A Guided Tour of the World’s Heavens and Hell
If you wanted to learn more about the various heavens, hells and other assorted forms of afterlife in Japan you could either crack the spine on the through and scholarly Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhismor instead hop on the Dead Man’s Train with Kitaro, Nezumi Otoko and Medama Oyaji for a guided tour through all death has to offer.
“Kitaro’s Heaven and Hell” by legendary yokai professor Mizuki Shigeru is a tour not only though the various death-realms of Japan but also such places as Mexico, Hawaii, China, Tibet, Europe and the folklore traditions of various countries. All of the entries are accompanied by Mizuki sensei’s glorious artwork, mostly in black-and-white line work but with occasional red and orange highlights.
The rough set-up for this book is when a girl at school dies suddenly, and her classmates contact Kitaro to go to the afterlife and get her soul back. Kitaro still has his ticket for the Dead Man’s Train, so he goes to try and get her back. While they are in the neighborhood, Kitaro, Nezumi Otoko and Medama Oyaji decide to go on a walking tour of the afterlife. First they head through Japan’s realms, such as Takama no Hara (High Plain of Heaven) where the original gods descended from, and Ne no Kuni (The Root Land) which is one of the oldest concepts of where the dead go, before trekking across the map to foreign shores.
I am an avowed Mizuki Shigeru fan, with a huge collection of his works, and “Kitaro’s Heaven and Hell” stands out not only as a testament to his ability to visualize and put to paper abstract concepts of the afterlife but also for his scholarship as a folklorist. The book is part of a recent series by publisher Shogakukan including “I am a Yokai Professor” that mixes his comic strips with single page illustrations. This comic is all original material, with only one or two comic strips and the rest full page drawings of the afterlife. His style of detailed backgrounds mixed with up-front cartoony characters is seen to full advantage, and the book is simply beautiful.
A few of my favorite pages were the ones I was the least familiar with, such as the legend of the “Kamui Village” from the native Ainu people of Japan, and the “Kigou Market” in China where the ghosts go shopping after dark. There is at least one familiar folk legend, that of Urashima Taro and the Dragon Palace, drawn in Mizuki’s unique style. His European depictions come straight out of Dante, and his depiction of China’s holy island Houto is as spellbinding as any ancient Chinese ink scroll.
“Kitaro’s Heaven and Hell” is a great addition to my Mizuki Shigeru library. I learned quite a lot from it as well as just marveling at Mizuki’s art.