(1968 onwards, Japan, Spooky Kitaro)
Article UPDATED - May 2010
A live-action movie of Gegege no Kitaro (2007) spawned a sequel the following year. But the character has been a popular anime series that first appeared in 1968, and as a manga before that. Wildly imaginative, it visualises a parade of bizarre creatures and mythologies with roots in ancient Japanese and Chinese ghost stories. I'm hoping this character will one day gain popularity in the west.
I stumbled on a Gegege no Kitaro exhibition atop the Sunshine Tower skyscraper in Tokyo in 2004. Drawings and cels were on display, as well as vintage memorabilia. I returned to England wanting to know more about the one-eyed boy who was surrounded by monsters.
Kitaro and his friends are 'yokai', a Japanese word for monsters, goblins, ghosts and demons. Together, they help sort out problems between humans and mischievous, aggrieved or downright evil yokai monsters.
Usually the stories are of human beings who upset a yokai, or its resting place. The yokai then victimise humans in any number of ways. They can swallow them whole, steal souls, kidnap children, melt faces... all sorts of unpleasantness, rather scary for a young audience. Slightly heavy-handedly, they are also being taught not to litter, not to disrespect their ancestors, stay out of graveyards at night etc).
Kitaro is the last of an ancient 'ghost tribe'. He's undead, often introduced as emerging from a graveyard, and has special powers - yokai-detecting hair, magic wooden sandals and protected by a distinctive waistcoat.
He is aided by his father, who has withered away until he is just an eyeball with a tiny body! ‘Father Eyeball’ is very knowledgeable, and travels around hidden away under Kitaro's hair, presumably living in his vacant left eyesocket! Otherwise he likes to bathe in a hot bowl of water (much like the Japanese spas).
The smelly Ratman (from the 1996 title sequence)
Kitaro’s regular friends translate roughly as Catgirl, Sand-Witch, Old-man Crybaby, Wally-Wall, Rolly-Cloth and of course the smelly and untrustworthy Ratman - a traitorous trouble-maker (much like Dr Zachary Smith in Lost in Space). He's lecherous, greedy and two-faced and his powers derive from his body odours, gasses and foul breath. The whole ghostly crew resemble a family, with Old Crybaby and Sand-Witch as surrogate grandparents.
Kitaro lives a simple life in the forest up in a treehouse, amongst the woodland creatures with which he can also communicate. When he's not flying around on Rolly, he can be sky-lifted by flocks of crows! Kitaro is quite poor ('gegege' roughly means 'lowest of the low') possessing only the clothes on his back. But unlike Ratman, he is content with what he's got, dedicated to keeping the peace between humans and yokai.
A few of the manga stories have been translated into English in three collections, published in 2001.
The only international translation I’ve seen of the title has been 'Spooky Kitaro'. He’s referred to as both Kitaro or Kitarou, but Kitaro is also the name of a Japanese band, so it Googles badly!
This long-running children's favourite has spawned a ton of merchandise. I think the best of it are toys, action figures, CDs, and manga. But he's probably best known internationally in many spin-off video games in Japan.
The King of the Yokai
Shigeru Mizuki is the author and illustrator of the original Kitaro manga stories, and has also single-handedly kept many ancient ghost stories alive. He has written encyclopedic guides about the many ghosts and goblins from local legends all over Japan.
His stories share yokai characters with the Japanese 100 Ghost Stories film trilogy of the 1960s. Indeed Mizuki was heavily involved in the recent remake Yokai Daisenso, and even had a cameo as the King of the Yokai. Like that film, Kitaro also has a modern day setting, alongside ancient demons that have only previously appeared in period-costume ghost stories (like Kwaidan).
Among Mizuki's other manga work is an autobiographical account of his World War II experiences in the South Sea Islands, in which he lost an arm during a bombing raid.
Japan’s love for Mizuki is most evident in his home town of Sakaiminato where there is a museum dedicated to him (a scene was filmed there for Yokai Daisenso) on a street where there are bronze statues of many of his most famous characters. What a tribute! (See some of the statues and a guide to the town in a tourist website here).
While Shigeru Mizuki's many reference books about yokai monsters have only been published in Japanese, I found this recent publication to be immensely useful - Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide (on Amazon here). It lists the most famous yokai, their appearances and habits and answers an awful lot of questions I had about Japanese monsters and superstition.
The TV Shows
Mizuki's popular manga about 'ghost-boy' Kitaro have been turned into long-running TV anime series in every decade from the 1960s onwards, totalling over 400 animated episodes!
In 2006, all the older series started being restored and released in huge (expensive) DVD boxsets in Japan, as 1960s, 1970s and 1980s collections. In 2007, the 1997 series boxset followed, as well as a low budget 1980s live-action movie. An anime movies boxset collected the short supporting films that were made for cinemas.
Though most of these boxsets are now out of print, individual DVD volumes are being released in Japan of all the series, including the new one that started airing in 2007. None of these have any English subtitles on them.
I was hoping that maybe the new films would open the way for some subtitled DVD releases of the anime in the west. But despite the lack of translations, I'd still recommend them. They're great for yokai fans, and a good place to start looking would be the movie versions, because they're nearly all action.
So here’s a brief guide to the anime series so far, and how to tell them apart (thanks in large part to Anime News Network).
Season 1 (1968) 65 episodes
The opening titles start in a graveyard full of woodland animals singing the theme tune, conducted by Kitaro. Ratman and Kitaro also appear sitting in a car. (See YouTube for these opening titles).
This is a black-and-white anime series. primarily involving just Kitaro, his father (the eyeball) and Ratman (like the early manga stories). The episodes I've seen are interesting examples of early TV anime. Faithful to the manga, they are scary and occasionally brutal, by modern standards.
Season 2 (1971) 45 episodes
The title sequence again opens in a graveyard, but this time in colour. There's lightning flashes, and Kitaro, his father and Ratman are the only regular characters seen in the titles.
This is the first colour series, and has more action in it. It's still very scary, like the Queen Skeleton episodes demonstrate. Ratman is still driving around in his old car, unlike the later series.
Season 3 (1985) 108 episodes
The title sequence opens with skyscrapers, and tilts down to Ratman and (for the first time) the whole gang singing the familiar theme tune, this time arranged in a rock and roll style while everyone pretends to be pop stars. The titles end with Kitaro rescuing a human girl (Yumiko) with his flying wooden sandals. (See YouTube for the 1985 title sequence, here).
In this series, the regular yokai characters are joined by a human schoolgirl, Yumiko. I thought this was a sign of the anime softening, but it's scary as ever, and Ratman even makes hugely objectionable advances on her and Cat-girl! Sesame Street, this is not. The regular cast now features the whole gang (see picture above) and for some reason, in this series, Sand-Witch has purple robes instead of white.
This series spawned four short movies (each around 40 minutes long) shown in cinemas in 1985 and 1986. They would each have been part of a school-holiday programme that included other cartoons and live-action short films also produced by Toei Studios.
There were also seven extra TV episodes in 1988 (which are included in the 1980s DVD boxset) - and have something to do with 'jigoku' (hell).
Season 4 (1996) 114 episodes
This theme opens with crows flapping. They scatter to reveal a graveyard, from which Kitaro emerges. Besides shots of woodland animals, there are shots of a modern city and a school building being menaced by yokai. The Sand-Witch is dressed in white robes.
With the most advanced animation yet, this series seemed to have a significantly higher budget, with more detailed layouts and special animation effects.
Beside spinning off two 25 minute short films for the cinema (a baseball showdown called Monster Night, and an airbourne battle aboard the Ghost Express Train), there was a 50 minute film called Great Sea Monster, which is well-worth seeing. Based on an early epic manga serial, Kitaro stomps Tokyo whilst trapped in the form of a gigantic whale-monster. This was also adapted as two episodes of the first series.
The short, Ghost Express Train, unusually features western monsters, namely the Frankenstein creature, the Wolfman, a witch and a bizarre version of Dracula, who trap Kitaro and crew on a flying train.
Season 5 (2007) 102 episodes
This title sequence features the traditional theme music but without the song being sung. Sand-Witch is dressed in purple again. Besides Kitaro, the emphasis in the titles isn't on the regular characters, so much as the hundreds of other different yokai monsters in a huge procession through a ghostly city, reminiscent of Spirited Away.
I'm delighted that another anime series was made to coincide with the live-action film of 2007. The anime is presented 16:9 widescreen, and the episodes feel substantially different to the older ones - Kitaro's character-design looks quite different and far from spooky. Also, the use of complex colour schemes, and twistier plots compensate for revisiting the same monster adversaries again.
The series continued into a second year, and are still being released on DVD, under the title Gegege No Kitaro - Dai 2 Ya ('Second Night') refering to the second season - episode 52 onwards.
Besides individual DVD volumes, there's a Japanese boxset of the first season (51 episodes) available, with a similar second season expected. Again, these releases have no English subtitles.
Gegege no Kitaro – the Movie (2007)
The first major live-action movie, my full review here, relied on CGI for the characters like Father Eyeball, Rolly and Wally. The film builds on the success of Takeshi Miike’s Great Yokai War (2005, which also featured brief cameos from Rolly and Wally).
While we were clued in to that film by the 1960s Yokai Monsters film trilogy, not many westerners know about Kitaro, making it a harder sell. But now he stands the best chance of 'crossing over' and becoming recognised internationally. Fingers crossed and, please, none of you knock over any old shrines…
Japanese DVD release had English subtitles, and the film got a region 1 DVD (and Blu-Ray) in the US - the character's debut on home video in America.
Gegege No Kitaro 2
(2008, Gegege no Kitarô: Sennen noroi uta)
The second live-action movie was released on Japanese and Chinese DVDs with English subtitles. This and the first movie were also been released on region 2 DVD in the UK.
Gegege No Kitaro: Nippon Bakuretsu (2008)
The first ever feature-length animated Kitaro movie, released as part of the anime's 40th anniversary. It's made in the same style as the 2007 TV series. Six different versions of the movie have been released, with the character of Cat Girl dressing in different outfits befitting different areas of the country (news courtesy of Anime News Network).
Hakaba Kitaro (2008) 11 episodes
Finally, there's this short anime series, produced for DVD release only (an 'OVA'). It's promoted as depicting Kitaro the way he was first drawn, taking its name from the earliest incarnation of the character, entitled Graveyard Kitaro. Aimed at teenagers (and adults?), the aim is to scare, and tell the full grisly story of Kitaro's early days. The story spans 11 episodes, and for once the opening theme has been dropped in favour of a modern song by the excellent electro band Denki Groove. Full review here.
Do you want to know more?
A description of Kitaro's ghoulish origin is in this strange little page, designed as an introduction to one of the video games, here on BogLeech.
More links, a bibliography, interviews with Shigeru Mizuki, and even a guide to Kitaro's friends' names in Japanese... are all here on the Anthropology of Anime and Manga website.
See more of Shigeru Mizuki's original Kitaro manga artwork here in the ArtCafe artists index.
For a more serious guide to the original legends of Japan's ghosts and yokai monsters, try this essential article from Mangajin magazine.