The Birth of Kitaro

posted in: Shigeru Mizuki, Zack Davisson | 12

Graphic novels and comics form a regular part of my reading diet but manga, by and large, remains an area in which I have relatively little confidence or knowledge. However, I’m a curious reader, and I want my kids to be curious readers, and so when opportunities to read (and in my case, review) outside our comfort zones come along, I welcome them. Indeed, I love the recent encouragement from Gene Luen Yang (National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US) to:

  • Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you
  • Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about
  • Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun. This might be a chapter book, a graphic novel, a book in verse, a picture book, or a hybrid book.

  • indexWith this in mind, I turned to The Birth of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Zack Davisson (@ZackDavisson).

    Mizuki, who died at the end of 2015, is widely regarded as a master storyteller and artist, who specialised in the stories of Yokai, the supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. He is best known for his manga series GeGeGe no Kitarō, in which the last survivor of the Ghost Tribe, the eponymous Kitaro, has all sorts of spooky – and funny- adventures as he tries to stop powerful yokai from spreading terror across Japan.

    The Birth of Kitaro is the first of seven volumes of Kitaro stories, now available in English translation for the very first time. It starts with Kitaro’s origin story and introduces us to the main characters who populate the series. Having laid the foundations, we move on to all sorts of spine-tingling encounters with ghostly, ghastly monsters, ranging from a buru-buru (who “looks like a white cloud, shaking with a bad cough”) to the gyuki (a crab-bull monster mashup worthy of a real nightmare), via a nozuchi (a giant eyeless, earless sucking mouth) and even more terrors. As a cultural introduction it’s wild and exciting, with just the right mixture of humour and gross-ness to make the stories super kid-friendly. Indeed these stories are hugely popular with children (and adults) in Japan, prompting multiple adaptations for the screen, with a new anime series having been made every decade since the 1960s.



    Apart from the funny, culturally eye-opening, thrillingly spooky stories, I love how Drawn and Quarterly, the publishers, have put together this book. It’s got a really helpful and well pitched introduction to Japanese supernatural phenomena (yokai), helping readers from other cultures find their feet and get their bearings. There’s also a brief biography of Mizuki, and – where western readers would turn to start a graphic novel – a clear explanation about the direction of reading in this book; it is presented in the traditional Japanese manner, so you start at what many of us would normally consider the back, and then read right to left rather than left to right. There are also a few quizzes and other activities, all adding up to an edition which is an ideal starting point to try the genre (whatever your age). I’d especially recommend it for those who already have an interest in spooks and ghouls (for example fans of Lockwood and Co, but also for anyone who is simply curious. I’ve found it a great way in to learning a little more about Japanese culture and one of the all time greatest manga artists.

    When I asked the girls what they wanted to do to play by the book they were unanimous: “Turn YOU into a Zombie Mummy!”. Yep, just like the one on the cover of the book.

    The kids were clear. They didn’t want dress up as zombie mummies, but they very definitely did want to transform me into one (I’ll happily take the fact that they presumably don’t see being a zombie mummy as my natural state 🙂 ). So with the help of a few loo rolls, here’s what happened:



    It’s amazing how much fun can be had with just four rolls of toilet paper and one willing adult…

    Whilst turning me into a zombie mummy we listened to:

  • Boku no namae wo’s Back Number – the song at No. 1 in the Japanese charts at the time of dressing up as a mummy
  • Aobozu’s Natsu no Ginei. Aobozu, the band’s name, is taken from one of Japan’s many types of yokai
  • The theme tune to the Kitaro anime series played on a music box and the original from the 1960s

  • Other activities which might work well alongside reading The Birth of Kitaro include:

  • Making eyeballs. Kitaro’s father takes the form of a floating eyeball… so how about serving up this treat when you’ve read the book?
  • Making a “paper theatre”. Kamishibai is a traditional Japanese storytelling technique where a set of illustrations on card are shown whilst the story is read from the back of the cards. The cards can just be held up, or slotted into a special theatre box. This youtube video is a great introduction, and more information can be found on The Japan Society website, and Kamishibai for Kids.
  • Reading Twin Spica, The Children of the Sea, and Gon. These are other manga books which my children (aged 11 and 8) have read and enjoyed, and were originally suggested to us by Gosh Comics.

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    Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book by the publisher, Drawn & Quarterly.

    12 Responses

    1. mefinx

      There’s some phenomenal talent in graphic novels, isn’t there? It’s a shame more of them don’t make their way into school libraries; for me the issue is their price tends to be higher than conventional books.

      Have you come across the children’s comic Phoenix? I’ve been very impressed.

      • Zoe

        We LOVE LOVE LOVE the Phoenix comic – have been subscribers from almost the very beginning. Not only the weekly magazine, but also the collected strips, now available in book format. Can’t recommend them enough!

    2. Simone Fraser

      Regarding Mefinx’s email, I wonder if the extra expense is because they are – I think! – much longer in pages and therefore artwork? I suppose if the point of reference is the picturebook. Like Zoe, this genre is one I am quite ignorant about but I was under the impression I am an outsider in this. The graphic novel section of my local and other bookstores has substantially grown in recent years like no other. Except the cookbook genre, perhaps. The artists working in graphic novels and fantasy have a very high level of naturalistic ability.

      I will look for the Phoenix comic.

      The playing by the graphic novel looks particularly fun, Zoe!

    3. Nicola Feggetter

      Is this suitable for primary school children? As a school librarian I have greatly expanded out graphic novel section over the last couple of years but I find some of the content, especially in manga, is not really suitable for a younger audience.

      • Zoe

        Hi Nicola, My 8 and 11 year old (years 3 and 6 at primary) have both read it as well as me and I was more than happy for them to do so. There is “horror” (eg eyeballs and monsters) and spookiness, but I personally think it is fine for KS2. There’s no issue with sexualisation as there is with some manga.

    4. Rebecca Stonehill

      Fab. As with life in general, it’s always a great idea to read outside one’s comfort zone and reap the surprising rewards from that. Would you say this is a good one for kids who have never read manga before in any shape or form? Sounds like it could be…
      You are a trooper for getting mummified!!
      Rebecca Stonehill recently posted..What are the implications of buying ‘art’?

      • Zoe

        Rebecca, I’d say this was ideal, if they are keen on ghosts and ghouls. If spooky stuff isn’t their thing, they could try Twin Spica (for sci fi fans), or Chi’s Sweet Home (for young cat fans). I’ve got loads to learn about manga, but these are at least some starting points.
        Zoe recently posted..The Birth of Kitaro

    5. sophie

      Dear zoe, we were very impressed here by your kitaro’s personification ! he seems so real !!! 😉
      It’s nice you post about mangas to. They are so diverse that it’s impossible one does not find a manga he likes. We have a huge comic and graphical novel culture in France, thanks to this, many illustrators and thanks, editors, have a strong connection with japanese mangakas. It seems we are lucky on this point because many are not translated into english yet, even if they remain best sellers here. Read “sacrée mamie” from shimada and ishakawa as soon as you can, your children will love it. Read little forest from Daisuke Igarashi and all the jiro tanigushi books you can. Read the other books from Mizuki, Tatsumi, Katsumata…. The problem is, you will want to travel to Japan soon after that….:-)

    6. Morgan

      Ha! This is hilarious! I love when parents are willing to be goofy for the sake of making their children happy. So heartwarming. Thanks for a great read!

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