Kitaro: The Great Tanuki War

By Shigeru Mizuki. Released in Japan as “Gegege no Kitaro” by (among others) Kodansha, serialized in various magazines. Released in North America by Drawn & Quarterly. Translated by Zack Davisson.

The large majority of this book is made up of the title story, the first really huge epic tale we’ve seen from this collection of Kitaro stories by Drawn & Quarterly. And it’s a real pip, showing off the best qualities of Kitaro in the 1960s. He’s far more heroic here than he’s been in the past two books, but it’s a pretty thankless task, especially when he’s going up against shifty Japanese politicians. Honestly, you’d think he’d be used to dealing with them given that he’s best friends with Nezumi Otoko, who is in peak form here, always siding with whatever appears to be the winning side, and showing no moral qualms about throwing humanity under the bus. There’s also a larger role for Itta Momen, a yokai made up of flying cloth that I thought was meant to be toilet paper for the longest time.

The villains in this story are the titular Tanuki, who have featured in many Japanese folktales, though not usually as yokai per se. These are The 800 Tanuki of Shikoku, who are here to reclaim earth and take over. They’ve got many and varied ways of doing this, each of which seems to set a higher bar of “how on Earth will Japan get out of this one”? What’s worse, they really do a number on Kitaro, taking him out several times via various fatal traps – and I mean literally fatal, by the end of this story Kitaro has to regenerate from a baby for a month or so. It’s very much in the classic serial vein, which unfortunately means that the ending reads like “OK, wrap it up in this chapter” – it’s very sudden. But the grotesque ideas and imagery are pure Mizuki, and really stand out in this epic story, which also borrows from kaiju-style tales.

I was somewhat surprised by seeing the two-faced Japanese Prime Minister tell Kitaro that they will rely on him to save Japan just like Moshe Dayan saved Israel, till I realized that this was running in Shonen Magazine only two months or so after the Six Day War. You don’t think of Kitaro as referencing too many current events, but there are times it does, particularly when he gets involved in politics, as seen here. (Speaking of references, I was rather startled to see the Tanuki declare that they were going to have the Japanese woman serve them as maids – if only they’d been 30 years later they could have gone to a cafe instead!) The final two stories feel a bit like filler compared to the epic Tanuki war, but we do get to see a rare example of Nezumi Otoko coming out on top for once – it reminds me of the rare cartoons where Tom won over Jerry.

This is a very strong volume of Kitaro, though the reader should be prepared for bad things to happen to him – he spends some of the book as a literal puddle of liquid. As always, a must for fans of classic manga, as well as modern yokai readers who want to read something by the master.

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