Enduring anime reveals Japan’s ghoulish spirit


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the debut of “GeGeGe no Kitaro,” an animated children’s TV series about the supernatural that’s become a Japanese institution.

Its status as an institution is not necessarily due to its longevity. In fact, the program, which can now be seen on Fuji TV every Sunday morning, has not been broadcast continuously since 1968. The first season lasted through 1969, the second from ’71 to ’72, the third ’85 to ’88, and the fourth ’96 to ’98. The current season began last year.

“I’m not sure why it starts and stops like that,” says Hiroyuki Sakurada, one of the show’s producers, during a recent conversation at a family restaurant in the Okubo neighborhood of Tokyo. “The official reason is that, every 10 years or so, the yokai want to come out and see the Japanese people.”

Sakurada’s inversion of the usual TV production dynamic — that it’s the characters who call the shots, not the producers — may be difficult to grasp without an understanding of the unique nature of those characters. Yokai are spirits, not quite ghosts but not exactly monsters, who play a vital role in Japanese folklore. They tend to be site-specific: Every region has its own yokai and related legends.

The heroes of “GeGeGe no Kitaro” are yokai invented by cartoonist Shigeru Mizuki in 1959 for the kashi-hon (rental comic-book) market. The original series was called “Hakaba Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro).” The title character is the progeny of two mummy-like members of the yurei-zoku (ghost tribe), who, like the living in 1950s Japan, had to scrape by just to be able to eat. (Yes, yokai have to eat, too — in this case, frogs’ eyes.) After they are buried and start to decompose, their baby son, Kitaro, crawls out of the grave with only one eye. He is followed by an eyeball that emerges from the rotting form of his father and sprouts arms and legs, sometimes filling in for his son’s missing orb.

“GeGeGe no Kitaro” was the followup to “Hakaba.” Mizuki wrote it for Shonen Magazine starting in 1966, and is still writing it today. It was first turned into a TV program in 1968 by Toei Animation Studios. While “Hakaba” was morbid, “GeGeGe” the TV show is aimed at children, specifically 3rd- to 5th-year elementary school students. Probably for that reason, Mizuki has always allowed the studio freedom to create the kind of commercial entertainment that appeals to children. Kitaro and his father have adventures along with other yokai in their orbit, forming a kind of Justice League of the netherworld, keeping peace between mortals and those particular yokai who make trouble for them.

“Usually, when a production company plans an animated series, the original writer decides how things will be done,” explains Sakurada. “But ever since this series started, the producers tell Mizuki-san what they’re going to do and he just gives his blessing. He’s quite broad-minded.”

That isn’t to say the producers feel free to do whatever they want. Sakurada admits that “we cannot really leave Mizuki’s palm,” a reference to an old adage about always being in the hand of the Buddha. Everyone involved in “GeGeGe no Kitaro” understands that they must stay true to Mizuki’s vision, though some die-hard fans of the manga consider the child-friendly TV show a sellout.

It’s a decidedly macabre vision. Shigeru Mizuki lost an arm in the jungles of Papua New Guinea during World War II and returned to Japan with a firsthand experience in hell. For a while, he made a living as a kami shibai, an itinerant storyteller who uses illustrated cards, but when the comic boom started he switched to the new medium, specializing in horror stories based on tales told to him as a boy in Tottori Prefecture by an elderly woman he called Non-non-ba, who believed fervently in ghosts.

Though Mizuki didn’t shy away from the ghoulish aspects of his subject, he imparts an affection for yokai manifested in their goofy appearance and childish attributes. The “GeGeGe” of the title refers to the humorous sound of the insects and vermin who follow Kitaro around. Kitaro has some bizarre special powers, such as hair that can be plucked out and thrown like needles at enemies, or a detachable, remote-controlled hand. His father, Medama-oyaji (Daddy Eyeball), tends to hide in Kitaro’s mop of hair when he’s not bathing in a small bowl. Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), on the other hand, is a yokai who hasn’t bathed in 300 years and smells like it.

Sakurada says the impact of Kitaro is immeasurable. “Every Japanese person knows Kitaro and the other characters, even if they’ve never seen the TV show,” he says. “The series popularized the idea of yokai throughout Japan, and in the process influenced a lot of other anime.”

Without Mizuki’s creation, it is difficult to imagine the huge success of Hayao Miyazaki, whose own cartoons, such as the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” are set in fantastical alternate worlds and owe a huge stylistic and thematic debt to “GeGeGe no Kitaro.”

At the same time, the TV series is also conceived as a conventional superhero adventure, an aspect that was emphasized in the live-action film version, which was a box-office hit last summer (a sequel is due this summer). But Sakurada insists that the show has both affected and stood apart from conventional hero-centered anime.

“Kitaro is not a superhero in the usual sense,” he says. “Because he’s a yokai he’s a dark hero, like Kamen Rider (a popular live-action superhero from the ’60s), who started out as a villain. Another difference is that Kitaro is often eaten or beaten up or melted or flattened. That never happens to other heroes. He’s a yokai, so he always comes back.”

Kitaro’s invincibility can be both a comfort to impressionable children and something of a spoiler in terms of dramatic development: Where’s the suspense in knowing the hero can never be killed? But as Sakurada points out, drama is built into the very notion of yokai.

“I grew up watching the second series — the first one in color — when I was in elementary school and then the third one when I was in junior high,” he says. “I liked it because it was scary but also funny.”

He says that even today’s children can be frightened by the series, and points to a recent episode in which a yadokai, or “inn spirit,” makes a deal with a boy to help him rise up in the academic ranking at his cram school. He does this not by making the boy smarter or magically changing the ranking, but by killing off all the students above him.

“Twenty years ago, the show addressed ‘entrance-exam hell’ with stories that conveyed how hard it was on students to compete,” Sakurada explains. “Ten years ago, a story line took the position of saying such competition was perhaps harmful, but over the past 10 years people think that relationships among children aren’t as strong as they used to be. They don’t really care what happens to their classmates, only themselves, and that’s what we wanted to show in this episode. We adapt traditional yokai to the time frame.”

Still, sometimes it’s useful to go back in time, and this year saw the first-ever animated adaptation of the original “Hakaba Kitaro” story, which ran from January to March as part of Fuji TV’s adult-themed, late-night animation series “Noitamina” (“animation” spelled backward). “I think they always wanted to produce it but there was no real audience,” says Sakurada, who was not involved with the series. “Now adults enjoy anime just as much as children do, so they figured the time was right.”

That’s probably because many of those adults grew up watching “GeGeGe no Kitaro,” and Sakurada says that the producers assume these older fans watch the new season of “GeGeGe” with their own children, thus generating a cult that stretches into both the past and the future.

“Mizuki created some of these yokai, but the guest yokai in each episode are legendary creatures from throughout Japan,” he says. “They are the product of the Japanese imagination, they spring from their desires and anxieties, so when they see these yokai in the show, they feel they know them. It’s a kind of nostalgia.”

This may explain why, unlike other Toei Animation shows, such as “Dragonball,” “GeGeGe no Kitaro” is a difficult sell overseas. “We haven’t even tried to sell it to foreign broadcasters,” Sakurada says, though he thinks it might be possible from now on. “Mizuki’s book about Non-non-ba won an award in France (at the 2007 Angouleme International Comics Festival), so there may be a new audience. Yokai are not monsters or fairies. They’re more like spirits, and once people understand that, they may be able to enjoy it more.”

Sakurada admits that he and his team are mainly focused on making the current series enjoyable for themselves. One thing they’re having fun with is the theme song, which is just as famous as the series. Two weeks ago, a new version of the song performed by garage-rock band The 50 Kaitenz (interviewed on this page) replaced the previous version by veteran folk singer Shigeru Izumiya. Moreover, each week a different verse will be utilized as the opening theme depending on the time of day depicted in that week’s story. “On today’s show we used the evening verse. Next week it will be the morning verse and the week after the noon verse, which, by the way, has never been used on the TV show.”

Sakurada implies that the series’ endless capacity for invention and enduring popularity mean it could go on forever, but likely the current series will end just like the last four. The question is: When?

“That’s all up to the yokai,” he smiles.

“GeGeGe no Kitaro” is broadcast on Fuji TV every Sunday at 9 a.m. The first volume of “Hakaba Kitaro” will be released on DVD on April 23, priced ¥3,990.