DVD Review: HAKABA KITARO Offers Creepy Nostalgia

(This series sure doesn't make you want to poke your eye out.)

In 2008, Fuji Television aired a very unusual eleven episode anime in their famed noitaminA slot. It was called Hakaba Kitaro, meaning "Graveyard Kitaro", the titular character of which had been part of Japan's cultural lexicon for decades already. At the same time, there was even a long-running anime being broadcast on a different network, starring the same character! So what was this guy doing on noitanimA? Normally that slot is reserved for anime aimed at an adult, art-house oriented audience, hardly where you'd expect such a mainstream icon.

Now that Australian distributor Siren Visual has released Hakaba Kitaro on DVD, we can take a look. But first: who or what is this Graveyard Kitaro? And how does the noitaminA series fit in his canon? Read on...


Some Kitarõ History:

The story of Kitarõ finds its origins in Japanese folklore, but got a more-or-less fixed form in 1933 when it got published as a kamishibai, an illustrated tale for traveling storytellers. In 1959, Mizuki Shigeru made a manga of the story, then called Hakaba no Kitarõ. He moved the narrative to the 1950's and added an often not subtle satire about Japanese society to it. Ten years, several reprints and a name change --to Gegege no Kitarõ-- later, the character turned out to be popular enough to create an anime television series for.

Hakaba-Kitaro-DVD-ext1.jpgAlthough he is basically a yokai, a Japanese spirit creature, Kitarõ looks like a human boy and is raised as such. In each incarnation of his story, he is shunned by most humans but his ability to communicate with ghosts and visit the afterlife is often useful, and sought after. His ongoing five (!) series have been on Japanese television on-and-off, spanning several hundreds of episodes. Throughout the last four-and-a-half decades, renowned animators have worked on Gegege no Kitarõ. The first two series were even directed by Takahata Isao, one of Miyazaki Hayao's mentors, and the two would later found Studio Ghibli together.

Since the 1960s, Kitarõ's popularity has spread beyond just manga and anime. Kitarõ merchandise is everywhere, with especially his eyeball father being iconic. There have been several theatrical releases over the years, both in anime and live-action, and the character appears in at least fifteen video games as well.

The noitaminA series from 2008 is a separate retelling of the first 1959 manga by Mizuki Shigeru. It has specifically been set apart from the many ongoing series by using the original name Hakaba Kitaro instead of Gegege no Kitarõ, and forgoing the latter's famous music.


The Story:

In 1950s Japan, the two last remaining yokai of the Ghost Tribe hide from persecution by the humans. The couple is expecting a baby, but both parents die before it is born. Luckily the little boy, named Kitaro, manages to crawl out of his mother's grave, and is adopted by a human neighbour.

Raised by his human foster parent and his yokai biological father's immortal eyeball, Kitaro grows up as half human, half yokai. Shunned by other children for being "too creepy", Kitaro becomes an outcast, looking at Japan's economical resurgence from the outside.
Yet whenever there is a clash between yokai and humankind, Kitaro suddenly becomes a valuable person to both. Unfortunately, he is also a magnet for supernatural trouble...


This, the 2008 noitaminA Series:

When Fuji Television aired Hakaba Kitaro, the fifth of the ongoing Gegege no Kitarõ series was still going strongly. Fans of either weren't likely to get confused though, as both series featured a completely different outlook on the character.

Hakaba Kitaro focuses on the feel and look of the 1959 manga, and the artwork completely embodies that. Colors are drab, designs are creepy and a filter has been used to make it seem as if the whole series was drawn on brown packaging paper. The art work itself resembles the American EC comics of the fifties, rather than the standard Tezuka Osamu designs favored amongst most Japanese animation, although his influence is seen here as well. Generally speaking it gives this series a unique look which is pretty awesome.

Storywise this anime is interesting, if a bit jumpy, something which is often true of comics from the fifties and sixties. The series plays unusually rough with several of its main characters, often callously dispatching them and making fun of some terrible deaths. There is also a disconcerting amount of misogyny in it: women are generally used as attributes, committing suicide whenever something is wrong or being killed alongside their partners, without the men ever being held responsible for it. Again, this is probably more a sign of the time of its source materials, than it is a fair criticism of this particular series. It's still pretty shocking to see though.

While the look of the series is very good, its sound is a weird mix of new and old. To set Hakaba Kitaro apart from its ongoing brethren, it got a new opening song, a catchy but weirdly anachronistic techno ditty. Voice actors were chosen from the older anime of the seventies, again going for the nostalgia factor.


Conclusion:

Almost a history lesson on old manga rather than a narrative, Hakaba Kitaro looks unique, is interesting to follow, funny, at times surprisingly touching and often... weird and creepy. All in all it's a strange mix, but a pleasantly intriguing one.
I enjoyed watching the artwork and was amused throughout.


On to the Discs:

Siren Visual has released Hakaba Kitaro as a region-4 encoded PAL DVD. As is often the case with their exclusive noitaminA releases, there is only the original Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles. Thankfully these are excellent, often explaining little language puns on top of translating what is said.

Visually it looks good. Or, I should say, as awful as it was meant: dark, murky and grainy. All of these are design choices made on purpose though, and it is hard to fault the SD image.

Extras are often a mixed bag with noitaminA series, a case of grab-what-you-can, but the Hakaba Kitaro has some good ones. There is a short interview with Mizuki Shigeru, in which he is extremely sarcastic about Kitarõ's ongoing success. There are nearly seven minutes worth of promos and adverts for the series, and finally there is a storyboard-to-finished-anime breakdown of several key scenes.

All in all this is a pretty good package for a very interesting little series. Recommended!

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  • TheGhostOfGriffinMill

    Ordered on your rec and just finished watching the first disc last night. Not a HUGE anime person, but always willing to try something out. You're right about the aesthetic being EC-like and brown-paper-y. Reminds me of old Halloween collectibles. Except for that cloying opening credit song, totally LOVE it. Great call, Ard! Keep the good recs coming, Twitch gang!!

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