For this week’s blood-soaked Manga Moveable Feast, I thought I’d revisit some old Flipped columns that have a horrific bent.
With so many aspects of the manga industry apparently in question, there is one thing I can say without too much fear of contradiction: it’s a good time to be a fan of horror comics from Japan.
CMX is offering the creepy-cute moralizing of Kanako Inuki’s Presents. Dark Horse is serving fans of Shaun of the Dead-style self-aware chills with The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, written by Eiji Otsuka and drawn by Housui Yamazaki. Old-school angst and energetically rendered savagery take center stage in Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte from Del Rey. In spite of some moments of uncertainty along the way, Tokyopop did a great public service by finishing the apocalyptic ten-volume run of Mochizuki Minetaro’s Dragon Head. Viz Media released new editions of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki and Gyo in its Signature imprint.
What really makes this a mini-golden age for horror devotees, and the Signature line a relative horn of plenty for such readers, is the quantity of Kazuo Umezu manga on offer. Umezu’s tykes-in-trouble classic, The Drifting Classroom, recently wrapped up an 11-volume run, and Viz just released Cat Eyed Boy in two fat, prestige volumes.
The Drifting Classroom begins with an elementary school blowing sky high. The community is devastated by the apparent deaths of hundreds of students and their teachers, not realizing that the victims should have been so lucky. Instead of a quick and relatively merciful end, the school has been cast into a hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape filled with mysterious perils. The grown-ups are less than useful, giving in to panic and madness. Umezu dispatches them with ruthless efficiency, placing the focus on the kids and their attempts to survive external and internal threats.
I’ve rarely seen a comic with as much insanity per page. Umezu’s pace is relentless as he tosses the dwindling student body from frying pan to fire and back again. It’s like a child’s worst nightmares woven into one and infused with adrenaline. Grown-ups are useless, and peers are even more pernicious than they suspected.
The brutality never becomes wearying, because Umezu has seemingly boundless imagination in finding new ways to render horrible things happening to children. Some moments have slowly mounting terror, like a panicked stampede of kids charging at a handful of out-of-their-depth faculty. Others pop out of nowhere with the kind of jarring effect that slasher film-makers only wish they could muster.
It’s incidental, but the series provides additional pleasure when you remind yourself that The Drifting Classroom was originally created for children, originally serialized in Shogakukan’s Shônen Sunday. One shudders to think what Fredric Wertham would have made of manga.
After the hyperactive terror of The Drifting Classroom, Umezu’s Cat Eyed Boy seems almost serene. Like a lot of horror manga, it’s episodic in its construction, following a half-demon protagonist as he’s drawn to scenes of horrible things happening to terrible people.
Actually, “protagonist” might be the wrong term. Cat Eyed Boy has no vested interest in the misfortunes he witnesses. Sometimes, he’s just an observer. He can demonstrate a penchant for taunting humans, playing on their superstitions. If he sometimes finds himself opposed to malevolent forces, it’s generally a matter of self-preservation. He’s not admirable by any means, but he’s understandable. If Cat Eyed Boy’s odd existence has taught him anything, it’s that people generally suck.
This is most clearly demonstrated in what might be described as his origin story, “The Tsunami Summoners.” Rejected by both the human and demon sides of his family, Cat Eyed Boy is taken in by a lonely spinster in a seaside village. The community doesn’t share his foster mother’s benevolence, and his childhood is characterized by alienation and hostility. The Cat Eyed Boy becomes the scapegoat for the town’s misfortunes, blinding them to more insidious threats on the horizon.
“The Tsunami Summoners” is a wonderfully twisted morality play, easily my favorite entry in the first volume. It delivers Umezu’s visual imagination, inventive plotting, and ambiguous morality. The title character could easily be one of those prolific and slightly sickening types – hideous on the outside, but with a pure and childlike heart. Umezu’s approach is much more interesting; the Cat Eyed Boy owns both his human and demonic heritage. He can be hurt by human cruelty and fear, but the impish part of his nature earns at least a portion of it.
His foster mother, Mimi, is equally ambiguous to me. She’s driven by loneliness as opposed to any specific affection for the Cat Eyed Boy; Mimi wants a child, any child. Even the villagers aren’t entirely unreasonable in their fears; they come out on the wrong end of the moral equation, obviously, but the sliver of sympathy you feel for their fears adds extra spice to the story’s outcome.
If the Cat Eyed Boy is a bit on the adorable side, like a plush toy, Umezu doesn’t stint on disturbing character design. “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” is a parade of the grotesque. And ultimately, it’s the internal deformities, that are most disturbing – anger, jealousy, sadism, greed. Umezu’s mastery comes from his ability to render both.