pal, Nezumi Otoko, Kitaro lives in a world filled with yokai — some that are good and some that are… well, more interesting than others!
The Birth of Kitaro isn’t Drawn & Quarterly’s first foray in Mizuki’s Kitaro in English, but it is the first English release since Mizuki’s death last year. Saying Kitaro is well-known in Japan feels like a huge understatement; Sakaiminato City, Mizuki’s hometown, boasts a whole road and museum dedicated to his otherworldly creatures, and tourists can see up to 153 bronze statues depicting those characters.
Kitaro continues to be popular with kids and adults alike, but it seems fitting that Drawn and Quarterly has promoted and packaged this new Kitaro line as a kid-friendly version, complete with games and puzzles at the end of this first volume. The Birth of Kitaro collects seven of Kitaro tales, including his origin story, making it the perfect introduction to a well known franchise.
That said, I admit I was afraid that with the number of yokai this series is steeped in that The Birth of Kitaro would be a bit inaccessible — and for some English speaking kiddoes it still may be — but it’s hard not to keep going once you get into the first chapter, the origin story.
Kitaro is literally birthed from his dead parents in a graveyard, but somehow it doesn’t come across as morbid as it sounds, just as a fact. Kitaro isn’t quite an orphan though, as his father’s spirit watches over him — pretty literally. From there the collection only continues to build in strong recurring characters, my favorite being Nezumi Otoko.
Kitaro and the rat yokai have an entertaining relationship; Kitaro seems to at least care about Nezumi and vice versa, but Nezumi is a bit of a trickster whose greed sometimes gets the best of him. As Kitaro builds his reputation, he finds that there are plenty of other yokai to be had — some friend, some foe — like the one that steals faces!
Surprisingly the stories can be real page turners. Kitaro has a couple of signature powers of sorts — his hair, special shoes — but you never quite know what’s going to happen next. There’s a certain random yet understandable flow to the stories that remind me of a kid telling an impassioned “and then, and then” story. These aren’t all necessarily always Mizuki’s stories though, but rather his interpretations of classic Japanese mythology. Adults too, especially anime and manga fans, may be surprised to find hints of the origins of some of well known tropes seen in anime today, and we’re also treated to an informative yokai glossary and thoughtful foreword by the editor. The art itself is easy to follow too, and the yokai and some of the landscapes and places can be fairly detailed.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this first volume. It’s packaged well and with a lot of care, and is accessible to kids while giving adults background and cultural context. There’s no doubt that Birth of Kitaro is a great entry point into Kitaro’s yokai filled world, and it’s worth picking up.