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Friday, October 31, 2014

Hakaba Kitaro: Trick or Treat, Smell Nezumi Otoko's Feet...

Greetings & salutations, denizens of the dark! It's Halloween, and what better way to finish off a month of horror anime than to take a look at a show based on the work of the living cultural icon himself, Shigeru Mizuki.

At 92 years old this year, Mizuki may very well be the oldest person ever to still draw comics. And with him being as old as he is, it's impossible to detail the important parts of his life, but here's a (very) basic primer: He was the hopeless black sheep of his family, was drafted into World War II, continually survived when he should have died in battle, lost his arm while sick in the war, came back to Japan when he was marked as dead, & went on to reteach Japan the yokai stories that the government tried suppressing before the war. Really, if you want more info on his life then simply read some of his manga; Drawn & Quarterly has brought over a good amount of them already. What I want to focus on his most iconic work: a young boy named Kitaro. In Japan there are few manga as iconic as GeGeGe no Kitaro, the tales of a young yokai boy who tries to help humanity coexist with his kind. It's so celebrated that, ever since the 60s, Toei Animation has made a new Kitaro anime every decade, and I'm positive that a new one will be made by the end of this decade. But Mizuki didn't start with GeGeGe, actually. Instead, Kitaro's tales were originally a little darker & not as kid friendly, and in early 2008 Toei celebrated the 40th Anniversary of the original GeGeGe anime, while the newest version of that was still airing, by making a slightly more accurate adaptation of the original manga. Bringing in some influence from Mononoke, noitaminA's 10th series was a call back to the early days of Mizuki's beloved boy, the days of Hakaba Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro).

A man named Mizuki is brought in by the hospital he works with to see a medically impossible sight: A dead man who is still moving around in his bed, just as if he never died. Mizuki is told to investigate how this happened & his only lead ends up being the abandoned house next to where he lives. Sneaking into the house he's welcomed by a disfigured woman & a giant mummy, who greet Mizuki. They explain that they're the last living members of the Ghost Tribe, who existed before humanity but were forced to live underground once humans became the dominant species. The woman is pregnant & she and her husband came to the surface for help; she saw a man in pain & gave him some of her power, resulting in the hospital issue. The next day the dead man turns to dust, and when Mizuki checks on the couple they're both dead as well. Mizuki buries the wife, but out from the grave comes a newborn child. Mizuki is understandably freaked out, but eventually takes in the baby named Kitaro & raises him into a young boy. Meanwhile, though, Kitaro is taught about his origins on the side by Medama Oyaji, an eyeball (& sole remaining part of his father). Kitaro is now a yokai who lives with humans, continually getting involved in one weird situation after another.

Hakaba Kitaro right away differs from GeGeGe in how the main character is portrayed. Instead of being the brave champion for coexistence, Kitaro here is mostly all about himself & his dad. He finds humans odd at almost all times, and is usually able to coexist with them due to the fact that he looks like a relatively normal boy, but he really has no interest in unity. He describes Mizuki as nothing more than his "sack of money", though Mizuki does have a sense of fatherly care for him, and is quick to act for himself if need be. That's not to say that this version of Kitaro isn't likable at all, though, because he most certainly is. He's just absolutely blunt about stuff, that's all. Medama Oyaji is a surprisingly doting father, always making his son lunch (just find the closest dead rat!), and generally looking out for his well being & hoping that Kitaro can live with humans just fine. Mizuki, though, is probably the most amusing, honestly. He's really just a normal guy who ends up being stuck with two yokai & essentially forces himself to stay with them. He states at one point that he does so to make sure Kitaro doesn't do anything horrifying, but I'd say there's still a slight sense of fatherly love there; it's small, but still there. Still, any issues he ends up coming across are mostly his own fault for having gotten involved with the Ghost Tribe.

After Kitaro, though, probably the most well known character from this franchise is Nezumi Otoko, the self-proclaimed graduate of Monster University & searcher of all things grotesque & odd. Here, Nezumi Otoko is mostly an instigator, always ready to bring about some sort of terror or panic for his own amusement, financial gain, or simply payback against Kitaro. Still, much like Kitaro, you can't help but love this guy; he's so sleazy & conniving that he's hilarious. These characters make up the main recurring cast, with the other notable characters being more or less quirky variants of iconic monsters. For example, episode 2 has Nezumi Otoko working for Dracula... Or at least the fourth vampire to take up that name. In other episodes there's a werewolf from London, a giant monster called the Yasha, a girl named Neko who turns into a cat girl whenever she's around rats or fish, and overall the series has a very casual feel when it comes to horror.

It's a truly bizarre take on the genre where even the concept of a linear story is twisted slightly. Technically, each episode is focused around something or someone different from the last, but from episodes 1-7 there's still a linearity that connects them all. Episode 2 happens because of what happened in episode 1, episode 3 goes off of episode 2, etc. The closest you get to an actual overarching story is from episodes 3-5, which deal with Neko, who Kitaro has a crush on, and the interference of Nezumi Otoko & a "Fake Kitaro" who wish to ruin Kitaro's life (& maybe find a way to make lots of money, too). Still, this story arc only really happens because of what happened in episode 2 (which has Dracula IV fight the Yasha). It's really interesting how such disparate stories end up linking together, though episode 8 breaks the chain by being essentially a standalone story. The final three episodes follow the same example, all being standalone stories that all entertain in their dark nature.

As much as this show is very casual, and even outright comedic, it can still be a pretty dark series. In fact, the show's casualness even goes into the dark nature itself. Characters can be killed off extremely easily, almost like they never mattered at all, and the show gives no real moment to mourn such occasions; it's like the show's outlook is nothing more than "Life sucks, then you die. Next!" You're not quite sure if you should be shocked at moments like these or if you're supposed to find them hilarious, and I actually find that kind of refreshing in a sick way. The show itself even ends just as casually as it operates. It's definitely an old-school mentality of handling storytelling, remember that the manga was from the early-to-mid 60s, and it's such a clash compared to how stories are generally told now. It's easy to see why Hakaba was aired in noitaminA, compared to the family-friendly time slot of GeGeGe, because this certainly isn't the same boy & yokai-themed stories that multiple generations of Japan grew up on. This is a darker, more critical world (there's even the occasional bit of social satire for them era), one where respect should be given to the world of the dead & mystical, lest ye face the consequences... And even then there's no guarantee you'll be safe.

At the beginning I mentioned that Mononoke influenced the production of Hakaba Kitaro, and that's because they both utilize a similar style of filter that goes over the entire show. Instead of a rice paper filter, though, Hakaba goes for more a grain/wear-&-tear filter, making the entire show feel like it came from that earlier era of Japan. Color is also a big part of the look, but instead of Mononoke's highly vibrant palette, Hakaba has a much more drab & gloomy one, helping push the eeriness & bizarre nature of the show. It still has much more production value when compared to actual anime from the 60s & 70s, but it still makes the show feel older. The biggest reason for this influence is due to the art director, Takashi Kurahashi, who is the sole major carry over from Mononoke (though Kenji Nakamura did storyboard & direct the OP & ED sequences). Speaking of production value, this show was obviously given a higher animation budget than it's visually-influenced predecessor. Everything moves much more fluidly, there's generally more of a polish to the look of the show, and it's obvious that this is all because of the pedigree that this show comes from; had it been another original work it wouldn't have been given this extra bit of budget. Still, I wouldn't say that this show definitively looks better than it's predecessor, simply because they still are two notably different shows in terms of visuals; they merely share some commonalities.

Hey, it's Shigeru Mizuki! But why doe she have two arms? BAKEMONOO!!!!

The major staff behind the show is mostly filled with smaller names, though a notable person or two were involded. Kimitoshi Chioka directed Hakaba Kitaro, with his only other time as series director being for 2006's Kamisama Kazoku, but he did a fine job here. For such an unknown name in the industry Chioka did a great job keeping everything flowing nicely, and the casual nature of the entire show just worked like a charm. Yoshimi Narita (Beet the Vandel Buster, Saint Seiya Omega Season 2) was the series composer, and he likewise did a good job in bringing over the original, darker versions of Mizuki's iconic characters. Lots of dark humor abounds, and it's always entertaining. Character designs & chief animation direction were handled by Tadayoshi Yamamuro (Marvel Disk Wars; The Avengers, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods), who adapted Mizuki's simple designs that are usually associated with family friendly work & showcased them in their other fashion, that of false first impressions. Kitaro may look like an amusingly odd boy, but he can definitely be spooky & creepy should the situation arise (which is more often than you'd think), and Nezumi Otoko comes off just as dirty & grungy as he sounds & acts. If anything, Medama Oyaji is the only one that still looks kind of silly, but that's simply inherent in his design. The numerous yokai that are shown vary from silly parody to appropriately freakish.

The most well known name on the staff, though, would have to be Kaoru Wada (Ninja Scroll, InuYasha), whose music fits the dark & old-school nature of the show perfectly; in fact, Wada did the music for the 90s GeGeGe anime, making this a return for him. The opening theme is "Mononoke Dance" by Denki Groove, and its a perfect match for the oddball nature of this show. Essentially an addictive dance beat, there's enough of a mystery behind its sound that it ends up feeling like something you'd hear at a yokai dance party... Because "Thriller" would be too obvious to use. The ending theme is "Snow Tears" by Shoko Nakagawa, and it's much more traditional in execution, though "Shokotan" is such a great singer that it still works just fine on its own. Nakagawa also sings an insert song, "Kimi ni Meroron", during the Neko story arc, as she also voices Neko, and it's an enjoyable pop song that would have easily fit the era just fine.

Casting the leads was also done as a form of celebrating GeGeGe's 40th anniversary, as the three major leads are reprised by the people who voiced them in the original 1968 series (as well as the 70s series). Kitaro is the voice of Goku herself, Masako Nozawa, and her aged voice actually works well 40 years later, as this is a much more cynical Kitaro; the way she handles the boy's "ke-ke-ke" is appropriately creepy here. Nezumi Otoko is voiced by Chikao Ohtsuka (Gold Roger in One Piece, Eggman in the Sonic the Hedgehog series), and he does an excellent job in making the character sleazy, cheap, egotistical, & downright lovable. The late Isamu Tanonaka (Bibidi in Dragon Ball Z) was the only person who had voiced the same character in every incarnation of Kitaro since the original 68 series, and that character is Medama Oyaji. It's amazing that even in 2008 he was able to deliver that perfect high pitch that makes Medama Oyaji so adorable, even though he's supposed to be grotesque (he's a micro-sized human with a giant eye for a head, after all). Sadly, whenever GeGeGe gets its 2010 series, Medama Oyaji will need his first ever recasting due to Tanonaka's passing in 2010. The last notable recurring voice would be Toru Ohkawa (Roy Mustang in Fullmetal Alchemist [2003], the Narrator in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure TV), who helps make Mizuki such a likable character in how normal he is. The rest of the cast is rounded out by a lot of notable seiyuu who appear for only one episode, like Banjou Ginga, Bin Shimada, Chafurin, Hideyuki Hori, Kozo Shioya, & Masashi Ebara, among others; even Pierre Taki (of Denki Groove) voices a character for two episodes. There's also a cameo voice over from Natsuhiko Kyogoku, an expert on yokai & the creator of Loups-Garous & Requiem from the Darkness.

Hakaba Kitaro is easily one of the oddest, most bizarre, & casual takes on horror I've ever seen. It's honestly pretty unpredictable to guess what happens next, and even if you have a bead on what could happen there's always the chance you'll be proven wrong. Still, even if this is your first time checking out Shigeru Mizuki's most iconic work, as it is for me, it's still easy to see why Kitaro has become such an institution for Japan. Even in this cynical, selfish, and sometimes even evil incarnation there's just so much to like about him, and that applies to Medama Oyaji & Nezumi Otoko as well. Also, there's just a ton of different yokai featured, and it really showcases Shigeru Mizuki's love for this side of Japan. Remember, in the times leading up to World War II the Japanese government was trying to remove many aspects of their old days, including cultural aspects like their superstitions & such. Mizuki was one of the only people remaining after the war who still had this information, so he essentially retaught Japan all about their creatures & horror stories by way of his manga. It may not as great of a show as Mononoke is, but Hakaba Kitaro is essentially a modern day-created time capsule of those days in the early 60s. Everyone was relearning their past & this anime allows everyone else to do the same. Unfortunately, the only English release this show has seen so far has been Siren Visual's Australian DVD set from last year. Still, I'm going to hold off on importing; if Mononoke can come over, anything can happen... Right?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article. I'm gonna have to check out this and some of Shigeru Mizuki's stuff.