‘The Curse of Kazuo Umezu’ Is a Small Taste of the Manga Author’s Twisted Mind [Horrors Elsewhere]

While Kazuo “Umezz” Umezu is not exactly a household name outside of Japan, his unique style of art is hard to forget. The mangaka started getting published in the 1960s, and several of his works have been turned into films and TV series. The majority of these adaptations have been live-action, but Umezu’s creations are well-suited for animation. Strangely enough, less than a handful of Umezu’s manga have been given the anime treatment.

Along with Umezu’s serialized manga is a mass of standalone stories, of which many first appeared in periodicals like Monthly Halloween. In 1986, said magazine’s publisher issued a compilation of several of these tales called The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (Umezu Kazuo no Noroi). The same omnibus eventually inspired two conjoined OVAs (original video animation) in 1990. Naoko Omi directed each vignette, and Shiira Shimazaki handled the screenplay. Umezu’s involvement was apparently minimal, but this obscure anthology still manages to capture the spirit of the artist’s oeuvre.

There is no significant attempt at connecting the two 20-minute segments other than having the host (Ikuya Sawaki) from the manga, a proxy for Umezu, introduce or wrap up each story. In fact, every episode has its own closing credits sequence. Whatever conformity can be found here, though, rests in the narratives and art. Animation director and character designer Junko Abe has a good sense of Umezu’s signature style; she communicates the more visible influences, including retro shōjo, ukiyo-e, and Tezuka Osamu.

First up in this creepy pairing is “What Will the Video Camera Reveal?” High-schooler Masami (Naoko Watanabe) is not herself when transfer student Rima (Shinobu Adachi) enrolls in her class. She is suddenly awash in emotions she neither recognizes nor understands. The male students are clearly entranced by Rima, whereas Masami fights her own fixation. This denial only leads to nightmares, lapses in memory, and a mysterious neck wound. Masami assumes Rima is the cause of her problems, yet video footage shows a different story.

The early days of manga horror emphasized visceral imagery. The utmost goal in this kind of manga, especially from the postwar eras which Umezu and other similar artists like Hideshi Hino launched their careers in, was to absolutely disturb the audience. Ghastly artwork achieved this effect more immediately than a subtle plot might. Of course this does not mean the stories themselves were lacking. They, much like the macabre output of EC Comics, were unassuming and frank, although also less moralistic. Uncanny events and spectral killers were often just that and nothing more, and bad things happened to innocent people simply because they could.

Even with the above sentiment applied to “What Will the Video Camera Reveal?”, there is a supplementary reading about Masami’s unmet desires toward Rima. The new student brings out an inner hunger Masami desperately tries (and fails) to quell. On top of that, the boys in the class are openly enamored with Rima, but Masami fights those exact same feelings until they manifest, then quite literally explode from her body. This form of coded sexuality in horror is equally timeless and dated.

Kazuo Umezu anime

The second and last offering, “The Haunted Mansion”, is less ambiguous. This one also has a familiar if not overused premise; teenagers let their curiosity get the best of them when they enter a local haunt. It all begins with two friends, Nanako and Miko (Ai Orikasa, Rei Sakuma), watching a couple of scary video rentals. Nanako, who is fearless to a fault, then suggests they go check out a ghost mansion before the city tears it down. Joined by two other friends with the same (bad) idea, the four finally step into the eerie and empty edifice, unaware of the horrors awaiting them.

“The Haunted Mansion” is the more conventional chapter of this anthology. The characters’ nocturnal tour of Abe Mansion plays out like a series of funhouse tricks. From creepy toys to moving shadows, this piece does everything in its power to make the four teens squirm. Even though the threat of harm is evident from the outset, the journey there is engrossing. Once Nanako and the others enter that house, the story makes certain there is no chance of them coming out. How that ultimate fate comes about is admittedly less creative than the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach seen so far, but it does allow for some flashy dismemberment and gratuitous blood spray.

It is unclear if those in charge of The Curse of Kazuo Umezu intended to produce further installments beyond these two. There is obviously enough material in the mangaka’s ominous opus for a feature-length film. The final product surely looks more crude than all the glossier anime that have come out since then, but that unpolished quality makes for a truly uncomfortable watch. And when it comes to Umezu stories, feeling uneasy is what matters the most.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

Kazuo Umezu comic

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