ALL STAR RECOMMENDS FOR OCTOBER 31ST
Monsters Within, Monsters Without: 10,000 Pages of Kazuo Umezu
By Cameron Ashley
Life has wedged itself firmly in the way of the production and scheduling of this column, but here we are back on this most spooky of days. Me being busy and all, I totally botched the fact that I wouldn't back for Halloween and so a ready-to-go column was shelved and the little number below that I wrote several years back for somewhere else was dusted off and hastily reanimated for the occasion. Hardly a triumphant return to the virtual pages of All Star Recommends, but an appropriate one as it's a lengthy look at the work of an undisputed master of horror comics, the profoundly influential Kazuo Umezu.
Have a super scary day and regular service will resume shortly.
COMICS OF THE WEEK: SELECTED WORKS BY KAZUO UMEZU
It was in 2003, during a three-year stint teaching English in Japan, that I first encountered the work of Kazuo Umezu. A student of mine named Hiroko grew up worshipping Umezu’s manga and she told me, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase, of the creepiness of his stories, their suspense, the ability of their author to tap into something quite deep rooted and quintessentially Japanese. She promised to find something for me; a story titled “Snake Girl”, a personal favourite of hers, and translate it.
Several weeks later, Hiroko had tracked down a chunky, second-hand copy of something apparently called Bizareness! that contained within its yellowing pages the multi-generational tale of a family battling a snake monster, ‘Snake Girl.’ She had translated every single caption, every word balloon, every thought bubble in pencil in the margins of the page and gutters of the panels, and did a pretty good job, lacking only in some grammar and natural expression that a professional translator would give the work. To this day it’s one of my favourite possessions.
I opened it up to find a title page featuring a little doe-eyed girl in a polka dot dress running for her life from some kimono-clad, slithering, one-eyed reptile woman. My initial impressions were that although the image was striking, well composed, dramatically lit, it far too was stupid and cutesy to work effectively as horror. Like the work of Astro Boy creator and Manga-God Osamu Tezuka (a huge influence on Umezu) only with thicker lines and a much more dominant use of blacks and trippy, pattered backdrops. I flipped through it – more doe-eyed, schoolgirl sailor outfitted girls, eyes glimmering like a picture of the cosmos, adorably clutching their undoubtedly weighty schoolbags in front of them.
This was the Godfather of Japanese Horror comics?
Well, actually, yes.
There is no doubt Umezu’s story structures have dated. His narratives are frequently derailed by ludicrous coincidental plot twists, often in place to wrap up a short work with an “EC-style” shock, and massive amounts of exposition. However, what I discovered upon reading ‘Snake Girl,’ was that smuggled into all this cutesiness was a genuine sense of the weird and a remarkable skill for composing dramatic and seriously unsettling sequences. There is a structural theory that, in genre comics anyway, it’s not just your chapter cliff-hangers you need to worry about when creating a serialised comic book – each page should contain its own cliff-hanger, propelling both narrative and reader onward, deeper into the plot and the two-dimensional universe created on the page. I’d put Umezu’s ability to do this up against pretty much anybody, particularly through his set up of monster reveals, impending violence/shocks or utterly outlandish plot twists.
In the Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods documentary, Richard Metzger describes the Scottish writer’s comics as a “candy-coated bullet.” There is no analogy more fitting for Umezu’s work than this, except that it’s perhaps actually more like a candy-coated Howitzer round. It’s Umezu’s early background in Shojo manga (essentially cute manga for girls) that I suspect is the source of the oddness. True, Osamu Tezuka drew many “mature” works as well, but never with the same surrealist flourishes or visceral gruesomeness. In an interview with The Comics Journal, Umezu said, “I drew girls very cute, very lovely looking. Maybe people liked the stories because they liked the looks of the girls who were astonishing. I had a technique where, when you turned the page, a horrible scene would hit you. After that, I received many letters from readers saying they were afraid to go to the toilet.” (1)
It’s not just about the “horrible scene” though, anyone can do that. It’s about the set-up to the horror and it is here that Umezu is a master. His “cute” Shojo-esque characters are seemingly designed to throw the reader off the scent. When dropped into dark, disturbing and frequently nonsensical situations, rendered with a pen that somehow inks from the collective unconscious of the ten year-old, readers may find themselves slightly ill at ease without knowing exactly why. The best analogy I can think of is this: imagine Child-You picked up an issue of old Dan DeCarlo Archie to find its open-faced happy-go-lucky, “oh gee, which girl do I go for” characters being crucified, stabbed, stalked by hideous shadow twins from the other side of the mirror, eyed off through window-slits by cyclopean creatures with a generational grudge, stranded in far futures where adult supervision turns homicidal and witness to Jughead’s maiming and subsequent suicide attempts. A litany of twisted psychological horrors waits beneath the pretty pictures. Umezu’s frequent use of checked and psychedelic swirling Zip-a-tone backgrounds (a technique this comics grandpa dearly misses in this age of lurid colours and computer effect motion blurs) not only heightens the oddness but provides some truly retro deliciousness. At his best, his work reads like the demented collaboration of David Cronenberg, JG Ballard in early environmental disaster mode, David Lynch and Jack Kirby. At its worst, it’s the wall-scrawling of a homicidal ten-year old, which is a pretty fascinating worst case scenario when you think about it.
A true celebrity at home, “Kazz” (as Umezu is known) was born September 3, 1936 and, from all accounts, did pretty much nothing but draw from the moment he was first able to hold a pencil. He barely eats, fronts a rock band, has a festival named after him, and it is apparently good luck to see him wandering around his western Tokyo neighbourhood (2). He lives in a candy-striped home, matching his outfits, and has the wide, open grin of one of his young protagonists. Clearly stricken with a Peter Pan complex, Umezu seems to revere childhood the way Michael Jackson did only without the creepiness – which is strange considering the nature of much of his work. Whilst it is true that Umezu has done much more than pure horror (notably with a stint adapting the adventures of Japanese superhero Ultraman and his gag strip featuring the “scatalogically-obsessed wild child” (3) Makoto-Chan which became a merchandising sensation), there’s no denying that horror is where he is most effective. Upon soaking up his huge body of work, the reader will find more than just snake monsters and genetically mutated, sentient chicken meat, they will find some pretty ubiquitous childhood fears splashed across the black and white pages – ugliness, deformation, alienation, rejection, vanity, sibling rivalry, generational chasms, authority figures gone mad.
Never fear though, kids, for the playful Umezu, now eighty-one years old, constantly smiling and clad in candy stripes, is still totally on your side. He loves scaring you, feels “close” to you when he does so. It’s pretty rare you can trust anyone over ten in Umezu’s world and even then our teen heroes and heroines better watch their backs.
“Snake Girl” was collected with two other tales of the terrifying reptile woman, “Scared of Mama” and its direct sequel “The Spotted Girl”, in 2000 (from stories created in the late ‘60s) and subsequently in English in 2007 by American publisher IDW. Australian-born artist Ashley Wood was chosen by IDW to provide a cover to the English edition of Reptilia and Wood’s dark and striking painting is effective, if stylistically opposed to the contents within. IDW's Reptilia is a treat, with the opening two stories being classic Umezu and trying directly into the events of “Snake Girl” (or “Reptilia” as it is known in this edition). In “Scared of Mama”, the snake woman is locked away in a hidden ward of a hospital where young Yumiko’s mother is recovering from an accident. The Snake Woman escapes from her cell and, noticing the striking resemblance to Yumiko’s mother, switches places with her and begins to assume her life. This is a frequent story trick Umezu uses – the parent as literally other from the child and as we shall see as we work our way through Umezu’s catalogue, one that never fails to be effective: what imaginative child has never once wondered if his or her parents were really their own?
Of course, Yumiko knows what’s going on here and, of course, she is the only member of her family who sees the snake woman show signs of her true self – scales appearing on a shoulder blade, mouth creeping upwards in a snake-like “smile”. Nobody believes her, naturally, and it’s up to Yumiko to expose this monster on her own. From there, Yumiko is sent to stay with her cousin Kyoko in “The Spotted Girl,” only there’s a stowaway in her suitcase – the snake woman, escaped once more from what appears to be the Tokyo equivalent of Arkham Asylum’s revolving door system. Midoro Village, Kyoko’s home, is also the home of the snake woman (who lived in a now-dilapidated shack called The Snake House), and poor Yumiko is up against it big-time here as the snake woman’s venom turns out to be a virus which turns the infected reptilian. With an entire village scared of snakes, this time the adults not only disbelieve Yumiko, they blame her for bringing the curse of the snake woman back down upon them, hunting the little girl and threatening to “capture and kill” her. Umezu’s in fine form here, ramping up the paranoia and the threats as her whole extended family is infected and out to get her.
Probably Umezu’s best-known work, the award-winning The Drifting Classroom was serialised in the manga title Weekly Shonen Sunday from 1972-1974. Despite being forty years old, the work still packs some serious impact. A Tokyo elementary school suffers a huge explosion and literally disappears without a trace, leaving nothing but a giant crater where it once stood. While parents and authorities grieve and try to ascertain what happened, the school is somehow transported to a post-apocalyptic future Japan, where all is wasteland, pollution, natural disaster and monster. Everything in this future is tainted – the landscape an ominous, inky mass of tumorous-looking dunes.
Umezu said of the work, “I didn’t want to express it, but behind my work I wanted to deal with pollution – exhaust gases, school boys and girls suffering from itchy eyes, etc. According to some radio shows, the cause of the itchy eyes was not because of the environment but because of the young people’s psychological problems.” (4) Following the Fukushima disaster, the premise of the series is perhaps now even more potent than it was in the ‘70s and it will most likely be difficult for any modern reader to not consider the disaster when reading.
Spanning eleven collected volumes from publishers Viz, Umezu throws everything at his cast (led by sixth grade troublemaker Sho Takamura). The adults, lacking the imaginative capacity to grasp this impossible circumstance, are the first to lose it – trusted teachers quickly turn homicidal and cafeteria worker, Sekiya, barricades himself in the school food storeroom, hording the food and fending off all assaults to remove him, killing adult and child alike with kitchen knives and cooking oil fires.
The kids, of course, start off the series as unified. They are imaginative and creative and, despite the panic, are able to process their bizarre circumstances far more rationally than their adult supervisors, tied to their textbook notions of time and space and the limited boundaries of the possible.
The story moves at a lightning fast pace and the kids are soon left to fend for themselves, with all the adults either dead or, in the case of Sekiya, imprisoned. Takamura quickly takes charge, the little rebel demonstrating an immediate gift of leadership, and with a democracy in place, the kids begin to both work out where they are and how they will survive. It’s of course not easy – plague, drought, flood, mutants, monsters and civil unrest all come their way. One threat appears just as the last is (barely) handled. Mistrust and misinformation spreads and the kids begin to turn on each other – paranoia leads to some terrible decision-making and mob mentality leading to, amongst other things, the crucifixion and immolation of a boy who is believed to be responsible for their circumstances.
Heavy shit for 1973.
Even though the pace is relentless, the series truly hits its stride with volume seven, where Umezu shifts the book into true body horror territory. An odd, pimply-looking fungus sprouts everywhere the kids turn, overtaking the plants they’ve tried so hard to cultivate. To eat or not to eat, is the question, and of course several students (numbers whittled down by this point), decide to eat. The mushrooms quickly deform and mutate those who’ve partaken, leading to a showdown with weird looking posthuman mutants, the only truly intelligent life left on the planet.
The oddness continues – the kids worship a bust of Takamura’s mother (with whom he can communicate – his voice somehow echoing through time) as some sort of surrogate God-parent. Takamura’s mum has an odd arc of her own as, back in the ‘70s, she begins by dealing with her grief, and ends up being able to communicate with her time-displaced boy and running all manner of crazy errands for him, planting packages everywhere for Sho to eventually find in the future. She even stashes a medical kit in the cadaver of a famous baseball player that the kids discover during their bizarre explorations of the terrain.
Spiralling into something like Lord of the Flies with monsters, from here the series gleefully nosedives into a parade of child-on-child horrors. Split into two camps, one for Takamura and one for his rival Otomo, a grisly battle for turf erupts and kids kill kids in a bloody war for food and shelter. Umezu never flinches away from the nastiness here – homemade axes slam into the heads of six year olds, vicious running spear-battles take place and, desperate for food, Otomo’s camp even descends into cannibalism. The sight of these once-cute, now haggard and psychotic little characters cooking each other is honestly a little hard to process. One Western reader even posted a review on Amazon saying he or she was going to quit the series at volume nine as the cruelty with which Umezu treats his characters was too much to bear. Viz should seriously use that as a blurb.
Perhaps traumatising a select group of readers further is the fact that The Drifting Classroom does not provide us with a happy ending – only a terse, resolutely Japanese decision to make the best of a bad situation and a future quite literally in the hands of our children.
The perils of vanity and the repugnance of physical deformation are another of Umezu’s obsessions. In “The Mirror”, beautiful young Emi’s life is turned upside down when her reflection bursts free from her mirror and begins to usurp her life. In “Fear”, beautiful Momoko is terribly disfigured after an accident, and her younger sister Aiko, once ignored (Umezu loves his “Cinderellas”), now has to bring pretty classmates home whose faces Momoko intends to use as replacements for her own. Aiko, however, has her own secrets, and Umezu expertly twists the knife in this story of youth confronted by the sudden and life-altering nature of once beautiful flesh turned monstrous. The manger master says, “Fear is created when certain conditions are met. One of these is physical appearances. The more bizarre and ugly the imagery, the greater the fear.” (5)
Harbingers of doom and omens of peril also populate much of Umezu’s work, from the black butterfly beautiful young Megumi sees in the evil step-mother epic, “Butterfly Grave” (probably my personal favourite Umezu story) to Mutsumi’s paranormal ability to see a blue flame hovering above the head of those soon to die in “Blue Fire,” to Umezu’s enduring Cat-Eyed Boy, who has the misfortune to make “something frightening” happen wherever he appears.
“Butterfly Grave” (reprinted in English by Dark Horse in Scary Book Vol.2: Insects) begins with the death of Megumi’s mother shortly after her daughter’s birth. As Megumi grows, she develops a crippling fear of butterflies that soon begin to appear to her right before death or accidents befall people around her. It’s a little like Poe mixed with Japanese schoolgirls and Kirby Krackle-like special effects with evil emanating from negative spaces. Umezu’s art is refined and surreal here, with black dappled butterflies displaying an affection for pointillism and inky smears and Megumi herself quivering in fear, ironically bug-eyed at times, her tremulousness indicated by fine twitching motion lines amid heavy black backdrops.
Of his atmospheric use of blacks, Umezu has said, “White indicates a lack of matter, while black shows an abundance. It makes you think that something is lurking just beyond, hidden in the blackness. We all know that there aren't any monsters or snake women lurking in the shadows. But the darkness creates the possibility that they might be!” (6)
Megumi senses that her new step-mother, an old flame of her father’s, is evil. This being Umezu of course, no adult believes her weird rants about “mother” being a butterfly, and she’s not – she just happens to have a hidden birthmark across her chest, exposed in the story’s climax, shaped like a blotchy butterfly that imprinted itself, in a fateful murderous moment, upon the infant Megumi’s psyche.
Then there’s poor Cat Eyed Boy. Cursed with the truly bad luck of either bringing misfortune or arriving somewhere just in time for misfortune, this little boy with the cat eyes and strange little black jumpsuit, cut off mid-thigh, is in a weird way Umezu’s Hulk – fated to wander Japan, ever looking for a home, he’s hated and feared by everybody who’s paths he crosses and blamed for every weird and horrific happenstance he’s in the slipstream of, just like poor Yukiko in the first two Reptilia stories.
Produced between 1967-1968, the near one thousand page series begins with Cat Eyed Boy in almost an EC-style narrator role as, like a cute Cryptkeeper, he emerges laughing from the shadows of an attic, seeming malevolent, but really just there to bear witness to the unfortunate story of a weird, regenerating zombie creature trying to take over a man’s family and fortune. Cat Eyed Boy ultimately solves this problem by burning down the family home. Now deprived of a place to sleep, he packs his bindle and hits the road.
Although he starts off as seemingly malevolent, or at the very least a trickster with a nasty streak, his origin reveals that he’s a forest-born cat goblin cursed with too-human looks, leading to his expulsion from the monster community. Yep, not just humans view our protagonist with suspicion – his own kind has it in for him too. Taken in by a kindly spinster, baby Cat Eyed Boy is treated with cruelty from the start, beaten and tortured by humans, even brutally speared once paranoia over his appearance spreads.
Even though he flickers between hero and mischief-maker, Cat Eyed Boy almost inexplicably remains on humanity’s side. Throughout his travels, armed only with spit that turns poisonous when he’s angered (a trick he could use far more often, if you ask me. I’m pretty sure Umezu, in the rush of churning out pages simply forgot about it). Cat Eyed Boy encounters, amongst others, a monster who grows as Cat Eyed Boy eats, Doctor Monster – a Moreau-esque figure fond of transplanting animal brains into human bodies, Meatball Monster – a cancer monster manifested by a family dealing with the disease, and The Band of One Hundred Monsters – deformed humans who want to recruit Cat Eyed Boy and intend to make pretty humans as ugly as their hearts.
And it’s here that we actually hit both the true heart of the series and a theme which defines much of Umezu’s work – the true ugliness of humanity, its greed, vanity and casual cruelty. Cat Eyed Boy serves as a warning to us all, like an urban legend “be good or else” story. After all, he’s constantly breaking the fourth wall, talking to the reader and suggesting that he might one day come to sleep in your attic, of course just in time to see whatever horrors you’ve brought on yourself. Cat Eyed Boy makes his way through a world filled with depressingly awful people. Why should your place show him anything different?
The character of Orochi functions in a similar fashion as Cat Eyed Boy except that she’s an attractive girl with vague supernatural powers, not a weirdly pixie-ish cat goblin boy. Of the series, only the fifth and final book, Orochi: Blood (from 1970) is available in English and, to the newcomer, the titular character’s appearance may well upset what is, up to that point, arguably Umezu’s most expertly- crafted story opening. With Zip-a-tone psychedelic backdrops in full effect, Umezu brings us the tale of two sisters from an affluent family, one favoured by their parents, the other not and the love they have for each other despite the favouritism. It’s a mesmerising beginning, rendered in splashes and pages with only one or two panels and Orochi’s sudden appearance is, from her very first panel, a total monkey wrench in the narrative. She watches on as the sisters grow and, even as the story builds to a satisfying and twisted conclusion, I can’t help but resent the character for shoehorning herself in and derailing such a beguiling prologue. It is a visually beautiful book throughout however, with Umezu’s lines thickening in moments of horror, and a satisfyingly twisted conclusion rescues the narrative.
Between 1986-1989, Umezu worked on Right Hand of God, Left Hand of the Devil, the frequently gruesome adventures of elementary school students Sou and his elder sister Izumi. Sou, like Cat Eyed Boy, seems unable to stay away from horrific and paranormal events and his first “adventure,” “The Rusted Scissors”, is easily the most bloody and visceral thing Umezu ever created. Featuring a series of old, unsolved child murders, a pair of old rusted scissors connected to the murders and a very suspicious substitute teacher, Umezu pulls absolutely no punches here, with Sou’s visions of scissors bursting through his sister’s eyeballs, slicing through his own nose and, in flashback, the murderess snipping through her victim’s cheeks, the ink pools on the page. “The Rusted Scissors” is also one of Umezu’s more bizarre stories (and that’s saying something by this point), with Izumi vomiting up torrents of mud, human skeletons, and children’s toys, all from the underground basement where these long-ago murders took place. From there, Sou takes on spider-women, the demonic return of a teacher he actually had a hand in killing, the murderous father of a crippled girl who details his killings in homemade picture books, and more, aided by strange powers he is able to manifest through dream.
Labelled “Fantastic Neo-Horror” on the covers with zero hyperbole, Umezu remains in good form throughout this later work, even if his art has simplified – his Zip-a-tone basically abandoned in favour of spurts of black-blood and thick motion lines. Filled with snapped, mangled limbs, decapitated heads and other such extreme physical violence, Right Hand of God, Left Hand of the Devil is packed with Umezu’s trademark violence-shock page turners, this time with the vileness turned all the way up. The sight of a father about to fillet and deep fry his naked, crippled daughter, for instance, truly does take some working through. Yet, as weird as the series gets, it is no match for Umezu’s next long form work, the mind-bendingly abnormal Fourteen.
Pound-for pound the most demented thing I’ve ever read, Umezu’s Fourteen, created between 2002-2006, is an epic of ultimate comic book weirdness. Starring Chicken George, a genetically-engineered chicken breast that grows into a genius monster chicken-man tied into a cryptic prophecy of looming disaster only fourteen years away, the series is a must for fans of truly oddball horror comics. Chicken George sees himself as a representative of the animal kingdom, dwindling after some man-made pollutant-based catastrophe, and after initially vowing to decimate the remaining human population, decides instead to gather up all the animals and, like some cosmic Noah, take them to the other end of the galaxy leaving us wretched, stupid humans behind. Nut wait, that’s not all. American President Young co-stars, resplendent early on in a black and white checked suit, desperate to crack the secret of a rash of green-haired, plant-infected babies that are suddenly being born, of which his newborn son, named “America” is one…Oh and Chicken George, genius chicken monster, is somehow a graduate of Cambridge University…and he has a talking chicken named Chicken Lucy for a companion.
I swear I’m not making this up….
Then there’s Grand Master Rose, Master of The Economic World, obsessed with immortality, kept young only by the “Youthanizing” cream made from “live hormones” of three year old children. She lives in a giant building surrounded by the wasteland of this future Arizona, broken up only by the huge jungle, the family garden, hidden under the desert. Chicken George needs to get off the planet, Rose, increasingly haggard, wants immortality, through his experiments, George has learned this secret. All he wants in exchange is the equivalent of two years of the global budget to build his rocket ship. When all the world plant life suddenly begins to die, the decision is made by the Government to manipulate the media on a grand scale, creating a second, fake, disaster to keep the eyes of the world glued to their screens whilst artificial greenery is created. A full Hollywood production is planned to create this drama, which is something like Stallone’s Daylight with added magma. The impossibility of creating such a production dawns on Vice President Martha, who then goes ahead and creates the disaster for real, capturing it documentary-style, in the process creating a reality TV star with whom Chicken George falls in love.
Over 260 chapters, Fourteen recreates the world and the nature of the universe, with earth’s literal heart, humans descended from dinosaurs, children rocketed into the infinite like a host of cutesy Kal-El’s from Krypton, Umezu throws everything at his readers here: mutated animals, desolate landscapes, looming apocalypses, fearsome insects, disease and genetic experimentation. Yet despite being a truly mind-warping cocktail, spiked with gloriously childish nonsense science, the story is just way too long and somehow becomes ponderous, despite its relentless pace, thanks to page after page of weeping and wailing politicians and scientists, bemoaning the selfish nature of humanity that has brought our species to the brink of extinction.
Despite my misgivings, the fact is that Fourteen is hands-down the single craziest comic book ever created and we should all be thankful that such an insane and deformed genre mash-up actually exists. I actually dare you to sit down and read the first 800 pages of the book in a single sitting – you will come out of it feeling like you’ve just been drugged. Umezu’s art lacks its former crispness and attention to detail, looking something like a lazy Rick Veitch inked by a tired David Lapham, but somehow it only serves to further heighten the childlike And then what happens? And then what happens? insanity of the piece.
An obvious extension of The Drifting Classroom, Fourteen, like all of Umezu’s horror work refuses to give its readers a happy ending. What it does offer, and this is a constant throughout the 10,000 pages of comics discussed here, is a belief that no matter the horror, the struggle or the difficulty, children can be tougher, more capable, more flexible, and better able to lead than any adult.
Ultimately, Umezu believes that there is nothing wrong with a good scare, despite the frequent depravity on display in his work. Horror is a communal experience, shared from creator to reader or viewer. All Umezu wants is to get close to you, by scaring and “astonishing” (7) you, so turn the page and let him in. He’s not only one of the most unique voices in comics, but everything he creates, he creates with unstoppable drive and utter joy. You might not ever be lucky enough to have him literally cross your path, but the Godfather of Japanese horror comics has scattered his imagination across thousands and thousands of pages (and I have just scratched the surface here), leaving a trail of highly crafted horrors for you to connect your mind with his. And there is as much hope in these pages as there is blood and weirdness. There are the warnings of any good fable – greed and vanity chief among them – but there is strength through perseverance and the knowledge that something better is out there for all of us if we treat each other, and the planet we live on, with kindness and respect.
1. The Comics Journal, #254, 2003, Fantagraphics Books, page 138
2. The Drifting Classroom vol.1, 2006, Viz Media, page 189
3. Ibid, page 189
4. The Comics Journal, op. cit, page 140
7. The Comics Journal, op. cit, page 139
Love your comics.
Love your comics.