Monday, August 19, 2013

Kitaro


I became really excited for 'Kitaro' after loving Shigeru Mizuki's other work, 'NonNonBa'. The Yokai aspect of 'NonNonBa' especially caught my interest, and I was sure that the Godfather of Yokai manga would give me more of that in his most famous work. But as things turn out, I was wrong...

"Yokai" is like a blanket term for all ghosts, ghouls, monsters and magical creatures. Kitaro may look like a normal boy, but he himself belongs to this mythological group of mysterious beings. With a magical vest made of his ancestors' hair, only one eye, and his eyeball dad living in his empty eye socket, this strange hero uses his power for good, going around and protecting humans from mischievous Yokai.

Having just gotten a small taste of the Yokai appeal from 'NonNonBa', I was itching for more on these Japanese folk monsters, but surprisingly, I didn't find what I was looking for in 'Kitaro'. I didn't get to learn about Yokai in the same fable-esque way that I did in 'NonNonBa'. The Yokai came across as just generic monsters inserted into even more generic short stories with hardly any explanation of their place in Japanese culture. Not already familiar with these creatures, I was forced to refer to the "Yokai glossary" in the back of the book, which features very brief, perhaps even unceremonious descriptions of the Yokai. This is the Yokai series and that's the amount of attention they get? As far as I know, there are entire folktales centering around these creatures, but in this book, they are relegated to the "villain of the week" status. This disappointing experience was nothing like the interesting stories that NonNonBa passed on to young Shigeru in her titular volume. I'm no writer, but I was expecting the history and culture of each Yokai to be seamlessly interwoven into their respective appearances in the story. Instead, they just appear, get beaten by Kitaro just as any generic villain, and are gone.

Kitaro himself is a very boring character. He's kind of like a superhero, going around saving humans from monsters and all. If I had to compare his character to something, it would be the old Superman from the animated serials in all his "blue boyscout" blandness(fight the villain, save Louis, tune in next week for more of the same). There's really nothing to him. To be fair, there is probably like ten more volumes yet to be published in English to flesh his character out, but there is no indication from this book that character depth is a priority or even a goal. Do I expect a multi-layered protagonist from a more than fifty year old kids comic? Maybe I shouldn't, but I do. I have to follow this character through the story, so when he doesn't interest me in any way, there is a problem.

There isn't really any overarching plot going on here. Kitaro is the only recurring element. So what we end up with is these episodic short stories, none especially ambitious. I would be reaching to say that these stories were mildly entertaining, but most of them were a bearable length. Two of them, however, were around fifty and one-hundred pages, making them so tedious that I almost quit reading. If what is featured in this volume is the pinnacle of 'GeGeGe no Kitaro' tales, then I can't see any reason to read further. I would have said that the lack of volume number on the cover made me worry about prospects of future releases, but now I just don't care anymore.

In all honesty and fairness, my expectations were clearly too high and off the mark as to what the subject matter would be. I guess I was looking for a 'NonNonBa 2' with more of a Yokai focus. I wanted to be told these Yokai folktales just like NonNonBa would tell young Shigeru. Instead, I got the episodic adventures of superhero Kitaro as he battles the monster of the week. This is just an old, simple comic, and unless the following volumes are drastically different, I'm at a loss as to how 'GeGeGe no Kitaro' reinvigorated Japan's interest in Yokai and became a cultural phenomenon. I'm mad at myself for expecting 'Kitaro' to be something it was probably never meant to be, but expectations aside, it's still nothing special by modern comic standards, and I won't give it a free pass because of its "classic" status.