December 23, 2007

Hooray for Snake Lady!  This was quite a substantial volume of manga, and I’m always happy to see really clean, tight presentations from new publishers (in this case IDW).  The only problem I had was that word balloons were left empty in several places, but it didn’t read like dialogue was missing, and for all I know it was like that in the original, so I’m willing to forgive them that, especially since this book was nearly 400 pages of Umezz goodness.

This book is seriously old school.  Much more of the old school than Orochi or Drifting Classroom and I’d be willing to bet older than most or all of the stories in the Scary Books.  It comes from an era of seriously shoujo horror, where the little girls are all drawn with gigantic sparkling eyes as their faces are frozen in looks of wide-eyed shock.  I mentioned “moderate character reactions” when I was talking about Tezuka’s Lost World, where characters don’t seem to react all that much to shocking events that are unfolding.  This book has a similar antiquated device in that something will happen, and there will be a panel with the characters looking shocked, just showing their heads with their mouths open, but there faces will be eerily devoid of any sort of expression other than the open mouth, and there will be nothing else in the panel.  The flow will stop as the characters open their mouths and react with expressionless horror or shock to whatever is going on.  This happens several times, and is actually quite funny.  Umezu uses this in a lot of his other stories (it’s sort of his thing), but it is usually better implemented than it is here.  This is just so old it hadn’t been refined yet.

So yes, this is the story of the snake lady and how she terrorizes people.  The volume is a collection of three stories, two of which have the same protagonist.  The first story has the protagonist, a little girl, visiting her mother in the hospital and inadvertently freeing the snake lady.  The snake lady looks a lot like the mother, so she takes the mother’s place.  Only the little girl realizes the lady is not her mother, but nobody believes her.  Horror ensues.

The second story, which I believe takes place immediately after the first, has the little girl visiting relatives out in the country.  The snake lady smuggles herself out in the girl’s luggage.  The villiage is afraid of the little girl since a fortune teller has foretold the snake lady’s arrival from Tokyo… and everyone thinks it’s the little girl.  There’s a snake lady origin story built in here, and the snake lady also tries to convert several people into both snakes and slaves.

Forget that snake lady origin story though, because the third story in the volume makes the entire thing loop back on itself in an awesome way.  The third story is the “Reptilia” of the volume’s title, and has all the elements of an old-school horror story: vengeance, deception, many snake people out to convert others, a typhoon, a few different little girls, orphans, the works.

Umezu doesn’t really write the kinds of stories I like to read, which run more towards the genre of Reiko the Zombie Shop and things like that which are full of senseless, hilarious violence.  His are still good, but they run more towards the psychological horror side.  Much time is spent fleeing the creepy snake lady, but she doesn’t get much action herself in any of the stories.  These are also relatively simple stories, and not much happens save for… well, getting stalked by and running from the snake lady.  One strange thing is that a lot of the action happens at night, and the little girls always manage to fall asleep after seeing something like an eye staring at them through a knothole in the ceiling.  It seems really important to imply that the girls are sleeping, like it might be unthinkable that the snake lady was depriving them of that.

This is and old story, which is readily apparent when you read it… but it’s also quite good.  We don’t get to see this type of story often in the US, and I think anyone who reads and enjoys something like Gyo or the Bug Boy might find this interesting as the roots of that sort of thing.  Umezu is the grandfather of horror manga in the same way that Tezuka is the grandfather of most other things, and Reptilia is probably on the same level as something like Nextworld.

This book is hard to find.  I can find almost any manga available for sale, the newer the better, but I COULD NOT FIND this one, and I wanted it so bad.  Chicago Comics yeilded a copy where the internet failed me.  Bravo, local comic shop.