If there’s any one thing folklorists can agree on about the yokai known as Nurarihyon, it’s that early literature doesn’t say much about him. Theories based on images, hearsay, and pop culture make up most of the lore at this point, with only his basic appearance remaining unchanged, albeit sometimes exaggerated. That makes him an interesting choice for the final villain Kitaro faces in the 2018-19 adaptation of Shigeru Mizuki‘s GeGeGe no Kitarō manga, because the writers aren’t bound to any specific folktale or behavior. All he needs is the monk’s robe and gourd-shaped head, and they can just take it away from there.
There is a certain reliance upon the theory that states he’s one of the yokai leaders, although he’s never named as a ruler or anything like that. Rather it is the fact that he’s trying to reinstate yokai supremacy that works with that theory, and that is doubtless supposed to linger in the back of your mind when we see humans doing their level best to mistreat yokai based on blind prejudice, both because it seems to fulfill Nurarihyon’s statement about humans being inferior beings, but also because he’s guilty of the exact same form of bias himself – a bias he encourages yokai to act on in treating humans badly. It’s an interesting use of the idea that you really ought to look in the mirror before pointing the finger at someone else, a theme that hopefully will be further examined as the series nears its projected end point, especially since willful blindness has arguably been a central theme of the series all along.
Perhaps the most hopeful look at the idea of these prejudices is in episode eighty-one, which follows the career of Hiderigami (a storm god) as he tries to break into manga publication. Because he isn’t human he has a difficult time getting any editor to even look at his work, and even when they do, the fact that he’s Other ultimately makes them toss him out even though his manga is very good, or at least has the potential to be so. All of this changes when one man decides to give him a chance based solely on the merits of his manga, and through his belief, Hiderigami is able to become a top creator…until the publisher finds out that he’s a yokai, at which point he’s tossed out on his ear. That the original editor and Hiderigami’s fans don’t care as long as they can read his work is the silver lining; because of their belief in him and lack of prejudice, the story is able to have a happy ending. This stands in stark contrast to episode eighty-four, when southern yokai Chin-san comes to Tokyo to make money for his village. Like Hiderigami, Chin-san has trouble getting someone to take him seriously (his customary nakedness doesn’t help), but unlike his more fortunate mangaka counterpart, Chin-san ends up in a situation where foreign workers are systematically abused. The close proximity of these two episodes would seem to indicate that they are intended to parallel each other with some time to think in the middle, and both do cover the same basic material: the treatment of outsiders in the Japanese workforce. But we can also read them as symbolic of the way Native populations are treated by colonizers (given that yokai have been in Japan as long, if not longer, than humans), or really any situation where one group feels superior to another. The difference is whether anyone is willing or able to stand up for the bullied or oppressed, as well as who that someone is: the editor, an adult, has the power to help Hiderigami, while Mana, a child, can only support Chin-san emotionally. The result? Hiderigami is able to succeed, while Chin-san must leave Tokyo. Having his story come after Hiderigami’s, therefore, feels very deliberate, like an encouragement for young viewers to start like Mana and confront injustice when they see it so that they can grow up to be like the editor and more directly affect it.
The direct message of these two episodes, along with more bittersweet content like Nurarihyon corrupting a previously peaceful yokai in episode eighty-five or the look at dementia and other related diseases in eighty-two, makes episode eighty-three stand out in a somewhat negative way. That story, about a tree that becomes Instagram Famous, leading to it being cut down and a town burning in an attempt to get revenge on the humans, doesn’t appear to have any clear message or purpose. Not every story in an anthology like GeGeGe no Kitarō needs to have one, of course – the Evil Santa one certainly doesn’t, unless you count it as “stranger danger” – but the unrelenting darkness and senselessness of the plot feels out of place. Even the story about the vanishing humans or the undead mother, which are unrelentingly depressing, offer us something to think about in a much clearer way. Somehow “get permission from landowners before you post” feels like too light a message for the episode.
That issue aside, this is another strong set of episodes. GeGeGe no Kitarō continually pushes the boundaries of family media, particularly according to many Western cultures. (Although the most recent top ten banned/challenged books list from the American Library Association is basically all for LGBTQ+ themes, not violence.) Nurarihyon’s stance as a villain forces Kitaro to think even more about which, if either, side he wants to be on in the human vs yokai debate, and episodes are relatively evenly divided between which side is the aggressor. As the show goes on, things become ever less clear for him. It will be interesting to see what conclusion he comes to in the end, because right now, the idea that everyone is a little bit right and a little bit wrong is a central one, and that’s something worth encouraging viewers to think about.