Sporadic Sequential
Friday, March 21, 2008
Accidental Appreciation: Kazuo Umezu

In a happy accident, part of my recent Alibris order was screwed up. Instead of sending me volumes one and two of School Zone, one of the booksellers substituted Scary Book Volume 1 for the first book of School Zone. They're correcting the mistake, but I decided to keep Scary Book after reading and enjoying it, which surprised me, since I haven't been very fond of Kazuo Umezu's work in the past. "The Mirror," the first of two stories in this volume, takes up the bulk of the book and is by far the better of the two. It tells the tale of Emi, a vain young girl who loves nothing more than gazing at herself in a large, full-length mirror. One day Emi begins to sense a threatening presence around her, and she tracks it down to...the mirror! Baffled, she exclaims, "But there's no one here!" Suddenly her reflection turns towards her and chillingly proclaims, "Oh yes, there is!" From that point on, Emi's reflection torments her, trying to drive her mad so she can take over Emi's life. How can Emi prove to everyone else that she's the real Emi, not the reflection who has wormed her way into her life?

Unlike the previous manga by Kazuo Umezu I'd read, I found "The Mirror" incredibly effective. Some of my earlier complaints still apply the characters are often stiff and doll-like; the heightened melodrama can be unbearable at times; and everyone's fashion sense is so dated but overall this is a very creepy and unnerving story. Part of this is due to a personal association the story evokes: Our two-year-old daughter loves to stand in front of our full-length mirror and talk to herself, frequently answering herself in different, disturbing voices. But mostly it's due to Umezu's skill at creating an utterly unsettling atmosphere through dramatic lighting, staging, and pacing. Check out the sequence below, where Emi is startled to see her distorted reflection in a storefront window:

Through creative use of shading and exaggeration, Umezu is able to distort the image of a beautiful young girl so that she becomes truly terrifying. (Umezu's Mirror-Emi reminds me of Junji Ito's Tomie in that both creatures transform from the gorgeous to the grotesque so convincingly and effectively that the extreme contrast imparts their horrific guise with incredible impact.)

Umezu also successfully employs several devices that now seem commonplace in horror movies the unseen approach of a shadowy figure behind the protagonist; the slithering emergence of a supernatural force from an everyday object; the extreme underlighting and makes them work on the printed page, which is no small feat given the major differences between the two media. Consider the scene below, where Emi's evil reflection gradually appears in a mirror to spy on Emi at a friend's house:

You don't get the full effect taken out of context like this, but when I originally read that scene, I had that same goosebumpy feeling you get when you're watching a really good horror movie. Omigod, it's appearing in the mirror! Watch out, Emi! Watch out!! (Speaking of movies, the back cover mentions that several of Umezu's manga have been adapted into horror movies. Does anyone know if "The Mirror" has been turned into a film? It has a number of scenes that I think would work really well in a J-horror film.)

The backup story, "Demon of Vengeance," isn't nearly as strong, especially with its "What the--???" ending that comes out of nowhere, but it's still worth reading for the sheer awesomeness that is the image of an armless samurai, holding a sword in his mouth and riding atop a sprinting hillbilly named "Yokel," attacking the cruel lord responsible for his son's death.

Overall, I highly enjoyed Scary Book Vol. 1, so much so that I'm now planning on seeking out the remaining two volumes in this anthology series. I also think I might have to give THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM!!! another look. Wow, I never thought I'd see the day where I was actively seeking out work by Kazuo Umezu. I guess it took me awhile to warm to his style.

As for School Zone 2, it was actually a bit of a disappointment. It started out promising enough, with a young girl trapped between two ghosts and children disappearing into a school crossing sign, but then the book lost its momentum, endlessly repeating the same expository points about the cruelty of children and the sealing properties of mirrors. Boring! I want more gruesome deaths of young schoolchildren at the hands of grotesque ghosts!! Hopefully volume one will see a return to form.

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