Manga-ka: Kazuo Umezu
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Older Teen (16+)
Release Date: June 2008
Synopsis: “A chilling concoction of dark vignettes dripping with the macabre, the grotesque and the absurd. Hated by humans and demons alike, Cat Eyed Boy dwells in the shadows of the human world. Cat Eyed Boy continues his battle with the Band of One Hundred Monsters, a group seeking revenge upon the corrupt humans who have made them outcasts.”
Cat Eyed Boy is a horror comic that is actually scary. The monsters in each arc have fantastic, spine-tingling designs, but what makes them truly frightening is the fact that they represent more realistic threats such as sickness, death and deformity. Horror is our way of realizing abstract fears and transforming them into forms that can be defeated. Though, in this volume of ‘Cat Eyed Boy,’ the good guys don’t always beat the monsters and win.
The first story is the continuation of a story from volume one, ‘The Band of One Hundred Monsters.’ Having not read volume one, I was a bit lost at first in regards to the plot, but it was easy to figure out after awhile. The bad guys are the ‘Band of One Hundred Monsters,’ a group of deformed creatures who have banded together to take revenge on the normal looking humans who shun them. Cat Eyed Boy is a bit conflicted, as he knows what it’s like to be cast out by both humans and demons. In the end he tries to protect the humans from the band, though it’s not easy seeing how outnumbered he is. The conclusion to the story is interesting, though I think there may be one plot twist too many.
The next story is the longest in the book. It’s called ‘The Meatball Monster’ and while it sounds funny at first it ends up being genuinely scary. The Sakuragi family has been cursed for generations by visions of a horrible monster nicknamed ‘Meatball.’ Meatball is a mound of pulpy flesh in the shape of a person. Whenever a family member sees him, it means they’re going to die very soon. Cat Eyed Boy gets involved when, after being in a train wreck and waking up in the hospital, he too starts to see Meatball. As he tries to figure out how someone like him who isn’t a member of the Sakuragi family can see the creature, he gets drawn deeper into the curse.
The family’s hysteria over the curse is almost as bad as the monster itself, and as the Sakuragi family grows more panicked the monster gains strength. Soon Cat Eyed Boy isn’t just trying to save himself and the Sakuragis, but the entire town.
Meatball’s design is disgusting, as it should be. One of the scariest parts of the book is seeing it force itself into a victim’s body by shoving itself down the person’s throat. The story works because it’s not just Meatball who’s scary, but the reveal of what Meatball actually is. To say more would ruin the story, but the monster’s true identity is something that most people have reason to fear, not just the Sakuragi family.
The next story, ‘The Thousand Handed Demon,’ is a little more straightforward but still scary. A nun runs a shrine to a thousand armed goddess in the hope that one day the statue will come alive and bless the village. But when Cat Eyed Boy stays at the shrine, he discovers that the nun is providing bloody offerings to the statue. It’s a testament to Umezu’s skill that even though it’s easy to see that things will go bad, even when they do it’s no less fearsome.
The rest of the book has several shorter horror stories, including one about a young child whose mother has died. Cat Eyed Boy feels sorry for the kid and tells him he can take him to a place where he can see his mother, but only for a second. Naturally, a glimpse isn’t enough, and the child soon returns to the place on his own. And naturally, this being a horror comic, things do not end well. This story really helps to show that Cat Eyed Boy is a being who stands in two worlds and knows the secrets of both.
The next story is chilling, once again not just for the monster but for what he represents. In ‘The Promise’ a young child is stalked by a giant snake creature. When following the child around during the day, the snake wears a disguise that, while it hides the fact he’s a monster, still makes him look creepy: a trench coat, gloves, sunglasses and bandana over his mouth. While this is a story about a monster trying to lure a little boy away so it can eat him, it’s not hard to see a parallel between this story and one of a pedophile trying to lure away a child (the monster even uses balloons to get the child’s attention). The last page is especially creepy and helps make this short story memorable.
‘The Hand’ is a bit of a morality story concerning a young boy named Takumi who starts having visions of hell. Things get especially bad for Takumi when he sees his own mother suffering in one of the visions. When Takumi runs into Cat Eyed Boy, he has to make a choice that could either save all of them or send them to hell. It’s a nice enough story, though it lacks the punch of other stories in this book. This might be because while the visions of hell are frightening enough, there’s no monster for the story to revolve around.
This is also a problem the last story in the book has. ‘The Friend’ is about two young boys who do everything together, until one of them starts to drift away. When one of the boys goes missing, Cat Eyed Boy tries to help by asking the boy’s friend where he is. What he finds out is totally unexpected. It’s a bit of a weak story to end the series on, but it’s still an interesting read.
The stories are episodic with Cat Eyed Boy being the only thing tying them together. Cat Eyed Boy is an interesting protagonist in that he’s a bit of an anti-hero. He usually gets involved against his will (or at least against his better judgement) and usually only begrudgingly does good deeds (in one story, after saving a woman, he makes a witnesses promise that he didn’t see anything). But at the same time he’s not evil or malicious, and after seeing how he gets treated by humans, he can’t be blamed for being a little wary of them.
The other consistent thing is the art. Kazuo Umezu’s art is often labelled as stiff, but I like the older style of manga. His human designs are all right, but it’s the monsters where Umezu really shines. His layouts really help with the pacing of the short stories, making even a story with a low page count feel longer because of how it’s laid-out. Sometimes Umezu will place as many as 12 panels on a page, yet it never feels overcrowded.
Viz did a really nice job with this collection. For one it’s huge. There’s a 487 pages worth of manga here, which makes it well worth the price. There are also some colour pages throughout the book. I assume they’re coloured the same way they would have been when they were published in Japan, as the colour choices seem very deliberate (for example, in the chapter where a character has visions of hell, the opening pages use only red, black, grey and white). The inside cover of the book is also done in colour and features a very nifty collage of all the monsters Cat Eyed Boy has come up against. Also included in this volume is a short essay on Kazuo Umezu by a Japanese fan and writer, Mizuho Hirayama. Viz also lists a bibliography of Kazu Umezu’s work, which reminded me how little of his work is actually available in English.
Cat Eyed Boy is a great collection of horror stories. I think it might appeal not only to manga fans, but horror buffs as well. The stories have a Japanese feel to them, but not so much as to make them inaccessible to someone who has never read a manga before. If you already like manga and scary stories, then this is a sure thing.
Review written October 21, 2009 by Shannon Fay