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Kitaro is a little boy who lives with a gang of phantoms and figures from Japanese Folk Tales, including his friends Rat Man, Cat Girl, and Piece-of-Paper. The spirit of his father possesses one of his eyeballs, which has grown tiny arms and legs and can climb about from its perch in his hair. His life may be strange in some of its details, but Kitaro is actually just a nice, ordinary Japanese boy who uses various magical artifacts, like his traditional coat and wooden shoes, to assist him in helping his human and nonhuman friends to resolve the problems that arise in their lives. Despite (or perhaps because of) reprising basic magical-girl and school-story concepts (the great thing about ghosts, of course, is that they don't have to go to school, as the theme song gleefully informs us), the series is charming and funny, with Kitaro's supernatural surrogate family presented as regular folks whose ditherings, weaknesses, and prosaic good-heartedness wouldn't be too out of place in Sazae-san. Little Devil-creator Shigeru Mizuki's 1965 manga in Shonen Magazine led to the first TV series, which then returned in color in 1971. The fashion for ghoulies and ghosties at the time was influenced by American TV and inspired other anime like Vampire, Little Goblin, and Monster Man Bem. After a long hiatus, SK returned for a third series in 1985, now overseen by Osamu Kasai and Hiroki Shibata-in many ways a complete remake of the preceding two versions but with a few nods to the modern audience, such as the introduction of super-deformed "SD" scenes of a squashed-down Kitaro at humorous moments. Some later stories were all-new ideas based on viewer suggestions. During the same period, Toei also took the franchise into movie theaters, commencing with SOK (1985), which drew less on the original manga than on Mizuki's picaresque Ghoulish Travels in Kitaro's World (Kitaro no Sekai o Bake Ryoko), then running in Shonen King magazine. Three more short movies followed in 1986: Great Ghost War (Yokai Daisakusen), featuring cameos from Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, Great Ghost Army-Destructive Monsters Arrive in Japan (Saikyo Yokai Guntai! Nippon Joriku), and The Big Revolt of Monsters from Another Dimension (Kyojigen Yokai no Dai Hanran). The short-lived TV series SOK: Hell Chapter (1988, Jigoku Hen) retold the story of Kitaro's origins, prompted by the opportunity to meet his parents' ghosts in the underworld. After that, the franchise lay dormant again until revived in 1996 by director Daisuke Nishio. This most recent incarnation, confusingly termed the "fourth" TV series, though technically being the fifth, also spun off into three more movies, Tomoharu Katsumata's Giant Sea Monster (1996, Dai Kaiju), Junichi Sato's Ghost Knighter (1997, Obake Knighter), and Takao Yoshizawa's Monster Express! Ghost Train (1997, Yokai Tokkyu! Maboroshi no Kisha). There was also a brief live-action series featuring Mizuki in a cameo role.
In interviews, Mizuki has been heard to suggest that traditional Japanese spirits are driven out of the modern world by the prevalence of electric light-that they need the shadows cast by candles and starlight to survive. This elegiac quality, alluding both to the advance of modernity and the transient nature of youth, can also be seen in modern fairy tales such as Pompoko and Spirited Away.