Kitaro of the Graveyard (partially found artwork from kamishibai street plays; 1930s-1950s)

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Kitaro kamishibai 1.jpg

One of the few remaining illustrations by Masami Ito that exists from the Kitaro of the Graveyard kamishibai.

Status: Partially Found

Gegege no Kitaro (ゲゲゲの鬼太郎) is a multimedia franchise known for popularizing the use of yokai, Japanese spirits and monsters, in pop culture. The series first started off as a type of street theater known as kamishibai, and was originally created by Masami Ito before being adapted by Shigeru Mizuki. At the time, it was known as Kitaro of the Graveyard (Hakaba Kitaro, 墓場奇太郎). These kamishibai versions of the Kitaro story differ vastly from what we know today, featuring a much darker tone. Shigeru Mizuki started work as a kamishibai artist before he popularized the Kitaro character. All of his kamishibai artwork from the time is considered lost, with the exception of reproductions he made himself. Some of Masami Ito’s original Kitaro of the Graveyard artwork has been recovered, and is featured in books such as Kamishibai Showa History (紙芝居昭和史). However, much of it still remains lost to time.

A kamishibaiya performing a version of Kitaro of the Graveyard in front of a group of children.

Ito’s Version

Ito’s original version of Kitaro of the Graveyard story is based on the tale of the child-rearing yokai (Kosodate Yūrei,子育て幽霊). There are multiple different versions of the story, however they all share one common theme: A ghost of a woman leads a bystander to her grave, where it’s discovered that the woman had given posthumous birth to a healthy baby.[1] The original Kitaro had a disfigured face, with buck teeth and a large bulging eye. He was born in a graveyard from the belly of a snake, due to the karma of his parents.[2] Other details of the story are unknown. It is said that the original Kitaro of the Graveyard was even more popular than Golden Bat (黄金バット), a well-known kamishibai story/character, but there are very little sources that can confirm this claim. Also worth noting is the claim that many of the original Kitaro drawings may have been lost due to WWII.[3]

Thankfully, some of Ito’s version of the Kitaro story have survived. Illustrations are featured in the book Kamishibai Showa History (紙芝居昭和史).[4]

A reproduction made by Mizuki of how Kitaro appeared in the kamishibai story Snakeman.

Mizuki’s Version

After returning from the war, Mizuki would start working as a kamishibai artist. Kamishibai was struggling to stay popular after with the introduction of other forms of media, such as television and manga. When Mizuki moved on to adapt a kashihon (rental manga) based on Kitaro of the Graveyard, he would take inspiration from other kamishibai stories he worked on and use them in his work. One of these being Neko Musume, a story about a girl born as a strange cat/human hybrid.[5] This is when the character of Kitaro became popular, and when Mizuki’s work started to become known.

Mizuki made four kamishibai plays based on the story of Kitaro of the Graveyard. These include: Snakeman『蛇人』Karate Kitaro『空手鬼太郎』Garoa *or Galoa*『ガロア』and Ghost Hand『幽霊の手』.[2] Very little is known about the plot of Garoa and Ghost Hand. The story of Snakeman was similar to that of Ito’s version of the Kitaro story, in which Kitaro was born from the belly of a snake. This early version of the Kitaro character had a short tuft of hair on his head and large, protruding teeth, though Mizuki would change his design with later Kamishibai plays. The design of Kitaro in Karate Kitaro closely resembles his final design, with his signature hairstyle that covers his missing eye. Kitaro’s father, Medama Oyaji, would also be established in this play.

Sadly, all of Mizuki’s kamishibai illustrations seem to have been lost to time. Mizuki himself has attempted to recreate many of these kamishibai illustrations from memory, most notably, the early design for Kitaro as he was depicted in Snakeman. With his early kamishibai illustrations presumably destroyed, it’s truly unknown what Mizuki’s first depiction of Kitaro may have looked like.

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