Say It With Manga: Kazuo Umezu Edition
I know it can be tedious to read through all the Halloween-themed articles that happen in October, and I’m going to be doing a series of them. But I dearly love horror manga, and it’s unfortunately something that had its heyday some years ago in English. So for the next couple weeks, I’ll be doing artist spotlights for a few of the classic horror manga artists that are available in English, most of whom haven’t seen a new work translated into English in years.
For week one, I’m going to focus on Kazuo Umezu. Specifically, some of his lesser-known works. I’m a huge fan, and I’ve already discussed Reptilia and Drifting Classroom. The latter is one of the craziest and finest works of manga we have in English, and the books I’m talking about today pale in comparison. Umezu himself is a fairly unique individual. He began drawing manga in the 50s, and was one of the pioneers of romantic comedies in the 60s. But he hit his stride with horror manga when he began drawing series similar to Cat-Eyed Boy and Reptilia, about children dealing with anthropomorphic terrors and mild thrills. His stories began to grow somewhat more twisted, culminating in Drifting Classroom, which is a story packed full of every kind of nonsensical children’s nightmare fuel you can imagine. It often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s a crazy ride and there’s nothing like it. After he drew Drifting Classroom, he switched genres to gross-out comedy and became equally well-known for Makoto-chan, which is full of snot and poop jokes and was immensely popular. The 80s saw a return to horror with (slightly) more mature works Right Hand of God, Left Hand of the Devil and Fourteen, the latter of which makes Drifting Classroom look quite sane and mild. He retired after finishing Fourteen, and is something like an eccentric personality now. He’s well-known for his signature red-striped shirts, so much so that his house features a controversial exterior paint job in their likeness. He often appears on talk shows, tours with a band, and the like. Somewhere, there is an amazing video of him singing “You Are My Destiny” in red-striped sequined bell bottoms. You get the idea, or you can go here for a look at more eccentricities. What you want to read in English is Drifting Classroom, but here’s some other work by him worth checking out.
Cat-Eyed Boy (2 volumes)
Cat-Eyed Boy does what it says on the cover. The protagonist is a cat-eyed boy who has been ostracized by society, and tends to get into altercations with very Japanese demons. There’s a lot to like in these two volumes, which start with shorter stories about Cat-Eyed Boy being an observer and move into longer stories where demons draw Cat-Eyed Boy in. One of my early favorites in these two volumes involves demon possession and elaborate comeuppance for evil deeds. Cat-Eyed Boy condemns the demon for its possession, then goes on to say the boy had his punishment coming to him (he was a very evil little boy), and that he probably would have grown into a murderer otherwise. There are stories about stones that summon tsunamis kept at bay by local deities. One hundred elaborately drawn and designed demons come after Cat-Eyed Boy in one of the two long stories. Umezu is fantastic at drawing humanoid monsters and terrified children, and is a master at bizarre throw-away ideas, and these things are well-suited to short stories. They don’t hold up so well in the longer pieces though, where the same humanoid monster fights the same terrified family with clumsy aid from Cat-Eyed Boy for 200 or so pages. Good ideas are scattered throughout, though. At one point, Cat-Eyed Boy discovers a cure for cancer, then disregards it. He can suddenly breathe fire. A human blood transfusion strips him of his minimal demonic powers and turns him into a regular human. After the two longer stories, the second volume is rounded out with excellent short stories. One child takes a trip to a Bosch-like Hell to save his mother. Another is kidnapped by a snake-man in a trenchcoat. In one not involving children, a Kannon deity comes to life and drinks the blood of victims of a killer nun. The volumes are deluxe 400-pagers with color images, some bonus material, and awesome cover designs. Umezu’s strengths are his art (close, cramped, claustrophobic, and dark), his monsters, and the hundreds of panels of children’s faces frozen in screaming terror. He can set a mood like few others, and there’s quite an art to these horror stories. Still, they’re somewhat slower-paced, and more novelty than they are horrifying. They likely won’t be to taste for many readers, but the books themselves are fine things to own. This is one of the newer collections I’m going to be looking at this month, as it was released in 2010. Both volumes are still available.
Orochi: Blood (1 volume)
As the last volume in the 6-volume series Orochi (the rest of which was not released in English), this was my introduction to Umezu, and it was not a great one. Each volume is something of a one-shot story, but I didn’t understand the observer’s role (the titular Orochi) until I read that this was part of a series at the end. The story is also somewhat underwhelming. Two sisters experience extreme forms of sibling rivalry – one can do no wrong, and the other can do nothing right. This changes when the “good” sister is in an accident. The rest of the story is something of a twist when we see Orochi enter the narrative and intervene in the lives of the sisters. There’s a somewhat satisfying twist ending, but nothing truly remarkable happens. This isn’t really a “horror” manga in that there’s not really any outside forces at work here. Think of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, except less unsettling. I think there were a lot of people disappointed with their first look at Umezu, but this book does contain some of his trademarks. Again, some of his strengths are his dark, claustrophobic art and the way he builds moods, which are what you’re going to see at work in this book. It’s dark and gothic, and it’s very good at both, but it unfortunately never draws you in. Pick this one up as a curiousity and a look at a horror manga without blood or the boogeyman, but there are better books out there. It’s over ten years old at this point and out of print, but not terribly valuable.
Scary Book (3 volumes)
At one point, Dark Horse released several horror manga series, all of them worth checking out. Unfortunately, they didn’t sell well, so most of them were terminated early. Scary Book is one such series, but happily, it’s a short story collection, so there’s no overarching plot that we’re missing out on, and it’s a nice look at Umezu’s short stories, something we wouldn’t otherwise get to read in English. The three volumes are called “Reflections”, “Insects”, and “Faces”. My favorite story in these books by far appears in “Faces.” A little girl is angry at her teacher, and to make herself feel better she writes an obnoxious letter full of terrible things, then makes up an address and mails the letter. What should be harmless stress relief becomes more complicated when it turns out that the address was real, and the person who received the letter was affected by every terrible thing the girl wrote. The letter gets a lot of media attention when the person who receives it takes offense to it, and the media spectacle continues as all the events the girl fantasized befalling her teacher come true to this real person. The girl is driven slowly insane throughout the story. Umezu is good at premises that are completely ridiculous, but are taken very seriously. Expect a great deal of psychological horror, some more in line with traditional gothic tales of terror. The main story in “Faces” is about a pair of sisters, one of whom is extraordinarily jealous of the other until the beautiful sister suffers a disfiguring accident that turns her into a psychotic recluse (similar in premise to Orochi: Blood, but a completely different story). The formerly jealous sister and the recluse’s boyfrield are forced to deal with the recluse’s increasingly eccentric behaviour in a very gothic and well-balanced story with a fine twist ending. The main story in “Reflections” runs somewhere in the middle, and is about a little girl who can’t stop looking at herself in the mirror, until her reflection escapes and tries to take over her life. Silly, but also fairly unsettling, and Umezu is an absolute master at dark moods, claustrophobic settings, and getting you to believe the characters are very scared. They’re interesting stories if you happen across these volumes, but there are better horror story collections in English. These were released in 2006 and are seven years old, but were so unpopular that they should be in stock and readily available most places.