A Conversation with Zack Davisson

Zack Davisson is a writer and Japanese-to-English translator. He’s a scholar who has written extensively about Japanese folklore, but comics fans likely know him for his translation work for various publishers. He’s translated the late Satoshi Kon’s work for Dark Horse, but he’s likely best known for his work on Drawn and Quarterly’s publications of the work of Shigeru Mizuki.

Arguably one of the greatest comics creators to be translated into English in the past decade, Mizuki’s work has ranged from a personal history of 20th Century Japan in the multi volume Showa, to a biography of Hitler to a semi-autobiographical account of a desperate unit of infantrymen in the last days of WWII. Mizuki, who died in 2015, achieved international acclaim in the last decade of his life and was awarded the Eisner Award and the Golden Wildcat at the Angouleme International Comics Festival among other prizes. He remains best known in Japan however for his character Kitaro.

Kitaro, or GeGeGe no Kitaro, is a yokai and protects people from malevolent yokai and other creatures. Davisson described the character as a akin to a Japanese Hellboy, and there are certainly comparison, but while the books have only started to be translated into English, in Japan they have been a massive pop culture phenomenon for decades. There are live action and animated films, television series, statues, and Davisson spoke about the series and the character’s enduring appeal.

For people who don’t know, who is Kitaro?

Zack Davisson:  Kitaro is a yokai—the last survivor of the Ghost Tribe of underground dwelling monsters. He is nearly indestructible, and has a wide range of powers and objects like his hair which can be fired in in a needle attack, and his powerful chan-chanko vest sewn from the hair of his ancestors.  He’s got magic sandals, a snake that lives in his stomach, and a remote-control hand.

Even though he is a yokai himself, Kitaro uses his powers to battle against bad yokai that threaten humanity—think of him as a Japanese Hellboy, only 1,000 times weirder.

I like that description of him as a Japanese Hellboy, which I think is very apt, though Kitaro skews a younger. Could you talk a little about what the yokai are? I know that you’ve studied this and written a lot about the topic.

That’s a deeply complicated question that has been the subject of several books! There’s not a single definition of yokai, any more than there is of “monster” or “spirit.” Everyone will have their own definition. For me, I go by the Edo period usage of the word, which is how Mizuki tended to use it; a personification of supernatural energy. There is an old belief in Japan that the world is infused with latent magical energy, and this energy occasionally manifests into physical form. This yokai energy can take almost any shape imaginable, visible and invisible. There are hundreds of thousands of different kinds. All of the mystery spots of the world, all of the beasties and boggarts, are all this same energy given form—yokai.

I still have the Kitaro book that D&Q put out a few years ago. What was behind the decision to relaunch the series and publish it in this smaller format?

I can’t speak for the business decisions—and maybe D&Q will want to chime in—but for me accessibility is a key factor. Those big books are awesome, and well-suited to important, ponderous tomes like Hitler and Showa: A History of Japan. But I’ve heard several parents tell me Kitaro was too big for their kids to hold. I like the small format, I like that they can be tossed in a backpack. And they don’t cost as much.

We’ve had a few good years of Big, Serious Shigeru Mizuki. It was time for fun Mizuki to come out and play. I want kids to read Kitaro—that’s who he wrote the stories for!

There are seven books planned for Kitaro to come out in the next couple years. Is that all of the Kitaro stories, or are there still more?

Lots, lots more. Mizuki had a 60-plus year career, and Kitaro takes up a big part of that. He evolved the character over time, from the darker rental manga Graveyard Kitaro (Hakaba Kitaro) to the kid-friendly stuff of the 1960s that we are doing, to really random things like Kitaro Then… (Sono Ato Kitaro) which has an aged Kitaro at college in what can only be described as a teenage sex comedy. Or even Mizuki using Kitaro to make a political stance, like his anti-American Kitaro’s Vietnam War Diary.

Japan recently published a 33-volume Complete Works of Shigeru Mizuki, and I think about 17 of those were Kitaro-related, and ran about 500 pages each. So we are nowhere near having all of Kitaro!

So what’s in this first book, The Birth of Kitaro?

I wanted this first book to be a fun leap into the world of Kitaro. It has his origin story, which Mizuki wrote several times. I picked the one from Garo magazine because I think it is the best. Next, I put in the first Neko Musume story.  I noticed a big demand for her after she wasn’t included in the first release, so I knew we needed to fit her in. That’s tough though, because Neko Musume is like Bluto with Popeye—she plays a huge role in the cartoons and merchandising, but doesn’t actually show up very often in the original comics.  But this one is great. After that it is a fun mishmash. I stuck in the gyuki story, because it is awesome and the gyuki is a great monster. With others I tried to balance out story lengths.

Kitaro’s stories don’t follow any timeline or continuity. They were written at a time when people read them and threw them away, so Mizuki didn’t feel the need to connect one story to the next. It really makes no difference what order you read them in.

KITARO1_166You mentioned that the character was originally “darker rental manga Graveyard Kitaro (Hakaba Kitaro)” What is darker rental manga, exactly?

That refers to a post-war era entertainment that was the prototype for the current manga industry. Basically, kids couldn’t afford comics so they went to shops where they could rent them for a small fee then bring them back. Mizuki wrote comics for rental manga, but he was unsuccessful. He was highly influenced by American EC horror comics like Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror. His comics at the time were dark, gruesome, and unpopular. His Hakaba Kitaro of the time is a much darker version of the character, and not at all the likable character that most people know.

It was actually a television executive who suggested that Mizuki lighten the tone and ditch the name “Graveyard” from the title. That’s how he ended up with the much friendlier Gegege no Kitaro.

So this run of books is all the Kitaro from the sixties, while the older Kitaro from a couple years ago was a mixture of various stories?

The previous book had stories from the 60s as well. That was pretty much the Golden Age of Kitaro stories—Mizuki was in full swing artistically, and was still actively working on the comic instead of turning much of it over to assistants like he would in later eras.


Of the many Kitaro comics that Mizuki made, what percentage would be these kid friendly stories? Is that the version of the character that people remember?

The 1960s Kitaro was such a massive hit that it became standard version of the character, making up the bulk of the stories. That is the version everyone knows. The darker Hakaba Kitaro is, honestly, just not as good. The art is crude. The stories are often copied from Western comics or books. I like them, but I seem them as a stepping stone for the genius that would come later. They’re a prototype.

And then some of the other stuff in the 80s/90s, like Kitaro Then are kind of oddities. It’s interesting that Mizuki did them, because you can see him stretching himself as an artist, but most in Japan have never read them. They would probably be surprised to find out they exist! Not that Mizuki was ashamed of them. They are included in the Complete Collection.

Was Mizuki using actual folklore and stories for the Kitaro comics? Was he making everything up? Some combination of things?

It’s really a combination, and Mizuki’s versions have become so ingrained in the culture that it can be hard to locate the originals. Like Walt Disney in the West, Mizuki’s versions have completely supplanted the older versions, and it is his stories now that are passed on to children.

It’s a tricky question, as it is impossible to say what is “actual folklore.” Vampires bursting into flame is considered “authentic,” but that actually comes from the films, not folkloric sources. Folklore evolves and Mizuki is an important part of that evolution. If you trace them back, most yokai we know come from Toriyama Sekien, who also just made things up. In fact, I would say that making up yokai is part of the grand tradition of yokai! If you are a writer/artists working with yokai and not making up at least a few of your own, you are missing the point!

What was behind the idea to include extra material like the Yokai files, puzzles, games, a history of Kitaro?

That’s pretty much all my doing, and D&Q has been kind enough to indulge me and go along with some of my crazier plans. I’m a writer as well as a translator, and I love bonus features like on a DVD. I think they provide depth and background to the stories. This is especially helpful with Shigeru Mizuki and his yokai world, who are not as well known here.

The extra material also reflects Mizuki himself, and how his books are published in Japan. Mizuki was a scholar as well as an artist, and his books are full of essays on yokai history and little spotlight yokai files, as well as puzzles and games and ways to test your yokai knowledge. It’s like he was doing Facebook quizzes decades before the internet. Often you can score yourself in the books, with the aim of becoming a Yokai Professor. Which is actually a real thing in Japan. The government sponsors a Yokai Knowledge Test every year, where you can be ranked based on your yokai knowledge. Recently a 5 year old girl became the first person to earn the coveted rank of Yokai Professor. All of that comes from Mizuki and Kitaro.

And—to be honest—at the end of the day I thought the games and puzzles would be super fun. And I wanted Birth of Kitaro to be fun! Hopefully the readers think so too.

I know that Kitaro has been turned into cartoons, movies, radio shows, video games. There are statues of him. What do you think accounts for this popularity?

I think it is difficult for people to understand just how popular Kitaro is in Japan. He is beyond Mickey Mouse level of famous; literally not a single living Japanese person is unaware of him. As to the “why,” that is difficult to say. My personal opinion is that Kitaro serves as a corner of a kind of Character Triumvirate. Mighty Atom (aka Astro Boy) represents a dream of Japan’s optimistic future, Kitty chan (aka Hello! Kitty) represents the stylish hope of Japan’s present, while Kitaro provides a link to the magical past, and to the wonderful, unseen world that swirls all around them.

Japanese people grow up and lives their lives in a world deeply immersed in kami spirits, yokai, and a vast pantheon of gods and monsters. Kitaro is sort of a friendly avatar of this spooky world. I don’t see a time when he will ever go away.

I know that you also write and translate different things. People might know that you also translate books by the late Satoshi Kon that Dark Horse has put out in recent years. What are else are you working on?

I’m currently doing two series for Kodansha, Leiji Matsumoto’s Queen Emeraldas and Kazuhiro Fujita’s Ghost and the Lady, but of which are incredible series and exactly what I like to work on. Queen Emeraldas in particular means a lot to me, as I grew up on Matsumoto’s work so it feels like coming full circle.

I also write essays for the comic Wayward from Image, as well as doing a currently self-published comic Narrow Road with my friend Mark Morse. I’m really proud of Narrow Road—we call it our “Hellboy meets Wind in the Willows,” based on old Buddhist monk traveler’s tales set in an adventurous world. We are doing the second story now, and it is coming along great. Aside from that, I have a couple of more unnannouced things in the works. Needless to say, I’m keeping busy!

KITARO1_174_175You’ve written about the many challenges of translation, and I have to ask, what has been the hardest aspect of translating Mizuki from Japanese into English for you?

The hardest part of any translation is finding the initial voice. When I first started out with Showa: A History of Japan, I struggled to hear Mizuki in English. I have to get into his head, sort of slip into his skin. Mizuki’s particular challenge is that he can so easily move between the high and the low. He can go from high academic to gutterspeak without missing a beat, because all of that was in him. He could lecture at a university and then drop a poop joke and it all sounded natural. As a translator I have to make those transitions sound equally natural.

KITAROcover_vol2What’s the next Kitaro volume coming out in the fall and what will it consist of?

More of the same! For the next volume, Kitaro faces off against the infamous Nurarihyon, the terrible Sara Kozo, and a bunch of other unsightly yokai monsters. It’s a great collection of fun stories—just like every volume will be!!!

Drawn and Quarterly has published a number of Mizuki books - NonNonBa, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, his Showa series about 20th Century Japan. What still needs to be translated?

If it were up to me we would tackle that entire 33-volume Complete Collection, and everyone would buy and cherish every volume! But I know that isn’t realistic. I have my wish list that D&Q knows, and we are slowly working through it.

For the next release after Kitaro, I would go back to his serious work and do his phenomenal Tales of Tono (Tono Monogatari) which is part adaptation of work of classical Japanese folklore, part autobiography of getting older, and part historical treatise on the storytellers of the Tono region. Plus there is horse sex, so it really has it all!

After that, I would love to do some of his pure horror work, like his adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror and his short story that inspired the series Death Note. His art in those earlier works is much cruder, and clearly imitating American EC horror comics, but they are great fun.

And then, ohhhh, everything. His Night Tales of Magical Cats book, his absolutely heart-breaking account of wartime Chinese sex slaves called Gunlang, his adaptation of the classic work of Japanese fantasy Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu Monogatari), an account of his lifelong friendship with the Tolai tribe in Me and Topetoro: 50 Years, all balanced out with more Kitaro and silly fun like Sanpei the Kappa so there are some laughs as well! And why not some of his really weird stuff like Poop God Island?

I think that you could sell a few books with the title Poop God Island.

W00t! Let’s get rolling for that one! Just one look at the cover shows you what a masterpiece it is.