Monday, September 7, 2009

Kazuo Umezu (Assorted Works)

The Drifting Classroom sounds pretty silly to the Western ear (still, a more apt description of the plot than Cowboy Bebop). Especially when you pick up a volume and see nothing but screaming kids standing stock still on the cover. You certainly don't think the book is going to involve infanticide, giant silverfish, Stockholm syndrome, and mass child suicide.
If you're a fan of horror, do yourself a favour and find out why Umezu is known as the Stephen King of manga.

Every volume (there's 11) of Umezu's seminal piece of work is full of mind-altering, gut-shattering horror. Imagine that you were in a world where everything and almost everyone was trying to kill you, you were starving, thirsty and tired, and you had to find the will to live. Not only that, but the will to fight off giant, unthinkable monsters, to diffuse a group of adults from going insane or killing or eating you, to defend yourself from being enslaved by anyone bigger than you, and to make food out of poisonous earth, air and water.
Umezu understands everything that makes life unbearable and pits it against everything that makes it livable.


In Reptilia Kazuo Umezu takes the reader back a time in Japan when a member of your household being a shapeshifting snake woman was serious business. The story's strength comes from the enclosed spaces that young people in Japan inhabit. Japan is already pretty small, but when it comes to the rural villages, if somebody in your family wanted to eat you whole with their snake gullet, well, it wasn't like there was much room for you to run off and hide in.

Umezu's first big success, Reptilia shows (in three stories) why the overshadowing, lurking, hulking beast is far scarier in the days before telephones, instant messages and child protective services.
Part of the horror is how fearless the snake woman is in these stories. She gallivants about before the young girls in her custody. She threatens them, using set-ups to show them just how powerless they are to resist her desires. She's the quintessential evil parent: she understands the imbalance of power in her favour and does everything to abuse it.

Umezu's use of seeping, bloody shadow was never put to better use than here. One can almost picture him as F. W. Murnau coaxing the demon into the frame, turning over the boulder of his medium and finding that, indeed, real gruesome stuff dwelt beneath.


In Cat Eyed Boy Umezu does a neat trick: he exploits the cheesiness of bad horror, and evokes, like Rodriguez managed to in Planet Terror, real horror. The premise is thinly veiled: Cat Eyed Boy understands that wherever he treads, monsters seem to follow. He's like a monster magnet. Or maybe that just saves Umezu having to come up with good reasons why a thousand-armed monster should be attacking a random Japanese family.
Also, in a country that's cat-crazy, it doesn't hurt in the fan service department to have your main character be a nubile, boyish cat.

Plot devices disappear, and things that mattered stop mattering for no reason, and people behave inexplicably against social conventions. But, hey, that's the fun.

Cat Eyed Boy himself never seems particularly horrified or put upon to always be winding up in these scenarios, which deflates the logical aspect of the horror, falling back of Lovecraftian beasties to deliver a more visceral punch to your jugular.

That all being said, I'm not sure that I recommend Cat Eyed Boy. The "It's So Bad It's Good" crowd probably won't find it cheesy enough, and the gore porn crowd will find it relentlessly tame. It's more for cat-lovers who also enjoy b-movies of the not-entertaining variety.

I know that sounds harsh, but I did enjoy the book.


In the Scary Book series, Dark Horse attempted to serialize some fairly psychological streaks in Umezu's mane of dark horror, with mixed results. Like, the title of the series.

The first book, Reflections, is two novellas, the first of which has a good premise: a beautiful girl is forced to confront the ugliness within when her reflection steps through the mirror and takes over her life. After the initial "There's a gremlin on the side of the bus!" has worn off, Umezu forgets that he's writing horror, and veers into mystery. The remainder of the story is fairly non-scary, which clashes with the intended purpose of the book (as posited by the title), which is really just bad marketing, but it hurts you, the reader, to have to reconcile the imbalance, especially if you're familiar with Umezu's body of work.

The second half of Reflections is far superior, concerning a feudal Japan servant whose relationship with his warlord master is meted out with eye-for-eye justice one way but not the other, until a rapid series of reversals in the end pages make for one of Umezu's most satisfying conclusions ever.

The middle volume, Insects, is either ridiculously camp, or a failed exercise in "What's an unusual phobia?"

With so many creepers and crawlies to choose from, Umezu goes with a fear of butterflies to explain why little Megumi, daughter of a widower, starts to go insane. But are the butterflies real, or just a product of her fracturing mind? Who cares! All I could think of reading this book (yes, all 232 pages are about a young girl seeing horrific butterflies) was that scene in The Simpsons when Bart mutters, " one suspects...the butterfly!"

The final volume, Faces, goes out swinging with the best material in the series. The first half, admittedly tritely-titled, Fear, concerns a self-loathing shrinking violet sister of a beautiful woman with a fiancee, and how she comes to tend her sister when the older of the two loses her beauty in an accident. To assuage the growing darkness inside her sister, young Aiko lures in other beautiful girls from the neighbourhood so that the now-hideous Momoko can murder them and steal theri faces. Fans of Umezu will realize this was probably a prototype for the far superior Orochi: Blood. But the face stealing is unique enough to stand its own.

The second story, The Coincidental Letter, is the most imaginative of the series. Yoko, a wrathful little girl (starting to notice a trend?), composes a hateful letter to no one in particular, labels it and mails it only to find that the made up person exists, and the details of the letter translate perfectly to her life. This sets off a chain-reaction of coincidences leading to a fantastic, breathless conclusion.


Orochi: Blood has two sisters going through a similar dynamic to the sisters in Fear. Only this time, the self-loathing, angry, supposedly lesser sister, Lisa, is saved from a car accident by a whimsical girl named Orochi who then falls fast asleep for many years, only to awaken, un-aged, at a time when Lisa, and her 'perfect' sister Kazusa, are much older, with Lisa tending to Kazusa's sickbed.

The strength of Orochi comes primarily from the titular character, watching her traipse in her tiny-bodied way around inside massive panels of gothic detail, observing in secret, like a crafty hobo, the lives of Lisa and Kazusa, as they fall further into the stereotypes that their families, and the readers assign them, and further from the truth.

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