Title: GeGeGe no Kitarou
Length: 97 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Horror, comedy
Year of release: 2018
Since the 1960s, Gegege no Kitarou has endured. The manga received a new TV anime adaption every decade until the most recent adaption, the 2018 hit featuring Kitarou and friends doing the same old thing they’ve always done – stop fellow yokai from wreaking havoc in the human world, this time with a human girl called Mana. And they do it with no shortage of moral dilemmas, updated or rewritten for the modern day’s technologically interconnectedness dead-end and demoralising life prospects. And, did I mention it’s a kids show?
Set almost solely as standalones across its 97 episode run, Gegege no Kitarou offered a tremendous range of weekend morning television. Spooky episodes like the infamous train episode about a boss being sent to hell for abusing his workers, contrast with the more amusing episodes of kappa being extortionately paid with cucumbers to run a software company at increasingly lengthy hours, and the occasional heartstring tugger, such as Mana’s history report on the ghosts of war never being forgotten – and neither the avoidable reasons for their demise.
But you may notice a recurring theme: Gegege no Kitaoru’s theme-focused episodics bite. It’s becoming more and more common that kid’s anime will engage in poignant topics with its target audience, including older audiences in the refusal to talk down to them, and Gegege no Kitarou is one of the best examples. The first episode got rather topical, or at least more topical back at the beginning of 2018, where its Logan Paul parody (a vlogger who accidentally awakens a curse for a video) rang with poignancy. But it’s the more political episodes that had my attention the most, particularly the episode near the end about a yokai trying to prevent discrimination of immigrant workers – a topical reminder for Japanese people that their working conditions are not as rosy as some work-based anime like to suggest, and that there is an underbelly of racism that is not being addressed.
It’s powerful stuff, and at its best, Gegege no Kitarou is a terrific show. Of course, I’ve only addressed the best of Gegege no Kitarou, but even the less political, more personal episodes had their moments. Many tragic, ghost stories brought the series’ almost cheesy piano ostinato to the front to drive the point home. The best of the bunch was near the end, featuring a son forgiving his father for abandoning him, but there were other lined along the way. The thriller episodes stood tall, too, with particularly noticeable animation regularly present during combat – there’s a lot of awe going around in those scenes.
Unfortunately, there is the elephant in the room: the episodes that didn’t land. Thankfully, there were no archaic or cynical political attempts throughout the series to cringe at, but the problem was elsewhere: comedy. Gegege no Kitarou could, indeed, be funny, but most of the time the comedy was focused on Neko-neesan, Kitarou’s closest friend, having a girlish, tsundere crush on him, or Ratman being gross and farting or peeing. The comedy was decidedly low-brow stuff; where the politics or themes of the episodes could talk to adults and children alike, the attempts to make you laugh were juvenile and I think even children would see through the low-bar it attempted to cross. It wasn’t a constant stream of comedy, but it was there every few episodes, and even one of the arc’s climaxes featured Ratman doing a ginormous fart and lighting it to blow up the Big Bad. Urgh.
The cast of Gegege no Kitarou, despite enduring 90+ episodes, went through little development. The sidecast remained fairly one-note, though Sand Witch, for example, got a bit of backstory behind that gimmicky personality. No, character-wise, the series was lifted up by Kitarou – who was a likeable deus ex machina with a bit of moral rumination – and Mana, whose sense of gung-ho activism made the series a real joy. She could be gone for episodes at a time, but her heart-to-hearts with yokai were the personal, beating heart of the show, and when she appeared, she even made some of the comedy work! Hurrah!
Much like Galaxy Express 999, another long running episodic show with a broad range of themes and tones, I’ve got to conclude with a feeling of averages. The sheer amount of great episodes in Gegege no Kitarou’s run cannot be overlooked, but even some of those would let themselves down with a childish sense of humour. It’s a good anime, but stepped on its toes too many times to be a great one.