Kitaro and the Beast with Five Fingers

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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.

— Matt Alt, from the introduction to Drawn and Quarterly’s new Kitaro collection

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… .

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