The Trial of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki, published by Drawn & Quarterly, continues the collected works of Mizuki’s most iconic characters. Mizuki (1922-2015) served a lifetime as one of the greatest manga creators in history. His thoroughly researched nonfiction showed new depths of what manga was capable with his autobiographical work, history of Japan, and biography of Hitler. Even with a career spanning decades, Mizuki will never be forgotten as the creator of Kitaro, which bridged the transition of manga from its golden days as adventurous kid comics to the grittier age of gekiga (“dark”) comics.
In each of the Kitaro collection, such as Kitaro Meets Nurarihyon, translator Zack Davisson gives a running narrative of Mizuki’s life while the Kitaro series is being published. Davisson discusses the exhaustion of producing regular adventures for the hero, assisting with production of the animated series, as well as Mizuki’s desire to work on deep subjects, such as his adaptation of the Buddhist work Essentials of Birth in the Pure Land. Nevertheless, Mizuki continued on, somehow accomplishing all of these projects as well as expanding the Kitaro universe with even more characters.
Kitaro, Davisson writes, began as a kamishibai character, one presented by storytelling street performers who use art on boards to illustrate their tales. Even before that, the legend of a half-yokai defending humans against other ghostly creatures and righting wrongs goes back years in Japanese folklore. Mizuki made the character his own, just as he did in giving life, depth, and unique faces to an enormous list of yokai. As Davisson discusses, “yokai” is difficult to translate since they are not necessarily ghosts, yet often more than physical monsters thanks to their incredible powers. In the end, Davisson suggests they they are any creature not easily understood or explained, which gives a broad range of foes for Kitaro.
The Trial of Kitaro is an anthology of Kitaro stories, beginning with the titular tale of Kitaro being put on trial for crimes he did not commit. The story begins with Kitaro’s stinky, greedy “friend,” Nezumi-Otoko, making some quick cash by offering a film studio to shoot at a secret yokai gathering. It is an unlawful move, which is found out by Momon Jiji, a bat-born yokai capable of duplicating himself. He has a bone to pick with Kitaro, so he frames the filming on our young hero, causing Kitaro to be brought before Dai Tengu, one of the most powerful yokai for judgment. Like in all of the Kitaro stories, it will take quick thinking, strong moral character, and a little luck for Kitaro to clear his name.
The Trial of Kitaro is a fun read suitable for kids and adults. It gives a fascinating look into Japanese culture, both the historical mythology of yokai as well as its modern influence with how yokai can evolve today, such as an ancient pot gaining sentience and powers of its own. Mizuki’s art is captivating, mixing entertaining cartooniness of some characters along with incredibly detailed backgrounds to establish a spooky mood.