A family of goblins rejects the newborn child of one of its own, a “nekomata” or cat-goblin, because the boy looks too much like a human. They set out to kill it immediately, but the boy is saved by a human who eventually goes insane (driven mad by the knowledge that his wife and child were also demons). The infant cat-demon eventually lands on the doorstep of a young woman longing to become a mother, and she raises the boy as her own, until societal pressure forces her to abandon him, and leave him to be butchered by an angry mob.
The origin of Kazuo Umezu’s Cat-Eyed Boy doesn’t appear until halfway through the first of two 500-plus page volumes of stories about him, recently republished (and beautifully so) by Viz Media. Until then, the character appeared as a sort of “horror host,” akin to EC Comics’ Cryptkeeper, but a little more involved in the stories: an observer; an outsider who influences events not because he’s good, but because he likes to mess with people.
Once his origin is revealed, however, the character seems to become a more active participant in all of the stories, and they also begin to bear the weight of metaphor, primarily for terrors related to childhood (including adolescent revenge fantasies), the demons that can haunt families through generations, and most notably, the various forms taken by child abuse.
“Kazuo Umezu is one of those artistic giants who, along with a select few others, created the foundation upon which Japan’s immense manga and anime industry rests,” writes Patrick Macias in an afterward to another collection of Umezu stories, Orichi.
Macias describes Umezu as being “nurtured on Grimm’s Fairy Tales, encouraged by his parents, and inspired—like so many others of his generation—by Osamu Tezuka’s groundbreaking postwar comics.”
The mention of fairy tales is notable because of its resonance with a 2005 interview in The Comics Journal with one of Umezu’s contemporaries, Hideshi Hino:
“After I read Ray Bradbury’s compilation of short stories, The Illustrated Man, I felt sparks in my head and all these ideas started flying out. That’s when I thought maybe this genre is more suited for me. I was attracted by Bradbury’s mixture of horror and fairy tale. At the time Shigeru Mizuki and Kazuo Umezu were popular in the horror manga genre, but there weren’t any works that combined horror with a sense of märchen [German word for “fairy tales”]. So I thought of creating a short story like Bradbury’s in a Japanese folktale world, and that is how “Zoroku no Kibyo” “Strange Disease of Zoroku”) was born [in 1969].”
Hino’s “Strange Disease” appears in Lullabies from Hell, a collection of four stories recently republished by Dark Horse. Its the final story in the book, and tells of a young man named Zoroku, who “drifted his life away, either drawing of immersed in some vague thoughts,” until one day, “rainbow-coloured neoplasm erupted over his face like poisonous mushrooms”.
Shunned by his family and his community for his hideous appearance, and for being a slacker-artist (how postmodernism!), Zoroku finds increasingly gross ways to manage his disease (which grows progessivly more grotesque) and find colourful substances to paint with. By the end of the story (especially after the three stories that preceded it), it wouldn’t be surprising for readers to expect a Grand Guignol finsh to wrap everything up. Instead, Hino gives us a surprisingly poignant and beautiful ending that suggests the ability to see beauty in decay (and the accompanying desire to replicate that beauty by creating art) is the most humanizing and illuminating aspect of existence. The other three stories in Lullabies cover thematic territory similar to Umezu’s in Cat-Eyed Boy, but with a much darker, gorier and more gruesome edge.
Perhaps more so than any other artists, Umezu and Hino defined the genre of horror comics in Japan, influence that extends to the West, and also to the world of J-horror films. Macias, who noted Umezu’s debt to the Brothers Grimm and the “God of Manga,” Osamu Tezuka, once described Hino as “Japan’s preeminent horror manga artist.”
“...Hino’s body of work is dedicated to chonicling psychosis, pestilence, and the supernatural, everything rendered in a distinct ‘blood blown from the brush’ style of draftsmanship,” Macias wrote in his column Pulp Cut, later collected in Fresh Pulp. “For lack of a better term, he is one very sick fuck. And yet, by wading into the extremes of madness and gore, he offers a genuine catharsis both to himself and his readers.”
And here’s how the “Queen of Horror Manga,’ Kanako Inuki described how Umezu and Hino fundamentally changed the genre, in an interview from 2006:
“Umezu developed and summarily changed the ‘Kaiki’ (mysterious/grotesque/abnormal) horror manga genre in Japan and created ‘Kyoufu’ (terror/fear) manga. Using these two genres as reference points within Horror Manga, Hino would be considered a Kaiki manga artist. These two masters merged the genres into a general horror genre.”
The differences between the two horror mangaka—Umezu’s more traditional style, and Hino grotesqueries—could stem from their polar opposite experiences in childhood. As Macias noted, Umezu, who was born in 1936, had been encouraged by his parents. Hino had a much more difficult childhood. “His true roots lie in the darkness of the manga underground. Born in postwar Manchuria circa 1946, Hino blames an alientated, miserable childhood as the source of his sometimes unforgivable obsessions,” Macias wrote in Pulp Cut. In Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life, Paul Gravett quotes Hino: “As a child, I had a very acute sense of horror, probably more so than most kids of my age. I’m able to exaggerate those feelings and exploit them as the basis for my comics.”
Gravett writes that “Hino’s accursed generational history assaults the reader with its mutilations, no less visceral for being in black and white, and its narrator-confessor device ‘to remove the distance that allows a reader to be entertained without any sense of risk.’” The “narrator-confessor” device is the central storytelling element of Hino’s Panorama of Hell (the work Gravett describes), and it’s also the key device in the opening, title story of Lullabies from Hell. Both stories (as well as “Strange Disease,” notably) are about artists in conflict with their visions of the world, and can be seen as autobiographical. Panorama of Hell opens, “I am a painter. A painter obsessed with the color of blood.” By comparison, “A Lullaby from Hell” begins, “I am a mangaka who obsesses over bizarre and terrible things…My name is Hideshi Hino.”
In the case of Panorama, the main character longs to create the ultimate picture of hell, while in “Lullaby” the narrator struggles to contain his artistic drives. He doesn’t want to paint because he discovers that through his art (by song, by manga, or simply by imagining hard enough), he can kill. This being Hino’s work, the character uses his power to kill his abusive and thoroughly nasty family. He even breaks the “fourth wall” in a way that bears direct comparison to Grant Morrison’s similar moment in Animal Man, and the way Hino works that device into the narrative (as a curse that will take effect upon the reader in the future) is eerily similar to The Ring and that movie’s imitators.
Recall that this story predates both of those works by decades (although, admittedly, it’s hard to identify exactly when the stories were written, as the Dark Horse reprint doesn’t include original publication dates). The stories in these volumes by Hino and Umezu bring to mind Lewis Hyde’s description of the trickster figure as a “boundary crosser.”
“Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and the trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce,” Hyde writes in Trickster Makes This World.
“We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction, Trickster is the creative idiot, therefore, the wise fool, the grey-haired baby, the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities.”
The Cat-Eyed Boy is a constant wanderer. In every story, he’s always on the road, looking for a house to sneak into and sleep in the attic. In one story, he’s even able to lead a child to visit his recently-deceased mother (if only to stop the child from crying so much, which keeps the Cat-Eyed Boy up at night).
This also resonates with Hyde, who writes: “The road that the trickster travels is a spirit road as well as a road in fact. He is the adept who can move between heaven and earth, and between the living and the dead.” As Umezu and Hino acheived fame and essentially shaped the genre of horror managa, other artists felt their influence. Among them was Junji Ito, a mangaka who has perhaps acheived his greatest notariety in the West for the plethora of J-horror movies (and Hollywood remakes) based on his work, most notably The Ring. “As a teenager, Junji Ito was enthralled by the horror comics of the legendary Umezu Kazuo, and he dreamed of someday creating his own.”
David Kalat writes in J-Horror. “Then, one day (one day in 1986, that is) a prize was offered for horror comics, and this prize was named in honor of Umezu. Ito entered this contest, and he won. Not just won, mind you, but one of the judges awarding him the top prize was none other than Umezu himself. It was not yet clear, but a torch had been passed.” Despite that symbolic horror-handoff, “Queen of Horror Manga,” Kanako Inuki believes Ito owes more to other, more gruesome horror manga icon: “I think, thematically, [Ito]‘s manga is very close to Hino-sensei’s.”
Hino had his own notorious venture into film in the 1980s, with the Guinea Pig series of films, to which he contributed writing and directing (and other deeply messed up) talents. Among the (likely apocryphal) stories associated with the franchise: Charlie Sheen apparently called the FBI after seeing one of the movies because it believed it was a true snuff film. “The zenith—or the nadir, depending on your point of view—of the ‘80s splatter wave is the Guinea Pig series…something of a Holy Grail to fans of explicit blood and gore,” writes Jim Harper, in Flowers From Hell. “Whether Hino succeeds in his attempts to find beauty in decay and to convey the tragedy in the decay of beauty…is open to debate.”
Hino’s Guinea Pig franchise seems to grow out of influences just as gruesome as those that influenced his manga, namely the “splatter” films that gained popularity in Japan during the 1980s. Harper describes them:
“The roots of Japanese splatter are not to be found in the horror genre, but in the uniquely Japanese pinku eiga or ‘pink films,’ soft-core sex movies that formed a substantial part of the domestic cinema scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Naturally, there are artistic precedents stretching back much further—in the same way that the Grand Guignol threatre of the 19th century prefigured the appearance of cinematic splatter in the west, explicit brutality and violence were a common subject of Japanese ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) and painting.”
That explicit “cinematic splatter in the west” seems to refer to the wave of “torture porn” movies that his their peak in the past decade. Recently, Hino and Umezu saw more of their work adapted into multi-film series’, with 2005’s Hideshi Hino Horror Theater, followed in 2006 by Kazuo Umezu Horror Theater. Despite the uneven artistic results, the recent film projects seem to mark an acknowledgement of the influence the two mangaka have had upon the horror genre as a whole.
In Yokai Attack, Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt describe the traditional Japanese monsters known as yokai as “the things that go bump in Japan’s night.” The horror of Umezu and Hino goes beyond traditional Japanese kaidan (ghost stories), but Yoda and Alt’s description seems apt for the horror mangaka:
“They are…the faces behind inexplicable phenomena, the personalities behind the strange hands that fate often deals us. They represent the attempts of the fertile human imagination to impose meaning and rationality on a chaotic, unpredictable, often difficult-to-explain world. That is essentially what the yokai are: superstitions with personalities.”