Kitaro and the Beast with Five FingersPosted: August 10, 2013
Ge Ge no Kitaro is quite possibly the single most famous Japanese manga series you’ve never heard of, even if you happen to be a manga fan.
Except for Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work and the series Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (written by Eiji Ōtsuka and drawn by Housui Yamazaki), I don’t read manga; nor am I an expert on Japanese folklore. So I confess, I hadn’t heard of Kitaro or of his creator Shigeru Mizuki until recently. But when I found out that Mizuki is a cultural anthropologist as well as being the creator of one of the most enduring yokai (supernatural being, shape-shifter, “spirit monster”) characters in Japanese popular culture, I was sold. After all, one of the reasons that Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service resonates with me so much is because Ōtsuka is also an anthropologist and folklorist. The way he weaves traditional folkloric elements into his stories, with a twist, really appeals to me — for example, a story about Japanese ghost marriages where the ghosts of the deceased grooms want living brides (who don’t stay that way long).
So with that in mind, a series about a little yokai boy who uses his supernatural powers to help humans, written by an author who is an expert on Japanese folklore (and folklore in general) seemed right up my alley. Plus, Mr. Mizuki just sounds fascinating. And now the new Kitaro collection (which showcases tales from 1967-1969) is here with me, and NonNonBa and Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths (both memoir works) are on my list.
The first two stories in the collection were a bit disappointing. They were too sketchy, the narrative jumped along too abruptly. They felt like outlines of stories that he never got around to writing. But the third story, “Cruise to Hell”, was great, and I’ve hit my groove with the collection. Plus, I did get a little unexpected treat from the first story, “The Hand”, which is the reason for this post… .
The plot of “The Hand” involves a french vampire named La Seine who has come to Japan to partake of some “tasty Japanese blood”. Apparently, La Seine can blend among ordinary people undetected as a vampire — except that Kitaro alone can recognize La Seine for who he is. So the vampire and his henchman plan an ambush. Kitaro meets La Seine at night at a secluded shrine; as the vampire shakes Kitaro’s hand, his henchman opens fire on Kitaro with a machine gun. Kitaro is apparently vaporized, except for the hand that La Seine still has in his grasp. Dropping the hand on the ground, La Seine and his henchman saunter back to their hotel in triumph.
And then, in the hotel room, we get this scene (the panels read right-to-left):
But wait a minute, you say — why does this hotel room come with a completely full ceiling-height bookshelf?
Because that’s how the story goes.
He had just got to the top, when the lights went out a second time, and he heard again the scuttling along the floor. Quickly he stole on tiptoe in the dim moonshine in the direction of the noise, feeling, as he went, for one of the switches. His fingers touched the metal knob at last. He turned on the electric light.
About ten yards in front of him, crawling along the floor, was a man’s hand. Eustace stared at it in utter amazement. It was moving quickly in the manner of a geometer caterpillar, the fingers humped up one moment, flattened out the next; the thumb appeared to give a crablike motion to the whole. While he was looking, too surprised to stir, the hand disappeared round the corner. Eustace ran forward. He no longer saw it, but he could hear it, as it squeezed its way behind the books on one of the shelves. A heavy volume had been displaced. There was a gap in the row of books, where it had got in. In his fear lest it should escape him again, he seized the first book that came to his hand and plugged it into the hole. Then, emptying two shelves of their contents, he took the wooden boards and propped them up in front to make his barrier doubly sure.
That’s from “The Beast with Five Fingers” by W. F. Harvey, first published sometime around 1928. The right hand of blind scholar Adrian Bolsover becomes possessed (unbeknownst to Adrian) and manages to bequeath itself to Adrian’s nephew Eustace (it makes more sense when you read the story). Eustace is the target of the hand’s unexplained malevolence. The scene above takes place in the gigantic library of the Bolsover’s ancestral manor.
After the attack in the hotel room, Mizuki’s “The Hand” pretty much follows Harvey’s plot. The hand’s intended victim captures the hand and nails it to a board, which gets locked in a desk drawer; the hand manages to free itself from the board and trick someone into unlocking the drawer with a forged note; the victim flees to a remote cottage; the hand follows…. The fates of the victims are the same, as well.
Personally, I think this is pretty cool. W. F. Harvey isn’t even all that well known in English-speaking countries, let alone in Japan. There is a movie called The Beast with Five Fingers from 1946, starring Robert Alda and Peter Lorre; Harvey gets writing credit, but the movie plot bears no resemblance to the original piece. The 1910 short story “August Heat” (also a great one) was anthologized in Edward Gorey’s (yes, that Edward Gorey) collection The Haunted Looking Glass. Beyond these two, I’ve not found another Harvey story online.
But in 1967 Japan, Mizuki knew who Harvey was. Or at least he knew this one story.
It’s too bad Harvey is not better known. I picked up Wordsworth’s collection of Harvey’s short stories (also called The Beast with Five Fingers) a while back, and I enjoyed it a lot. Harvey writes quite well, and not always about the supernatural (there’s one little marital drama in the collection that reminds me of Graham Greene). He handles exposition better than most writers that I’ve read, by which I mean he hardly has any at all, and you can still figure things out. Harvey had a medical background, and the collection includes a series of short stories about an unnamed companion-nurse and various eerie adventures she had in the course of her career. The series was published posthumously as part of a larger collection in 1951, under the heading Twelve Strange Cases.
Recognizing the plot of Mizuki’s “The Hand” had me re-reading Harvey’s story, and now I want to re-read the whole collection! And I want to finish Kitaro as well, of course. Too many books — it’s a good problem to have.