I don’t keep finding old anime: it finds me. I manage to stumble into things, really, and don’t place value in media solely because of age or obscurity. In this case, I heard the name “Shigeru Mizuki” dropped in Princess Jellyfish and ended up finding Gegege no Kitaro, Mizuki’s most popular manga, and the one that started a vast multimedia franchise and re-started Japanese interest in yokai (a broad definition for supernatural creatures that can be anything from lake monsters to living household objects).
Kitaro started life as a character from Japanese folklore, portrayed in the kamishibai picture plays. The manga started out as the slightly darker “Graveyard Kitaro” before being changed to the friendlier title, with some of the early manga stories recycled into later tales. The interjection “Ge!” has been said to be everything from an exclamation of disgust, to the sound of spooky laughter, or the sound of frogs (each anime opening includes a chorus of frogs). All of these things can apply to Kitaro.
Kitaro is the last member of the Ghost Tribe, born from the grave of his mother and accompanied by his father, manifested as an eyeball with a tiny humanoid body attached. He hangs out with various yokai, usually helping save humans from the bad ones, but the earlier versions of the manga, Kitaro was more like one of the fair folk, apt to give deadly or at least frightening reprisals if you crossed or offended him in some way.
The later volumes of the manga, and the anime, did soften Kitaro into a generic do-gooder. That’s not a bad thing, since the appeal of the franchise is how strange it is. The plots and characterizations are always extremely simple, and I enjoy what I’ve managed to find because it’s weird.
I don’t call the Gegege no Kitaro weird because it deals in unfamiliar legends from a foreign culture--I already have some grounding in Japanese mythology, and found the newer information easy to digest. Calling something “weird” because it’s from another culture always feels sketchy to me, and Gegege no Kitaro is “weird” because it’s got a strangeness that seems to come from Mizuki himself, and not just because it’s Japanese.
Stories include Kitaro being injected with cryptid blood and becoming a giant hairy kaiju; a vampire and an ox yokai attacking the same prey and winding up a dead ball of hair; Kitaro letting himself be cooked and eaten as part of an ultimate gambit; souls fried in tempura batter, rescued faces that are going to be excreted...things that make you buck backwards and laugh in surprise at how bizarre they are.
Kitaro himself is possessed of a host of odd abilities as the plot demands. Some are portrayed more than once, but he is akin to Silver Age Superman, who had new powers at every turn. Kitaro can fire off his fingers like a giant robot, keeps a snake in his stomach that becomes handcuffs, can detach his hand, fold into various geometric shapes, fire his hair like quills, and generate electricity from this flesh.
These strange things are the real appeal of the franchise.
Besides Kitaro, the major recurring characters are his father Medama Oyaji, and their friend Nezumi Otoko. Medama Oyaji, as I’ve said, is an eyeball atop a tiny humanoid body, which crawled from his original dead form to protect his son. In the manga, he sometimes rides in Kitaro’s empty eye socket, popping out and startling people to provoke the running gag, “Oh, that’s just my father”. Kitaro himself is one-eyed because he was thrown into a gravestone as a baby, though this and the rest of his gruesome origin is left out of most adaptations.
Nezumi Otoko probably has the most personality. A liar, cheater, and swindler, he’s always looking to make a quick buck and doesn’t care if he’ll run over Kitaro in the process. Nezumi Otoko also ends up the brainwashed minion of assorted powerful enemies, but can also be consciously treacherous. Why Kitaro keeps the whiskered bastard around is a mystery to everybody, I’m sure.
The anime versions often took minor manga characters and made them into recurring cast members. The best known are Neko Musume, a little girl who sports catlike features when angry; Sunakake Baba, a sand-throwing witch; Konaki Jiji, a childike old man who can turn to stone; Nurakabe, a walking wall; Ittanmomen, a living strip of cotton. They’re all derived from Japanese folklore, though Neko Musume is closer to the anime “cat girl”, if not as ridiculous-looking. In the original manga art, she’s downright scary in feline mode.
Even though there must be people out there who prefer the earlier Kitaro stories, I don’t mind the sanitized versions, because there is still weirdness, and because, well, the characters are adorable. Kitaro is just a cute little bugger, and so was Neko Musume before she was prettied up and turned into a clothes horse, probably in the name of appealing to older male audiences (don’t think about it too hard, it’s an ugly thing).
As near as I can see, Gegege no Kitaro is as popular and venerable a franchise in Japan as Scooby-Doo. There’s been an anime series each decade until 2007, as well as the “Graveyard Kitaro” series in 2008, along with films and merchandise and public decorations, including statues and decorated train cars in Mizuki’s hometown. However, only one piece of official material has been released in the West, and fan translations are also scarce and fragmented.
Drawn and Quarterly recently released a compilation of Kitaro stories from the post-Graveyard era, along with information about the author and the folklore. The sheer size of the franchise, its advanced age, and maybe its fundamentally Japanese nature, might have all been reasons that Gegege no Kitaro was never touched during the anime boom. And now, it likely never will be.
There are scanlations and fansubs take some digging to find, and are fragments, a few episodes here and there of the various anime series, whose full runs are always long. From what I’ve been able to see, these series frequently retread the same manga stories for a new decade, but are always charming in their way. The series never loses its fun strangeness, no matter the form it takes.