GeGeGe no Kitaro happens to be an older manga, with its origins in the kamishibai tradition – between 1933 and 1935, the kamishibai storyteller Masami Itō traveled around Japan, relating the original version of Kitaro as a grotesque-looking humanoid yōkai, and the tale eventually was redesigned into the more familiar version in the 1960s by manga author Shigeru Mizuki (whose adaptation of the tale was initially offered as a “rental manga”). Six anime adaptations followed, with the most recent debuting in 2018 – each version follows the same basic format, with Kitaro and his yōkai brethren being summoned via letter to resolve some sort of conflict between their world and that of humans. The first episode of the 2018 anime begins with a scene where a boy records himself on smartphone wandering into traffic, causing mayhem for the drivers on the road; from the outset, we’re presented with a modern-day setting, with omnipresent modern technology shown through the lens of a child who seems to want to establish himself as a YouTube-style star without regard for safety. Ultimately, however, the boy transforms into a giant tree at the hands of a mysterious yōkai (whose identity will be revealed in the episode’s second half) – the supernatural world reveals itself in spectacular and aggressive fashion, attacking humans left and right and triggering an unusual pandemic that can only be resolved through the intervention of another yōkai.
When Mana Inuyama is introduced, she is shown accosting other children for bullying her neighbor; this scene reveals how kids generally regard yōkai as the stuff of legend, as the younger generation seemingly do not consider them real. The unnamed bullies who mock the boy in this episode find the idea of yōkai amusing, but Mana’s intervention shows that she is willing to protect others from harm and help them with their troubles (even if she is initially reluctant to accept the existence of yōkai, as well); the bullied boy shows, however, that belief in yōkai still remain within modern times, even though most of his colleagues dismiss the idea of the supernatural. This provides a nice juxtaposition for the series, where modern technological conveniences such as smartphones contrast with the overarching presence of supernatural forces – the yōkai generally remain outside the perspective of humans, and only those willing to accept their existence can interact with them. Mana herself initially exhibited doubt about them, but as the episode progresses, she begins to accept them as a presence – her encounter with Kitaro and his father shows her how they still exist, even if most humans generally show skepticism about them (and derision towards anyone who may still believe they are real).
When the first two yōkai do appear, Daddy Eyeball expresses surprise and fascination with recent technological developments – he never heard of smartphones before, and his first encounter with the device comes when he meets Mana, with him complimenting the convenience of such human contrivances. This may seem a little unusual on the surface, but he and Kitaro have not really adapted to modern technology quite yet – they use the traditional mail for all correspondence, as exhibited by the presence of a special yōkai-specific mailbox found within the dark alleyway Mana and company discover when researching information on Yokai Mail. Only one yōkai seems to have adjusted to human technological advancement, but she appears in a very brief scene, answering Mana’s online inquiry about the mailbox; this illustrates how at least one person in the yōkai realm has made the transition, and she could potentially introduce Kitaro and Daddy Eyeball to the convenience if they are willing to try it. That yōkai have not adjusted on the whole to modern life reflects a sort of classic image of them as typically beyond the ken of the mortal realm – humans generally encounter yōkai on rare occasions, with classical folktales describing said incidents as extraordinary.
Speaking of such encounters, the first antagonistic yōkai of the series appears in this episode – it is the shadow-like, one-eyed Nobiagari, responsible for the sudden rash of transformations plaguing human society. Many yōkai present in GeGeGe no Kitaro are based on specific folklore, and Nobiagari is no exception; he shares traits with various related beings, including the Mikoshi-Nyudo (“Look-Up Monk”) and Takanyudo. This series’ depiction of the yōkai shows them taking a more nebulous shadowy form, but historical forebears assume various other, typically humanoid shapes (especially a Buddhist monk). As Daddy Eyeball explains to Mana, yōkai may be malevolent in nature – not all yōkai wish to live in peace with humans, and Kitaro took it upon himself to assist humans as a way of showing gratitude for the man who raised him. Kitaro’s benevolent personality shows how yōkai may regard humans as allies, and how a selfless human being can motivate someone like Kitaro to view humans in a positive light; the two societies both have their good and bad elements, and being able to communicate on a personal level helps tremendously in preventing the more malevolent individuals from overtaking either group.
The episode ends on a cliffhanger, with Kitaro being injured by an arrow; the culprit will not be revealed for a while, but the act demonstrates that malicious figures exist within the world. Mana discovers, through her interaction with Kitaro, that both good and evil yōkai can be found in society, much like humans – one must navigate either world delicately, to avoid injury or even death at the hands of those more dangerous individuals. Kitaro represents the capacity for anyone to achieve good in the world; he selflessly acts to resolve any conflict that might arise through the efforts of more menacing members of his society, as he desires to show gratitude for the human who helped raise him and show that not every yōkai is a threat. Both societies have their own treacherous elements, and knowing how to deal with them is important – Kitaro takes a key step in ensuring the survival of both yōkai and humans, and Mana’s determination to help shows that humans are also capable of achieving peace with those they might be able to see during their daily routines. As Daddy Eyeball explained, the world consists of things both seen and unseen; knowing how to navigate both takes dedication and a desire to remain good.