English, Please!: Fourteen
October 7, 2011
Kazuo Umezu – Shogakukan (serialized in Big Comic Spirits) – 1990 – 26 volumes
For the month of October, the license request has to be horror manga. And honestly, there’s no horror manga I’d rather see in English than Fourteen, by Kazuo Umezu.
Truthfully, any Umezu manga will do. We’ve been very fortunate already, of course, and there are 18 volumes of other things by him available in English, including the must-read Drifting Classroom. Another true thing is that Fourteen is not even the best of the untranslated Umezu manga. That would probably be Left Hand of God, Right Hand of the Devil (which is about a child that dreams of the future, and can also alter reality through his dreams), or maybe My Name is Shingo (about a couple who gives birth to a robot boy and his quest to find his parents). But Fourteen is the one I most want to read in English.
Why? Because Chicken George is unique and unforgettable. I’m a little ashamed to admit I’m almost afraid to read this series because he’s so scary, but I admire him all the more for it.
I don’t own Fourteen, and I’ve only read the first two volumes, so this is going to be a little more sparse than it usually is. These aren’t even the best covers, these are just what I could find on Yahoo Auctions.
Fourteen is set in a dystopian future. The story starts with a research scientist in a chicken processing facility. Chicken is no longer farmed on the bird, but grown by the piece, and the scientist is inspecting the chicken breast vats. He discovers an anomaly. One of the chicken breasts has an eyeball. He thinks its merely an eyeball cell that somehow got mixed into the vats, and he pulls the piece out as a QC measure, but he finds that the chicken breast quickly begins to grow and take on a life of its own.
Let me stress what an abomination this thing is. At one point, the scientist pulls it out of the vats. It looks like a deflated human skin with no legs and a chicken head. It speaks to the man. It says “chicken.”
The scientist is keeping this creature a secret, knowing full well he’d be fired from the chicken company if they knew his experiments lead to such a thing. Unfortunately, one of his fellow researchers suspects the big secret is a huge breakthrough, and begins spying and sabotaging the lab until the scientist and Chicken George are forced to flee. This is where things start to get ugly.
Chicken George’s first taste of the outside world is not a pleasant one. He’s thrown from a moving car. He’s attacked by dogs (who he fights off by shoving jars through their heads). The scientist tries to help him, but Chicken George merely uses the scientist and his house to heal himself and learn more about animals, science, and human nature. When Chicken George learns of how humans destroy the environment, he kills the scientist and begins plotting the salvation of animals and the destruction of humans.
That’s the great thing about Fourteen. Any other series would have made Chicken George misunderstood because of his appearance. There would have been some tragedy there, because he could never be accepted as a person. Chicken George is misanthropic from conception. He doesn’t ever want to be a person.
Chicken George, at least in the parts that I read, never stopped being a terrifying freak of nature. There’s a scene where a little girl opens a door sealed by a chain, and Chicken George peeks through the crack. It’s like the “Here’s Johnny!” scene in The Shining, except instead of Jack Nicholson, it’s a naked muscular man with the head of a chicken. Just… staring. At the little girl.
(the cover below is pretty close to that scene, but it’s scarier in the manga)
This series is a terrifying nightmare put to paper, moreso than even Drifting Classroom. While Chicken George is just as outlandish as anything that happens in that series, he is somehow scarier. Again, one of Umezu’s greatest strengths is pulling out the silliest of our fears and portraying them with a straight face. There’s nothing funny about Chicken George in the context of Fourteen, and it’s better because of it.
There’s also Umezu’s art. He has a unique style where he draws 6-10 panels per page. During key moments, he uses the small panels to zoom in tighter and tighter onto whatever is the focus of attention. It’s a technique that works well in Fourteen. Chicken George’s regular human body, just like anyone else’s, gives him that extra push that makes him more grotesque than a normal monster would be. And Umezu is always in top form with screaming, static faces and his use of light and shadow. There’s something dated about his artwork, but that may simply be because his style changes very little over the years and he’s had many imitators. Fourteen is slightly less detailed, but otherwise looks very much like the stories he drew thirty years before. But the dated, slightly old-timey artwork only makes this scarier. Chicken George is very much a modern marvel of horror, a movie monster made more evil and familiar, and seeing him portrayed in a 50s art style only brings that home.
As great as he is, I can’t imagine the novelty of Chicken George lasts for more than a few volumes, let alone 26, and I don’t know what the real plot of Fourteen is. The prologue has something to do with a pregnant teenager and the world ending in 14 years, and I imagine that Chicken George is somehow caught up in the apocalypse.
It lacks a little finesse, and it probably lacks some of the depth that make Umezu’s more psychologically horror-centric titles appealing. But it is terrifying. It’s probably tied with the early volumes of Dragon Head as the scariest manga I’ve ever read. And it is also the last professional work of one of the greatest horror manga artists of all time.