Hakaba Kitaro: Dances With Mononoke

I think the world needs more Denki Groove OP themes. [->] And I couldn’t resist the bad title joke-pun once I thought of it.

Hakaba Kitaro is probably the closest I’ll get to reading the original Mizuki Shigeru GeGeGe no Kitaro manga (unless some kind soul is translating it in some capacity that I am not aware of), which isn’t exactly a bad thing. I went into the series expecting a grim, gritty kind of horror, a complete 180 from the kid-friendly GeGeGe franchise–in other words, I was expecting more of Poltergeist rather than Ghostbusters. I was therefore very pleasantly surprised to see that, contrary to my baseless expectations due to unfamiliarity (and a bit of misleading pre-airing descriptions) that the whimsical nature of GeGeGe was retained, simply with a darker edge.

Essentially a short episodic showcase for various monsters of various countries’ traditions seen through the eye of Shigeru (and , Hakaba moves quickly from incident to incident. Despite the episodic structure, the series maintains a linear flow, with each episode playing off elements left unexplored in the previous episode and frequently setting up the story for the next episode. Each episode also usually ends in some kind of ironic twist for the central side characters, especially when they refuse to pay heed to Kitaro’s advice regarding nearly everything. Human characters who become interested in the paranormal generally end up getting sucked into hell or some other terrible fate through their own actions (a notable exception being Shigeru himself in a mind-bending meta-episode), and the unfortunate yokai who cross Kitaro’s path also tend to get their comeuppance as victims of themselves more than anything else.

The big draw is less “what happens” in each episode so much as reveling in the left-of-center takes on mythical monsters, partly in the personalities and partly in the artistic designs (a werewolf becomes, for instance, a refined and cultivated gentleman from England–top hat, monocle, and all). Not to mention that frequently the monsters themselves are just plain bizarre: the Water God episode, for instance, has the Water God breaking loose and wreaking havoc by dissolving people (but leaving their finely made Italian swimsuits). Vampire trees, guitar-playing Johnny-in-the-Mists, and catgirls taken literally (I hold an undying love for Neko Musume in all of her incarnations) all make an appearance in the surreal rogue’s gallery. The only major recurring characters are Kitaro, his father, and the utterly disgusting Rat Man; others fade in and out, staying for a couple episodes at most.

Yes, Shigeru actually draws like this. The 50s were awesome.

Yes, Shigeru actually draws like this. The 50s/60s were awesome.

Visually, the series is a treat: Takashi Kurahashi stays fairly close to Shigeru’s original art style and updates it somewhat for a 00s audience while (of course) still being the same texture-obsessed Kurashashi Mononoke fans know and love. The OP sequence consists entirely of panels from the original manga (or panels drawn to resemble the original manga, I cannot tell which), which are all eventually shown in the series proper. Even discarding the more progressive elements of the artistic direction, Hakaba Kitaro is still quite the standout in modern-day series, and even modern-day adaptations of older (or “visually anachronistic”) series. It almost feels to me like older art styles in their modern-day adaptations sometimes seem to suffer bereft of the cel animation charm, for some reason, but Hakaba Kitaro dodges this issue, possibly because Kurahashi’s style gives it a more “cel” feel in digital. Or maybe I’m just crazy.

On a totally different note, it’s worth noting that Kitaro is a throughly likable character despite being, for most of the series, a thoroughly disturbing individual. As the last member of the Ghost Tribe (save for his father, who is now a bipedal eyeball) I wasn’t expecting him to be about posies and poems, mind, but he’s exactly the kind of child you’d walk to the other side of the street to avoid. In the single episode of the most recent GeGeGe remake I watched, Kitaro’s personality is vastly different–in GeGeGe he seems to be more of the rogue outcast from yokai society who insists on helping humans deal with the more malicious yokai. In Hakaba he seems to be less friendly so much as acting more in his own interest, generally lacking a shred of altruism. It’s a different kind of “anti-hero” than I seem to be used to, almost an anti-anti-hero: most anti-heroes seems to be loathsome of morals but suave of manner, whereas Kitaro is loathsome of manner (and sometimes of moral), but underneath it he’s just a normal kid who doesn’t really know what to do. Except he isn’t normal. And his morals are different. Sometimes. It’s hard to explain, provided I’m not making it up (again).

A rare moment of boyish charm for Kitaro. Such is the power of Neko Musume.

Hakaba Kitaro manages to capture the essence of a beloved classic manga series without being unduly alienating to a modern audience. It’s  a nostalgic piece of Japanese childhood for half a century revisited and updated for those who reluctantly grew up. I can’t really pass any judgement on to how accurately it might have captured the feel of the original manga, but it’s definitely satisfied my curiosity while piquing my interest, which is the least one can expect of a series such as this.

Well, that, and more Neko Musume. (Please?)

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I cannot understand those that take anime seriously, but I can love them, and I do. Out of my love I warn them to keep clear of this blog.

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