New Society

Cat Eyed Boy Vols. 1-2 (of 2)

This is a new(ish) VIZ release of comics by Kazuo Umezu, an influential horror and humor mangaka, retired from comics since the mid-'90s, who's recently picked up a small, vocal English-speaking fanbase through the release of his popular 1972-74 survival horror opus The Drifting Classroom. But unlike the 11-digest spread of that project, VIZ has opted to release the present series as a pair of 500-page bricks, each of them $24.95, released at the same time.

And once you've read the two of them, you'll understand why. At the end of Vol. 2, VIZ includes a helpful (if out-of-date) list of releases from the Japanese Umezz Perfection line of career-spanning omnibi - one presumes these two books are based on corresponding Perfection volumes (the same goes for IDW's release of Umezu's Reptilia), and I'll hazard a guess that VIZ might be looking to bring over more -- maybe a four-book set of Umezu's Orochi, which the publisher partially released back in 2002 -- if sales hold up.

Beyond that, Cat Eyed Boy also very much represents Umezu in the 'short' form, which I'm liberally construing as 'not a multi-volume serial.' That's pretty much all we've seen of him besides The Drifting Classroom, and I wonder if VIZ took a look at, say, Dark Horse's unsuccessful Scary Book series of Umezu shorts 'n standalones as a sign that smaller projects by the author are best laid out in large clumps, wherein the madness can congeal. I'd rather see some of the serials from Umezu's latter 20 years of creation, in which he supposedly embraced his role as a horror comics trailblazer and pushed his style farther and farther into manic, bloody territory.

But, we have what we have. Cat Eyed Boy began in 1967, a dozen years into Umezu's career as a comics professional, but still early among his horror works. It remains somewhat well-recalled today, having been made into a feature film in 2006 (although earlier adaptations had been mounted). It's also very much a product of its time, reflecting a certain trend in horror manga in the mid-to-late-'60s: the yōkai craze.

Yōkai are a class of folkloric Japanese creatures, often magical or supernatural, which found great success in manga through the works of Shigeru Mizuki, none of which are available in English, though the French translation of his NonNonBâ won Best Album at Angoulême in 2007. In particular, his GeGeGe no Kitaro series -- begun in 1965 and concerning a 'good' yōkai's battles against evil ones -- prompted the creation of many monster-heavy comics, like Osamu Tezuka's Dororo, which overtly namedrops Mizuki, in-story.

There's little doubt that Cat Eyed Boy was also born of that trend, since its title character is also a half-human, half-yōkai that spends most of his time tangling with strange creatures. At times, the series seems unsure of what even to do with itself beyond its basic, not terribly original concept - if I'm reading my internet translation of Umezu's homepage right, it seems that Cat Eyed Boy went through three separate incarnations in different magazines, and the difference is obvious from reading the stuff.

The first two stories see the title character, a sassy little homeless boy with strange eyes, basically acting as a 'horror host' - he addresses the reader directly, proclaiming that strange things tend to follow him around, and generally holding the reader's hand through the spooky tale that follows. But Cat Eyed Boy is also a participant in his stories, sometimes rushing in to save a well-intentioned human at the last minute, sometimes getting himself in trouble with assorted bad guys. There's a great supervillain in the second story: Professor Monster (maybe he studied abroad with Doctor Doom?) an old man with long white hair, a black opera cape and striped Coke bottle glasses, who loves nothing more than switching brains around and performing mad experiments for the sake of art.

Content-wise, the two stories are typical of Umezu's early horror works, in that they partially act as social indoctrination for their target audience of children. I say 'partially' because Umezu never, ever allows adults to get the upper hand on children - that's a typical enough motif for children's entertainment (kids rule! we eat what we like!), but Umezu uses it so often with so much emphasis that he effectively undercuts the whole notion of adult authority, a technique he'd amplify to screaming with The Drifting Classroom. But at the same time -- particularly in The Drifting Classroom! -- Umezu understands the trust a child places in the family unit, and much of his horror comes from panic over the breakdown of that very trust in the rightness of parents and grownups. His is a bitter medicine!

Yet in his early horror stories, Umezu at least supports the rightness of the social order. The artist's monsters and threats are always invaders of a latently good familial setup -- always an affluant, peaceable setting -- and while individual adults may fail as protectors, the overall beauty of the postwar community dream is ultimately preserved. Always, Umezu's children and well-meaning adults are beautiful and strong. Always, evil is ugly - earthy, muddy against the good clean homes of hard-working Japanese.

I wonder how much Umezu believed any of that? The higher his star rose, the more liable he became to criticize the contemporary society in his horror works, expanding his distrust of authority into depictions of a rot at Japan's core, just as society itself became mired in political struggle as the '60s ended. Horror artists like Hideshi Hino began their work at that time; Hino would often see the sadness in ugly monsters, even going so far as to romanticize their murderous rages as expressions of internal, often crypto-autobiographical strife. Umezu wouldn't go so far at that time, but the older artist was certainly on his way as younger ones cropped up.

The great value, maybe, of Cat Eyed Boy is that it tracks Umezu's evolution. I don't know what happened after the end of the second story (as Prof. Monster says, "When an artist fails in creating a work of art, he loses."), but many things change starting with story #3. A proper 'origin' is provided for Our Hero - he's hated by yōkai because he was born half-human, but his father couldn't bring himself to kill the infant.

So he was left with humans, who hated him for being ugly and weird (see?), which left him no qualms over stealing food and playing tricks. This Cat Eyed Boy is harder, meaner - when he sees a holy statue his first instinct is to piss on it. He still chats with the reader, but his hints that maybe one day he'll show up at your house, ha ha ha ha ha, are really threats. He holds genuine contempt for humanity, though he can be moved to kindness for the rare kind human. When much of his adopted village is wiped out by a tsunami -- one caused by monsters he warned them about -- he only feels sadness for the woman who took him in. The rest of them can go fucking die.

The plots grow longer, and much more ambitious in these stories. Vol. 1 ends two-thirds of the way through a 300+ page epic titled The Band of One Hundred Monsters, which starts off with a hacky horror manga artist being stalked by real monsters pissed that he's ripped off their likenesses(!!), then expands expands expands into a frantic survey of Umezu's own changing approach to horror, as the titular band is revealed to be a gang of deformed superhumans who want to disfigure beautiful people with ugly hearts. Cat Eyed Boy, however, sees the lot of them as the same old pathetic, shitty humans (just ugly in a unique way), playacting as genuine monsters, which pisses him right off.

It's a uniquely Japanese conflict at work, with Cat Eyed Boy having been born into a low station in life, and taking it out on others who try to rise above without the proper birthright. Much of Umezu's famous narrative velocity has clicked into place at this point -- there might be 10+ panels per page but your eyes fly across -- and his plotting dumps event after twist after revelation until the story finally collapses onto itself. Frankly, there's signs of editorial interference at work - some of the damage done to the beautiful human characters is suspiciously erased in the end, despite Umezu's assurances earlier in the story (via omniscient narration!) that the harm is permanent. No matter: there was little turning back for Umezu.

Another of these stories, the nearly 200-page The Meatball Monster, embodies the artist's shift in style. It's a big, sloppy allegory for the fear of cancer paralyzing a town, 'cancer' being played by a stinking, sentient glob of boiling, expanding meat, prone to clouding men's minds and feeding on fear before literally stuffing itself down its victim's throats. It's not terribly scientific, but Umezu's real impact lands through his crazed, eccentric account of events.

Cat Eyed Boy starts the story off in the hospital, since the shack he was holed up in got hit by a train, so he makes sure to spend six pages taking revenge on every train he can find before he realizes that the blood transfusion he got has tethered him to a doomed family's visions of cancer, which they've held up to almost a godlike status - merely looking upon it will kill you!

It's another cause for an Umezu family to disintegrate, adults literally jabbing their eyes out with pins so they won't have to look upon the Meatball, and thus be doomed. As many panels depict hallucinations as reality, it seems, and the plot (again) expands into an army of meat beasts taking on the whole town, until the infected Cat Eyed Boy meets up with a baby monster that somehow holds the key to stopping everything, just as one might pray to find an herbal cure way out in the jungle.

These aren't well-tuned, clockwork stories. Umezu always gives off the impression of never quite knowing what's going to be on the next page himself, and some readers, perhaps used to trusting in a sure hand pressing meaning and assurance into every panel, will find it annoying. But as novelist Mizuho Hirayama observes in a short essay included with VIZ's Vol. 2:

"But just what is this unforgettable bizarreness that lies at the core of Umezu's work? Is it a child's nightmare? I think that is probably the best way to describe it. There's no logic or reason to it. It's simply fear."

Hirayama further writes that Umezu possesses a child's naiveté, and that the intermingling of humor and horror in his work -- 'laugh-out-loud horror,' as I've heard it called -- represents an adult's approximation of a child's approach to being scared, which certainly fits his subject matter, as well as his roundabout way of telling a tale.

Cat Eyed Boy's third incarnation sees it return to the short form for a quartet of stories of 25-45 pages each. These are the most assured, most effective works in VIZ's release, perfectly melancholic tales of childhood anxieties, operating almost solely on dream logic despite their clinical, 12-panel grid arrangements. Cat Eyed Boy becomes kinder, but only enough to walk with nice kids through bad situations. A mom dies, and a little boy wants to see her. A father promises an infant to a snake, and the growing child becomes fearful. The very best of them sees Hell literally erupt into a child's bedroom (in color!), spewing ominous portents that freeze the child's hand in fear - it's obsessive-compulsive!

In this place, Umezu's weird child anti-hero is far from monster-fighting, far from his influences. He's purely a denizen of Umezu's world, hearing and telling stories that only Umezu can really create. For these short stretches, adults are so powerless they seem like ghosts, creatures that don't understand the child's world of fear at all. This is their most profound ineffectiveness in Umezu's stories, a loss of perception so that they never understand anything at all. Not the loudest show of the artist's contempt, but the most poetic.