Kazuo Umezu – Viz – 2008 -2 volumes
I liked the first volume of this series quite a bit, but my roommate had such a negative opinion I thought I would hold off reviewing the second volume and re-read it at a later date. He’s a big fan of Umezu, so I thought maybe I just got caught up in the shiny newness of this series and the fact it was published in a large fancy omnibus with color pages.
In some ways, he was right. There are two things that Umezu is fantastic at drawing: terrified children and humanoid monsters. These work well for short stories, and in an anthology series like Cat-Eyed Boy, a new monster and a scared bratty kid are all you need to carry a short story, where the plot can be any simple idea. But it doesn’t hold up so well when the stories are longer. “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” and “The Meatball Monster” take up the first 300 pages of this book. “One Hundred Monsters” is a carryover story from volume one, and runs for 100 pages. Basically, the Cat-Eyed Boy is trying to save a family (specifically an innocent little boy) from a demon siege. There are some choice moments here, for instance the duel with a spider-woman and the scenes where Cat-Eyed Boy slowly unmasks the band, but the fact that most of the plot involves running from monsters, being tortured by monsters, or fighting monsters means that the novelty gets old fast. This is taken to the extreme in “The Meatball Monster,” where Cat-Eyed Boy spends 200 pages fighting one monster as a family acts as stupid as possible and he is continuously hindered by a “human blood transfusion.”
The problems in the first two stories are magnified by the very thing that made Drifting Classroom so much fun to read. Frequently, Cat-Eyed Boy can just “do” things that it doesn’t really make sense he can do. The biggest offender is when he suddenly starts breathing fire in order to stop the spider woman in the first story. This is “explained” by swallowed gas and a hot coal in his mouth, but there’s quite a bit of this, and it always feels a little cheap when it happens. Sometimes the results are quite funny, like when Cat-Eyed Boy discovers a cure for cancer, then immediately disregards it, but reading the two long stories with lots of instances of these types of things is really frustrating.
The last third of the volume is quite enjoyable though, as we get back to basics with short stories and terrified children running from monsters. The scenarios really are fantastic, and we get everything from a child’s Bosch-like trip to Hell to save his mother to a very young boy getting kidnapped by a snake man in a trenchcoat. One of them also ends with a little boy being pursued by his mother’s rotting corpse through the street. The stories are short enough to be enjoyable both on Umezu’s best strengths and by good ideas, and I’d absolutely love to see more of them. Even a slightly longer story, about a wooden Kannon that comes to life to drink the blood of those her nun saves. Not only is the image of the killer nun and the bloodthirsty hundred-armed Kannon an excellent one, there’s also a little bit of a mystery keeping things interesting. There’s a nonsensical, but interesting, twist at the end as well.
It’s also worth noting that this is one of the only instances of a female Buddhist nun I’ve ever seen in a manga.
Cat-Eyed Boy is at its worst when the stories are long, but the short stories that make up the rest of the series are very much worth reading, and they’re interesting from a historical perspective too, since we see very little manga from the 60s in the US. Tezuka and Umezu are the only two artists, I think, unless some of the Tatsumi stories that have been translated hail from the 60s. I don’t think we saw any Golgo 13 stories from the 60s in the material that was translated into English. And… hm, the last story in Hino’s Lullabies from Hell may be of a 60s vintage, I’m pretty sure that was one of his debut stories. The first volume has a few more short stories in it than this one, I think, but this one is still worth picking up for the stories in the back. Power through the boring stuff in front, if you want. It is kind of ridiculous how long the Meatball Monster story lasts.
I would still love to see more of Umezu’s work in English, especially his longer series, since Drifting Classroom raised my expectations. The story of Chicken George, the evil human/chicken hybrid in Fourteen, is still my top choice. Especially since it has the most terrifying covers I’ve ever seen.
Kazuo Umezu – Viz – 2008 – 2 volumes
How could I not post a review for this series on Halloween? I would say that this is an indispensable piece of Halloween manga. It’s probably not as good as Drifting Classroom, but with the protagonist, the mix of physical and psychological horror, and the frequent run-ins with monsters, it’s hard not to recommend it for the holiday.
It broke my heart to read this alongside the Hino Horror stories I have been going through recently. I’ve always favored Hino over Umezu just because I prefer Hino’s physical horror and comic violence to Umezu’s psychological stories. But these stories were far superior to the Hino Horror stories. To be fair, I think the Hino stories I’ve been reading lately lean more towards the side of humor, but they are short and not as well-developed, and the ideas are not as good as these Cat-Eyed Boy stories.
The stories start out short and get progressively longer. Earlier on, the themes are mostly Cat-Eyed Boy observing the miseries of other people. But the later stories in the volume, the longest and most well-developed, are also about Cat-Eyed Boy himself and have a variety of monsters that drag Cat-Eyed Boy into the story. We also get an origin story for Cat-Eyed Boy.
My favorite story in the volume involved a local one-legged demon that was trying to stop a boy from repeatedly killing insects. It had a lot of the elements I liked from some of the things I read in Scary Books, which included the protagonist who was willfully ignorant of the things going on around him (bonus for being a little kid), a demon, demon possession, mutations, and elaborate comeuppance. It even had a nice anti-moral, when after Cat-Eyed Boy sort of condemns the demon for what it did, he mentions the little kid probably had his eye for an eye-style punishment coming to him, and he was glad since the kid would have grown up to be a murderer anyway. I had to laugh at that. The story develops slowly, with an item being pulled from a tree, and the demon appearing more and more to the horrible little kid, who takes increasingly greater pleasure in impaling insects alive, emptying his trays, then collecting identical specimens. The demon tangles with Cat-Eyed Boy first, who winds up with the demon’s nail in his body. He enlists the help of local cats to find him a cooperative doctor, and while at the kindly doctor’s residence, he is fully possessed and does things like transform himself into a normal boy to blend in with the evil kid, etc. There’s a bug transformation somewhere along the way. It’s great, I promise.
One of the other stories dealt with a local legend about stones washing up on shore that came to life and summoned tsunamis if they got to higher ground. The local evil-looking deity statue protected the people from them until… well, it was vanquished, and then the rocks are given free reign to summon tsunamis. Cat-Eyed Boy is cared for by a very young-looking spinster who has to keep him in the above-mentioned deity’s shrine for fear the locals would kill him for being a goblin. It’s kind of a weird story, but I liked the number of abrupt twists and turns it took.
The last story is extremely lengthy, and even carries over into the next volume. One hundred demons show up to rough up all the rich, successful people they can find. Cat-Eyed Boy feels obligated to stop them, and then they start tangling with him too as he tries to intercept all the victims before the demons can. The first victim was a manga artist, and I couldn’t figure out if he was supposed to be a parody of someone or not. I think he was, and I’m just not familiar enough with 60’s horror manga. I’ll talk more about this story in the second volume review.
With the fantastically drawn monsters, the screams, the eyes peeking through knotholes, the veiled intentions, the tsunami summoners… it’s hard not to recommend this as a perfect Halloween read. I was particularly surprised by how absorbed I got with the stories, I thought they would be more antiquated than they actually were. Plus, it’s like a 500-page volume, so you’re getting a lot of story for your buck. Enjoy.