Menu Close

What You See Is What You Get: Visualizing Hypocrisy in Umezu Kazuo’s Manga Cat-Eyed Boy

By Jon Holt

In his manga Cat-Eyed Boy (Nekome Kozō, 1967-9 and 1976), Umezu Kazuo (1936- ) often uses his titular punky half-feline, half-human character less as a protagonist and more as an observer who helps narrate horrific tales. As a discoverer of horror, the character’s greatest superpower is seeing something unknown, something to be feared. What makes Umezu comics like Cat-Eyed Boy so hypnotically compelling for some readers, I suspect, is how he insinuates that under the veneer of contemporary Japanese society, there lurks paradoxical core of ugliness waiting to burst forth from an otherwise beautiful-looking surface. Umezu transcends two subgenres he knew so well—shōjo (girls’) and horā (horror) manga—by combining them in a very idiosyncratic way: he often draws panels freeze-framed on the eyes of his characters, showing both a deep interiority (expected in girls’ comics) and a look of disgust or fear (expected in horror comics). What is even more striking is how Umezu collapses the looks of deep thought and deep fear in his young characters, suggesting how boys and girls can darkly reflect the ugly side of an otherwise seemingly beautiful and perfect society.

I argue that Umezu’s close-up eye panels are excessive in a number of ways.  As I have already suggested, Umezu blends together two seemingly mutually exclusive manga genres (horror and girls).  There is no better place to see Umezu’s delight in forcing together ugliness and the innocence than in his eye panels.  Moreover, these close-up panels are excessive in that the author often stacks or repeats them within the sequential flow of the page, so they are emblematic of the artist’s overall style: the eye panels are extremely tight, often excluding the rest of the face of the character; likewise, these intensely emotive panels are usually drawn after an already established frame on the character’s face, so Umezu uses a special, additional special eye panel to hammer home the feeling of anxiety felt by the character—these panels desperately cry out to the reader to slow down and relish the mental pain. Like his American contemporary, Steve Ditko (Amazing Spider-ManDoctor Strange, Mr. A), who also focalized his contempt for a morally flabby society through his close-up panels on eyes, Umezu consistently relies on gestures, more than words, to reveal the emotions and psychological insights of his characters. Since both artists share a similar approach, I investigate where they overlap and differ in order to better understand why the device of close-up panel(s) on the eyes might be a significant feature in each artist’s style. Finally, given that Umezu creates a new kind of reading rhythm, or closure, with these panels, I examine how another scholar, Takahashi Akihiko, parses Umezu’s art and I question his argument that Umezu’s uniquely excessive style requires comic scholars to even create a new, “seventh” “iterative” type of panel-to-panel transition, adding to the traditional six that Scott McCloud outlined in his seminal Understanding Comics (1993). Instead of arguing that we need to completely re-understand manga or at least Umezu’s, as Takahashi suggests, I dissect this characteristic aspect of Umezu’s style using McCloudian tools of analysis, and in doing so, analyze Umezu’s sequential art narratives with both Japanese and Western approaches in order to better understand one of Japan’s most bizarre and creative artists.

I see a change in Umezu’s style with his later quirky 1967-1969 horror series Cat-Eyed Boy rather than by his 1965 major commercial “break” into the big publishing houses starting with Shōjo Friend (Shōjo furendo), as Takahashi posits. 1 Looking at Umezu’s punky character from his original late sixties adventures to his later 1976 reappearances, one can observe changes in artist’s style in how he treated expressions of fright, fear, or horror in very different ways, particularly in how he draws and re-draws—focusing on—the eyes of his characters.

Umezu often uses tight close-ups on the eyes, especially when his characters speak to the audience (or a character who serves as a proxy for the audience), such as in the opening panels of the first Cat-Eyed Boy story, when the protagonist directly explains the story or situation. On the other hand, Umezu often uses special angled shots of his characters’ eyes to further reveal their lack of either honesty or integrity; in these obliquely angled panels, Umezu instead emphasizes a complex and often tortured “interiority,” which is perhaps a by-product of his working in what would seem to be two mutually exclusive genres—girls’ and horror manga—and that he synthesized the two in a very idiosyncratic way, which nonetheless contributed to his lasting popularly in Japan.

Takahashi Akihiko, the most thorough Umezu scholar to date, writes that Umezu was the “master of the [Japanese] fear comic” (kyōfu manga no kyoshō). He qualifies the term “fear,”2 or horror, with three sub-categories: the physiological (seiriteki), the psychological (shinriteki), and the societal (shakaiteki).3 The view that Umezu progressed in this linear fashion has been upheld by the artist himself, but Takahashi rigorously questions these categories so that he may collapse them into a broader definition of Umezu “fear comic,” which ultimately becomes unhelpful. How does Cat-Eyed Boy function as a “fear comic” and why does his finicky half-feline character serve as a bridge between the audience and an ugly world of horrific monsters and imperfect people?  Umezu has always been critical of Japanese society in his works and has used his manga to point out that even beautiful young boys and pretty young girls are capable of great ugliness; that they can be liars; worst of all, hypocrites. Cat-Eyed Boy is just one example of how the artist expresses his loathing for the seemingly perfect best of Japanese society of his time by showing model children and adults at their worst—and as the title of the manga suggests, eyes, both seeing and seen, play an important role in revealing how awful contemporary Japanese society was for Umezu.

Horror of the Other, Horror of Oneself: Eyes in Cat-Eyed Boy

Umezu Kazuo first serialized Cat-Eyed Boy in the monthly manga magazine Boys’ Illustrated (Shōnen gahō) from December 1967 to January 1968 with the story “Resurrection Man” (“Resurrection Man of Fear” [“Kyōfu no saisei ningen,” later retitled “Fujimi no otoko”]); the character immediately reappeared there for four more issues with the story “Ugly Demon” (“Minikui yōkai”) before the magazine’s parent company moved the series to its more prestigious weekly magazine Boys’ King (Shōnen kingu), where the feline hero continued to appear in every issue from that point in 1968 until early spring in 1969, when Umezu quit drawing the series.4 However by the end of 1968, the character had become so popular that toy maker Nittō Kagaku Kyōzai (Nittō Kagaku) produced plastic model sets of him.5 King Comics collected the stories’ full run immediately thereafter for three paperback volumes in 1969. Nonetheless, the character went dormant6 for nearly a decade until 1976 when top manga publisher Shōgakkan re-released the collected adventures of the character in a new five-volume series, including four new stories that Umezu drew for their magazine Weekly Boys’ Sunday (Shōnen sand?), which coincided with a televised series based on Umezu’s stories. Since then, Cat-Eyed Boy has been reprinted in at least four editions as the character still attracts fans to Umezu’s creepy and funny blend of horror and cute character designs. In 2006, Iguchi Noboru (Kataude mashin gaaruRobogeisha) directed a live-action feature film based on the character (Nekome Kozō, Artport/Shōchiku) with limited success. The film critic Mori Naoto noted certain faithful attempts to capture aspects of Umezu’s style, but he noticed how much more the director reveled in graphic metamorphosis scenes or girl-competition scenes, showing instead the tastes of its director (“Iguchi-kantoku-rashii shikō”).7 Umezu himself felt the film strayed from the original source materials, saying the studio “played it for laughs,”8 and thus its poor box office returns might remind us that Umezu’s stories appeal to readers primarily because of his imaginative and imagination-provoking manga style.

Although not his first adventure, the origin story for Cat-Eyed Boy appears in “The Tsunami Summoners” (“Mizu-maneki”; a story running in Boys’ King in issues 17 to 24 [1968],). Set in the Yoshino area of Nara, one of the oldest areas of Japan and beloved for its cherry blossoms, the story reflects both Cat-Eyed Boy and Umezu’s roots. Umezu himself grew up in this region, which is also known for its closeness to the Kumano area, traditionally a place of special religious importance in premodern Japan,9 but in Umezu’s Cat-Eyed Boy it is the place of an unholy convocation. Fulfilling a three-hundred-year-old prophecy, Cat-Eyed Boy is born to a nekomata (split-tail cat) goblin couple. Despite the heavy tone of this lore, Cat-Eyed Boy—who later pounces around on all fours and communicates with stray cats—is a breezy monster, wholly imagined by Umezu. Hosokawa Ryōichi points out that Umezu does weave local yōkai monster culture with factual events such as the great Nankaidō tsunami of 1948 (which the author lived through) into this story,10 yet Cat-Eyed Boy emerges as an entirely fresh and original creation of its author. When monsters from all over Japan gather to witness this special baby, they could not imagine their disappointment: Cat-Eyed Boy is the not full monster whom they waited to meet for so long. He is “too human” with his baby caterwauls.

Despising the other (whether one is non-yōkai or non-human) is a common motif in Cat-Eyed Boy. It is certainly repeated at least two more times in this origin story alone. For if the monsters saw a disappointingly poor human-like creature instead of their prophesized nekomata, a human man, who suspects his mysterious wife is not entirely human and spies on the monsters’ gathering, becomes equally horrified in the presence of this hybrid creature but for a reason quite opposite that of the monsters. Having broken his vow to his wife by following her into the forest, the man sees revealed for the first time the unholy, non-human company his wife keeps. He returns home to see his wife and child resting in bed, but the knowledge of her true identity shocks him so much that his classically handsome face, particularly around the eyes, begins to grow ugly.

Figure 1. “The Tsunami Summoners” (Yōkai mizu-maneki”). © Umezu Kauzo/Shogakukan.

Here, the close-up on his eyes displays his revulsion at having lost his own humanity by marrying a non-human and bearing a bastard child. Umezu draws the ugly shock and horror on the face of this man who all too easily renounces his family whom he so dearly loved before. Aware of his wife Tayu’s true non-human identity, as Giichi returns home, Umezu creates a mirror-like symmetrical double-page spread (183-183) that reinforces both the shock and horror of Giichi feels as well as the bigotry unsympathetically depicted by the artist (Figure 1.). So close to his eyes—and thus his true inner thoughts—the reader can see the hypocrite father Giichi’s ugliness past his once-handsome face. In Umezu, even seemingly loving fathers can reveal their true base and shallow natures.

What I See Is Me: From Girls’ Comics Interiority to Umezu’s Horrific Subjects

Critic and manga writer Ōtsuka Eiji championed the concept of “interiority” in Japanese girls’ comics (shōjo manga), which is primarily defined “in the way its artists [the ‘Forty-Niners’] distinguished character interiority by locating character expression outside of word balloons.”11 Ōtsuka presents a strong case that Japanese girls’ comics are deeper than boys’ comics (shōnen manga) because girls’ comics use layered panels and often deconstruct the linearity of sequential art rather than support goal-oriented focus of boys’ comics. Rather than fitting nicely in Ōtsuka’s binary, Umezu’s work demonstrates a hybrid boys’-and-girls’-comics sensibility: much of Umezu’s work is plot-driven, but he often seems to relish slowing down the narrative to linger over the horror, shock, or fear using “aspect-to-aspect” or “mood” panel transitions, which are often focused on the eyes of the human protagonists, in order to explore the psychology of his otherwise flat characters.

Scott McCloud astutely noted, as early as 1993, that this fifth type of panel transition is “rarely seen in the West: Aspect-to-Aspect transitions have been an integral part of Japanese mainstream comics almost from the very beginning.”12 These aspect-to-aspect sequences often shift the focus from the linear development of the story to highlight changes in mood or atmosphere and one would expect to see such types predominate “fear comics” like Umezu’s. Elsewhere, I have argued that more than American comics, manga noticeably feature a frequent use of these aspect-to-aspect panels to depict quiet or contemplative moments of time.13 Although such “aspects” or “mood” transitions can be entirely focused on non-human elements such as scenery, it is not unusual even in manga for such “mood”-driven panels to feature human characters: in fact McCloud uses Tezuka Osamu’s Bandaka-Migailia fight sequence from Buddha (Budda) to illustrate aspect-to-aspect tension among combat participants.14 Therefore, we should allow that Umezu too might use human-centric or close-ups on human faces to emphasize the mood, instead of the plot, of his story—and that he might emphasize such a use to better define his own visual style.

The horror of an Umezu comic consists in the quiet, internal shock that both the protagonist and the reader feel when they realize that this otherwise beautiful character possibly has an ugly moral interior. The pleasure from an Umezu horror comic comes not from the flimsy come-uppance that character gets at the end of the story. Instead, the reader relishes the exquisitely painful anguish the protagonist—either child or adult—experiences for having such a flawed hypocritical or prejudiced view of others. What the now-ugly human sees is what he gets. The veneer of respectability or purported perfection in a character often wears thin, revealing to the character and the reader the ugly truth of his or her social sham. Karmic retribution is horrific but beautiful to witness in a work by Umezu.

Although adults often are morally ugly all throughout Umezu’s work, Umezu’s children and young women are usually capable of the greatest ugliness. In contrast to his adult males, Umezu’s children—especially young girls—and young women have a kind of exquisite beauty; that beauty or charm can be used to tantalize the viewer, but often that surface charm hides an ugly or scary interior. In fact, Umezu perfected his ability to draw extremely cute or gorgeous female characters for many years through the 1950s and early 1960s as an artist for shōjo manga. Even in those stories, although they were not horror manga, Umezu depicted beautiful girls usually at odds with a cruel world around them. Girls, Let’s Team Up! (Onna no ko atsumare!) ran in the shōjo magazine Good Friends (Nakayoshi) from September 1967 to July 1968—a period overlapping with Cat-Eyed Boy—but this girls’ manga featured the protagonist Ogawa Yumiko, who is extremely cute and large-eyed although quite normal. Immediately shorn of her long hair by cruel upper classmen, Yumiko has to adjust a new town and culture, fighting back and using her wits against her oppressors. Nonetheless, normal cute girls like Yumiko are quite capable of cruelty. Sometimes, even a wink from Yumiko—positioned in a close-up panel as the cowardly leader of her male tormentors, the “Young Lord” (Wakadono) Kōjō, gazes on her with a spyglass—can be her own form of counter-torture as she pretends to love him (Figure 2).

Figure 2. In Girls, Let’s Team Up! (Onna no ko atsumare!). © Umezu Kazuo / Kodansha

In these romance or shōjo manga, Umezu draws close-up panels on the eyes of the main character, although the eye-centric panels lack the kind of introspective moment of horror, of ugliness, or of self-accusation that one sees in his Umezu’s horror-manga work. They might be distinguished from the ones in the horror comics precisely how in the romance comics a close-up on the eyes is only what is seen by outsiders or other characters. However, in the horror comics, these close-ups on the eyes are not necessarily seen by any other character (except the reader)—they allow a glimpse into the interiority of the character, like Giichi in “The Tsunami Summoners.”  In Girls, Let’s Team Up!, these close-ups on the pretty girl’s eyes are instances of pure objectification: Yumiko is gazed upon by a male viewer (or by the girl reader), but even so there is slippage in the command the viewing antagonist has over the female protagonist as she winks back, teasing the viewer with the possibility she is holding out information and feelings. The Young Lord (and the reader) cannot know Yumiko’s interiority. Drawing shōjo manga prior to the revolution of the “Forty-Niners” (Nijūyonen-gumi)—the group of female manga artists (born around the year 1949 [Showa 24]) who radically changed the sub-genre—Umezu does not not fully present or explore shōjo interiority: if anything, he usually teases the reader to find it in vain. At the very least, it would be difficult to argue that in his drawings of Yumiko, Umezu creates “any sense of empathy toward physical vulnerability, or for the liminality and mobility of identities” that Hikari Hori sees in the later, more robust shōjo manga of the Forty-Niners, like Hagio Moto and other shōjo manga artists who debuted around 1970.15

Like Scott McCloud, Yomota Inuhiko describes the principles of sequential art and he observes how the depiction of faces in Japanese manga can create either a universal, or iconic, connection with the reader, or, can produce a sense of individualism. In his Principles of Manga (Manga Genron), Yomota discusses the principles of manga faces, noting that when characters face front they have a kind of simplistic directness about them precisely because one sees only the outside (gaiken), such as in the popular gag manga of Sakura Momo’s Lil’ Maru-chan (Chibi Maruchan), that “emphasizes the impression that we are seeing the world through the eyes of a nine-year old girl.”16 What is simplified in Sakura’s approach is the “interiority” (naimen) of the characters, which Yomota asserts can become more complex if faces of characters are drawn from different angles. In Umezu’s later horror works, the reader is often confronted by tight shots of characters’ eyes but the character’s face is usually presented at an oblique angle, suggesting that a complex “interiority” or a shock reaction happening beneath a seemingly placid innocence. Having worked for over a decade on shōjo manga, Umezu enhanced the horror genre by bringing over from the former genre these eye close-ups to the latter, trading on a sense of depth or interiority to his horrific or horrified children characters. In Cat-Eyed Boy, there are two types of gazes: the first being the oblique-angle eye panel, where the anguished or panicked person’s interiority is there for the reader to see; the second is a more direct meeting of eyes between the character and reader, in which Cat-Eyed Boy takes the early offensive to cast judgment first on the reader and thus wards off looks of scrutiny.

“Look at These Eyes”: Resisting Reader Categorization

Early on in the world of “The Tsunami Summoners” we soon recognize a pattern Umezu uses throughout his series. Not quite human and not quite monster, Cat-Eyed Boy from an early age suffers discrimination for failing to fully meet the desired look for either monsters or humans; this motif will repeat throughout the series. In Umezu’s manga, the ugly immediately are deemed as transgressive—whether one is talking about the norms of the yōkai world or those of the human (i.e., Japanese). Truly a liminal character, Cat-Eyed Boy quickly learns to adapt to any new environment. And he must: Umezu’s 1960s Japanese society—regardless of the setting being urban or rural—is a cruel place to live. Umezu said of the series, “Originally I filled the series with criticism (fūshi), making fun of how in human society people suffer bias based on their looks. When he goes to the yōkai world, on the contrary you see how just how much the monsters are like people and so that bias gets all the more ugly.”17 Cat-Eyed Boy survives Umezu’s greedy, vain, ugly, and murderous villains first and foremost by being the first to observe others rather than be observed and objectified. In close-up panels that feature their eyes, these villains are meant to be laughed at, mocked, and (in some cases) urinated on (see below).

His modus operandi in nearly every story is to take up residence in the attic space of a family home where he looks down on his unknowing human hosts. Somehow sensing or perhaps attracted to the houses by his cat-monster sense, he inevitably ends up in a place where weird or monstrous creatures appear. Typically, he will either briefly announce his lodging in the roof early in the story or not until much later, when the strange drama has already begun to play out, and he feels it necessary to intervene as the hero. Usually, he will remind others (and his readers) in each tale, “Wherever I appear, something frightening happens. It must be that terror summons me” (see Figure 3). Able to see in “pitch black,” the character can metaphorically see through the terrible and dark intentions of monsters, human beings, and perhaps even readers.

Figure 3. Cat-Eyed Boy (Vol. 1 p. 8). © Umezu / Shogakukan.

Thus, more than a protagonist, Cat-Eyed Boy is first and foremost an observer of these darkly human tragedies but he is also empathetic, especially if there are women or children involved. He watches the mostly pure human children or women struggle against cruel fates before stepping in to lend his supernatural powers to balance the power struggle. In his autobiography, Umezu has explained how he feels children and women, whom he notes are people most often victimized in this world, are the best characters to convey horror. “There’s something primal or ‘human’ (jinrui) about kids and their horror.”18 And what Umezu has Cat-Eyed Boy see, he has the reader see. Umezu uses Cat-Eyed Boy’s visual vantage point to create “something primal or human,” a somewhat alienated sense of sympathy for the human victims in these stories but always from an angle of emotional distance.

Quite unlike Umezu’s contemporary Mizuki Shigeru and his monster boy (Gegege no) Kitarō, Umezu usually permeates his horror works like Cat-Eyed Boy with a nihilistic tone. Certainly, there are a large number of differences between Mizuki and Umezu in their approaches to creating yōkai stories. Kamioka Masashi makes a noteworthy point about Umezu’s tendency to focus on the physiological realism (seiriteki na riarizumu) in his yōkai stories whereas Mizuki usually mines their older traditional aspects (denshōsei).19 Umezu asks the reader to be sympathetic, never fully empathetic, with a fellow Japanese. Ultimately, even though Cat-Eyed Boy is primarily a witness to a horrific event, he usually does have a role in balancing the scales of justice in each tale, but one notes how Umezu usually has Cat-Eyed Boy play the hero more for the sake of genre rather than from the kindness of his heart.

What You See Is What You Get: the Hypocrite Exposed

Although Umezu often draws Cat-Eyed Boy’s eyes, which dramatically register extreme shock at the episode’s monster antagonist, in the first run of Cat-Eyed Boy stories, Umezu depicted multiple panels, or shots, of the eyes of the actual child protagonists in the story, especially as they register fear or disgust. More importantly, these human characters will react not only to their fear of the Monstrous Other they encounter, but also to their newly discovered connection to those monsters. Umezu subtly suggests that these humans are made aware of their own monstrous nature within themselves in a kind of horrific, uncompleted dialectic of self versus other. Nothing, except death, will help them overcome their combined alienation from and connection to the Other. On one hand, these close-up panels serve to move the plot forward, as the protagonists encounter a new twist in the horrific mystery; on the other hand, the panels are constructed so as to slow down the action in a greater effort to intensify the dramatic moment for that human protagonist, who discovers a secret or a monstrous truth and reacts accordingly. Umezu is quite singular, I suggest, in using multiple panels to more tightly focus on the face of his characters as time slows down. Other critics and scholars have pointed out Umezu’s unusual approach to panels that seem slower than slow-motion sequences can allow. Takahashi Akihiko categorizes these extremely minor time shifts as “iterative” (hanpuku), borrowing the term from 1960s critic and artist Tōge Akane (1941- ; also known by his manga moniker Masaki Mori). Too slow or too subjective to match McCloud’s moment-to-moment (type one) panel sequences, Umezu’s uniquely “iterative” panels depict, according to Takahashi, “time that functions as a kind of moment-to-moment type but cannot be considered action-to-action as these images feature instead a kind of nuance and mentality (aru shu no nyuansu ya shinri).”20 But is it necessary to deploy an entirely new kind of category in comics analysis only in order to understand Umezu’s style of panel-to-panel closure?

If we look at a sequence from Cat-Eyed Boy and use Scott McCloud’s original six analytical tools, they quite suffice to describe Umezu’s narrative style. In fact, the close-up eye panels, which can qualify as the type of “pure nuance” (junsui na nyuansu) for Takahashi as the new “iterative” type,21 can be viewed as the type of panel-to-panel transition McCloud calls “moment-to-moment,” which require “very little closure”22 but fail to show things “happening in concise, efficient ways.”23 Alternatively, one often sees Umezu using “subject-to-subject” transitions, where the viewpoint is switched from one character to the next. Takahashi also makes uses of this panel type as well to justify his “iterative,” or new seventh transition type. Certainly, Umezu’s “subject-to-subject” panel sequences are not wholly orthodox. Let’s observe a one such sequence in Cat-Eyed Boy’s “The Immortal Man” (“Fujini no otoko,” 1967-1968) (Figure 4), where young Otsuka Takeo encounters a strangely disfigured character, who has been stalking him and also seems to know secrets about Takeo’s family.

Figure 4. “The Immortal Man” (Cat-Eyed Boy, Vol. 1 p. 16). © Umezu / Shogakukan.

In this sequence, shock is registered twice on Takeo’s face as he takes the parcel from the strange man. He also accepts the possibility that the monstrous man and his family are connected in some weird way. Here, when Umezu zooms in on Takeo’s eyes for second panel, one should notice it is more than a narrative device or a stylistic flourish. The panel-to-panel sequences demand a more imaginative or emotional response from the reader and thus we could describe such sequences also as “aspect-to-aspect,” which, as noted earlier, serve to highlight changes in mood or atmosphere. As a radical McCloudian, I argue that we can make better use of McCloud’s six types of panels if we allow that multiple types can occur simultaneously, as they happen here in Umezu’s work. See how in addition to a subject-to-subject panel transition, Umezu shifts from a panel of information shared (the parcel) to a panel of information processing. Takeo asks, “W-what is your name?” but this is suggestive of larger questions he has at this early point in the story (and one to which he will return later), namely: “Who am I?  Am I connected to you?”  The fear and disgust he has for the Immortal Man is changing at this point into Takeo’s own mood of self-loathing or self-doubt. Far from creating a new type of panel transition as Takahashi does, I argue the flow of these panels can be understood as both subject-to-subject as well as aspect-to-aspect. The overlap of multiple McCloudian transitions indicates instead a complexity or sophistication to the sequential art narrative, the kind of which other talented artists often can accomplish.24 This is just one facet of Umezu’s skillful use of eye close-ups to depict nuanced psychological horror and horrific introspection, which must be considered a part of Umezu’s larger, more sophisticated narrative strategy in Cat-Eyed Boy. What the hybrid cat-monster boy sees in each episode is how ugly we humans are in thinking we cannot be ugly. We cannot appreciate Umezu’s art unless we slightly go beyond McCloud, using multiple transition types to allow for more robust interpretations of a comic.

 A similar treatment of horrific self-image can be found in the next Cat-Eyed Boy story, “The One-Legged Monster of Ōdai” (“Ōdai no ippon ashi,” 1968). In this story, nature gets its revenge on a cruel human boy named Natsuo, who captures and sadistically pins insects for little purpose other than proving he can be the master of life and death over them. Cat-Eyed Boy initially discovers the vengeful spirit of nature, personified in the one-legged Mt. Ōdai demon, and he becomes infected and thus a hopping carrier of death whose mission is to deliver karmic payback to Natsuo. Part of Natsuo’s punishment is for him to be seen by others as ugly and non-human and thus he elicits the same kind of disgust and disregard for life that he had for nature’s smallest creatures. The twist in the story comes when his family shuns him. Even his father takes out his hunting rifle to ward off and kill the bug-like humanoid. (Perhaps this is Umezu’s nod to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” story.) Even though everyone else sees the boy as a shambling bug, Umezu draws Natsuo as a human in certain panels to show his personal (human) introspection about his fate; the hurt, the confusion, and the panic Natsuo feels is perfectly conveyed by Umezu’s close-up on the boy’s eyes (Figure 5). Again, unlike the eye close-ups Umezu employs in his romance or shōjo manga, in the horror comics these panels serve as reminders that the character is having an inner moment, so the panels should be understood as being both the “aspect-to-aspect” or mood-driven type as well as the plot-driven “subject-to-subject” kind. Here, like Takeo in the previous story, Natsuo realizes his hypocrisy all too well. A sympathetic reader might even sense Natsuo’s remorse for thinking himself better than other creatures.

Figure 5. “One-Legged Monster of Ōdai” (Cat-Eyed Boy, p. 328). © Umezu / Shogakukan.

Even otherwise jokey Cat-Eyed Boy can become infected with a kind of psychological depth in the story “The Meatball Monster” (“Yōkai nikudama,” 1968), when he realizes he too is implicated in the Sakuragi family curse. Usually too cool to become bothered by monster phenomena, Cat-Eyed Boy panics as he realizes he can be corrupted into becoming a selfish or ugly monster. In these panels, there are a number of close-ups on his eyes and even a doubling effect as the protagonist stares into a mirror, intensifying his look of shock as he realizes he has become a cursed sinner, like the humans. As with young Takeo in the “Immortal Man” story, even Cat-Eyed Boy can sink to the level of human depravity (Figure 6). In order to convey the actual corrupted nature of his hero, Umezu uses a mirror in two panels (thus, mini-panels within panels) to reflect back the eyes and thus emphasize the doubt in the otherwise mighty title character. Forced to have his own inner moment of reflection, from his own shocked look of existential crisis, the reader intuits that Cat-Eyed Boy accepts (however provisionally) the possibility that his assumptions even about himself are false, which probably serves him right.

Figure 6. “The Meatball Monster” (Cat-Eyed Boy, Volume 2, p. 214). © Umezu / Shogakukan.

Umezu will often deny Cat-Eyed Boy his invulnerability to evil monstrous invasion in other stories; again, in “The One-Legged Monster of Ōdai” story, in which a rusty nail penetrates him and then grows within his stomach until it finally possesses him, Cat-Eyed Boy is forced to hop around on one foot like the original Ōdai ghost, indicating his agency has been robbed from him. When Cat-Eyed Boy realizes he has lost his autonomy, Umezu draws this realization in close-up, indicating how terrible and ugly it is for Cat-Eyed Boy to become like the nail monster (Figure 7). In a sense, Umezu never treats Cat-Eyed Boy like a sacred, heroic figure: even Cat-Eyed Boy can be finicky if not deeply hypocritical about the ranks of the yōkai world. In the third panel, the artist conspicuously closes in on the eyes of his hero, creating a dark, hopeless atmosphere rather than simply providing a step forward in the plot. Umezu’s use of both anxiety lines radiating out from Cat-Eyed Boy’s eyes and the blackening of the space around the character’s face reveals the moment the hero’s self-confidence collapses. Thus, in McCloudian terms, the panels are both “subject-to-subject” and “aspect-to-aspect,” although McCloud never argued that there could be more than one panel sequence type happening at the same time. By using McCloud’s analytical tools in this radical way, one can recognize the level of narrative sophistication at work in a master like Umezu.

Figure 7. “Ōdai no ippon ashi” (Cat-Eyed Boy, Volume 1, page 288). © Umezu /Shogakukan.

Umezu’s place in Japanese manga is firmly situated through his skillful use of these shock sequences because he blends elements of horror manga with aspects of the girls’ comics genre. Umezu’s eyes reveal a deepened interiority, or, an awareness in his protagonists of their own complicity in some dark deed or secret. Other examples of this typical Umezu intra-panel and inter-panel strategy can be easily found in other works by Umezu, such as his celebrated Scary Book (Kowai hon) short-story series. In “The Reflection” (“Kage,” 1968),25 the beautiful girl Emi is depicted in multiple panels of oblique eye close-ups, indicating a further deepening, or slipping, into self-doubt. She has reason to doubt herself: she believes her mirror double is loose on the world, ruining her reputation. In Figure 8, although one may view the following top four panels as “moment-to-moment” (type one) transitions found in Scott McCloud’s six types of panel classification, Umezu’s sequence might be more complicated. “Moment-to-moment” panels are often quite simplistic and usually serve to only show minimal narrative linearity. (Unlike “action-to-action” sequences, these subtle momentary shifts in the character’s body position [or the viewer’s angle on them] are like slow-motion effects and film yet they do not significantly drive the plot forward.) More importantly, I would suggest again that one can go beyond McCloud’s analysis and see that these panels are both moment-to-moment and aspect-to-aspect (type five). Although McCloud does not specify it, one can easily imagine that certain sophisticated panel sequences could consist of more than one of his panel types. Here, it makes sense to analyze Umezu’s series of eye close-ups as both types one and five, with the latter being more important: it is the darkening and deepened mood of Emi that is the main point in this sequence; the moment-to-moment slippage of time is secondary, merely supplementing the changes in mood.

Figure 8. Kowai hon: kage (p. 35). © Umezu / Asahi.

Like in Cat-Eyed Boy, the depictions of close-ups on eyes in Umezu’s Scary Book reveal the artist’s fetishistic penchant for letting quiet and tense moments be expressed by the beautiful eyes of his characters. Emi, as a young girl (shōjo) expresses the complicated “interiority” (Ōtsuka’s “naimen”) one would expect in a girls’ manga; however, in Umezu’s hands, her interiority is exposed as possibly corrupt: the deeper we delve into her interiority, the deeper her ugly nature will be revealed. Darkly seen through the looking glass, a character who could easily be found in Umezu’s shōjo manga is refracted in this horror story; her shōjo interiority is so deep and real, it has assumed an agenda (and agency) of its own. Thus, Emi’s narcissism is her Achilles’ heel and in fact it spawns a dangerous doppelganger. The story pivots on these panels that zoom in on her eyes as she discovers her shōjo interiority at the same time she (and the reader) reflect on her beautiful exterior. Her fears are externalized here: there is someone who looks like her, she realizes, and what’s worse is that people think Emi’s other self is prettier than her. The neighborhood boys’ comments, which follow the eye close-up panel, literally reinforce her self-doubt. Called a “beggar” and a “witch,” that she “stinks” and could be contagious, Emi’s self-esteem erodes away even as Umezu ironically draws her looking quite pretty. Emi’s eye panel, which caps the page, is not necessarily seen by anybody on the street. Unlike Yumiko’s similar eye panels in Girls, Let’s Team Up!, Umezu draws Emi’s beautiful close-up to emphasize not her pretty exterior but the twisted inner workings of Emi’s mind, to which readers have delicious access. In Umezu’s works, perhaps because they have such large and beautiful eyes, pretty girls can reveal the ugliest aspects of Japanese society. After all, the more Emi worries that she is not the fairest in the land, the more her confidence becomes unfounded in the actual presentation of the panels. Beautiful girls, which Umezu would otherwise promote in his shōjo manga of the same time, are often on trial for their ugly hypocrisy in his horror manga.

Coming at Umezu’s art from another extreme, Katō Mikirō writes about the kind of flaring eye twinkles that often appear in Umezu’s horror manga. Like young Emi’s eye flares, the explosions that Umezu draws in his characters eyes reveal the artist’s penchant to freeze time in a way that is at once anti-cinematic and anti-manga. Unlike Tezuka Osamu and Ishi[no]mori Shintarō, certainly some of the most successful and pioneering manga artists using cinematic techniques, Umezu is a “primitivist” who “deforms” what was fast becoming traditional manga flow and sequential art closure.26 Katō notes that it is typical to have girl characters with big, beautiful, shining eyes, but “Umezu’s pupils in no way reflect the stars twinkling in a night sky.”27 As the panels shift to a single or dual pupil flare, Umezu resituates the panel in flat two-dimensions. However,

Umezu does not do this because he has a faulty technique or because he has an inability to draw space or time. Far from it, Umezu’s project in his manga purely exists in creating explosive moments, which cause these eye flares to come into being. What Umezu does is create an extreme slow-motion effect where the flare disjoints the possibility for any and all action. These flares are [mini-] ‘big bangs’ happening in the eye; Umezu’s eyes produce his special indulgent world where everything that happened before and everything that will happen afterward is already dead.28

Katō’s view of Umezu’s eye-flare technique is a part of his larger idea that Umezu is an artist who deforms art rather than develop it. For Katō, manga readers, at least in the 1960s and 1970s, experienced manga as solitary, quiet readers who entered their private rooms—normally used for school study—to engage in a kind of anti-social behavior or one where they could experience “moments without any meaning at all”—private space and time where “the entry of a third party was not allowed.”29 That is why Umezu’s horror manga, such as Drifting Classroom (Hyōryū kyōshitsu, 1972-1974), and even his humor manga like Makoto-chan, appealed to readers because at least through his manga readers could easily resolve the contradictions of Japanese life. “The very essence of horror is the banquet of the grotesque,” Katō writes. “[Umezu’s] world is the one in which things and people, which should not be able to co-exist, exist together even if seems irrational to be so.”30

Although Katō uses Umezu’s drawing style to promote an example of an approach to reading manga—one that is rooted in the socio-economic aspect of Japanese manga readers in the 1960s—his argument fails to account for the content of Umezu’s critical view of society. It is true, Umezu’s characters eyes flare with fear and shock, but the eyes do not simply flare intransitively. They reflect the sight of something ugly or scary in the outer world; or, they beam forth an inner ugliness. In Umezu, there is always an object to which the eye reacts. These eyes transitively act on something, trying to transform or refract the object. There is an attempt to make other the object in a dialectical sense, but to overcome the other and perhaps even to integrate the not-self into the self can be dangerous. The wavering flare that Katō sees is not a slow-motion death of action. Umezu uses his technique of eye flares not to deform manga narrative. He deforms something larger: a priori self; a given naturalness; a presupposed humanity, or, a perfect and ideal Japaneseness.

Whereas Katō pushes deep into the pupils of Umezu’s characters to see complete lack of either agency or subjectivity, I see the whole panel, which includes their eyes, eyelashes, eyebrows, bangs, and noses. By focusing so closely the pupil, Katō himself deforms his reading of Umezu: he takes the most extreme position, suggesting that Umezu nihilistically rejects any interiority because he overlooks the rest of the panel contents. In fact, although one can commonly see panels of eye close-ups in Umezu, it is quite rare to find Umezu pushing past the dual eye view to focus on one single eye. In this sense, he is different from the American artist Steve Ditko (1927-2018), who also frequently used this technique in his 1960s comics (Amazing Spider-ManDoctor Strange) through his 2000s work. For the purpose of comparison, a brief digression into Ditko’s work with eye-centric panels will reveal places of convergence and divergence in the styles of the two comics masters.

The Power of Doctor Banner: American Eye-Centric Panels in Ditko’s Hulk

If we can isolate a stylistic feature of Umezu in his eye close-ups, it might be useful to see how other artists use similar tense, tight panels on eyes. As I have demonstrated, from the 1960s until the 1970s Umezu increasingly used this strategy transitioning from the character’s face to one tightly framing his/her eyes in order to portray feelings of anxiety, fear, doubt, or even self-loathing. Umezu’s contemporary in the United States, artist extraordinaire Steve Ditko, used a similar technique for similar purposes. Like Umezu, Ditko was particularly skilled in drawing horror comics. While Umezu was drawing his kyōfu manga in Japan, Ditko cranked out mini-masterpieces one after another for companies like Marvel, Charlton, and later DC. Although a number of essays have been written on Ditko’s signature hands,31 I want to focus on Ditko’s unusual approach to framing faces, particularly tight close-ups of eyes in order to understand how two comics masters intensely scrutinize their characters.

Ditko tended to render into a panel a single eye of his protagonist in order to show shock, fear, or doubt. Although Ditko typically used as many as nine panels per page, he paced the story to include at least one panel on just the eye of the character, which shows the artist’s considerable attention to the role of the feelings or thoughts of his character. Even in characters like the Incredible Hulk, who is better known for his physical prowess, Ditko employed this narrative strategy, effectively intellectualizing one of Marvel’s most savage brutes during the character’s early formation. In his study of comics pioneer Jack Kirby, Charles Hatfield notes that Marvel’s main-roster heroes only “found their footing—and outgrew their host anthologies—after periods of vague, stumbling hesitancy.”32 Ditko’s work for early Marvel characters is no exception.

Ditko’s reaction shots—like Umezu’s—often go far beyond mere fear or disgust of the horror facing the character. Often, Ditko uses these images to get the reader into the mind of the character. And what the reader finds there—like the newly self-aware character—is how alienated that character feels in society, if not the universe as a whole.33 In this sense, Ditko and Umezu differ in their use of eye panels. Whereas Umezu consistently uses eye close-ups to show the inner ugliness of the character and the society he/she represents, Ditko showed how much his character is at odds with his society. In Ditko’s “The Most Terrible Fate” (February 1950, Charlton), one finds on nearly each page of this short five-page story, a close up on the eyes like in the example below (Figure 9). Ditko devotes a full panel to the apprehensive eye of Robert, who looks like an ordinary man but is shunned by society. The narrator prepares the reader for his guilt-ridden protagonist: “He lay there staring up at the ceiling but not seeing it…seeing only the bitterness in his heart!”  The panel and page then cut to a close-up on the man’s eyes as they express his thoughts, “No, not like anyone…anyone else in the whole world!  I’m the only one of my kind!  A freak!  A monster!”  Ditko’s reader gains a near complete intimacy with the character through this close up on the eye. There can be little doubt that the character is hiding something from us (and himself). The twist in this SF-horror story is that seemingly normal Robert is a “mutant,” but that in future-earth society, of which the human-like robots form the dominant part, normal humans like Robert are “mutants” or outcasts, who must reflect on and suffer for being impure.

Figure 9. “The Most Terrible Fate” (Impossible Tales: Steve Ditko Archives Volume 4, p. 135).

Ditko consistently used the eye close-up as a code for pure interiority or pure truth. In the same story, he uses another eye panel combined with background figure speaking, which similarly shows the pure acceptance of another truth. When the father of the protagonist’s girlfriend proclaims, “You are not like the rest of us son! You are a mutant! … You realize, you cannot marry her?” the protagonist instantly internalizes the words of his interlocutor as the truth.34 There is no room for doubt—not in his words nor in the panel: the tight positioning of the father, the protagonist’s eye, and the word balloon combine to nearly burst out of the panel like a ray of epiphany. To get this close to a protagonist in Ditko is to know his existential horror. Here, Umezu and Ditko are quite similar. Like in Umezu’s “Reflection” story, the reader gets extremely close to an anguished, deep-thinking self who views himself out of the place in an otherwise normal society. Horror and ugliness come home to their protagonists as the reader increasingly grows too near to the characters—these eye close-ups dwell on the anxiety of the characters who stand perilously on the thin border between accepted and outcast. Their horror, like our horror, comes from being so close to their internalized feelings of alienation, guilt, or self-doubt.

Ditko’s experiments with this kind of coding of psychological states took an interesting turn 1964 and 1965 as he returned as artist for the Incredible Hulk, a character he played an important role in co-creating in 1962. Ditko drew the final issue of the character’s initial six-issue run, following Jack Kirby in 1962. Then, in the Tales to Astonish Hulk stories, Ditko used these intense close-ups on the character’s eyes to depict a fresh new aspect of the “monster” the Hulk was. Whereas Kirby preferred to draw the green hero in longer shots in order to depict his brutish muscularity, Ditko, ever the iconoclast, often drew the Hulk and his alter-ego Bruce Banner in claustrophobic panels, tightly focused on the morphing character’s eyes as he either panicked or brooded about his guilt in the suffering of others. Contrasting his art with that of his contemporary Jack Kirby, Charles Hatfield has astutely observed, “Ditko brought a weird moodiness and psychological urgency to the genre” of superhero comics.35 Thus, it is not unwarranted to apply a shōjo manga reading to Ditko’s Hulk.

In Ditko’s hands, the green brute’s alter-ego Bruce Banner is assaulted by “the flood of memories surg[ing] into [his] tormented fugitive’s mind” and words issue forth from the eyes of Banner, again indicating the sincerity or truth of his mind: “He gave his life for mine!  And now he’s dead!”36 Stan Lee’s scripting, which redundantly narrates and describes the inner turmoil of the hero’s alter ego, crowds the panel but Ditko’s visual plotting inoculates the story from any of Lee’s added-in mediocre scripting.37 When Ditko dramatically focuses on the eyes of the character, he skillfully conveys the confused and anxious mind of the character (Figures 10 and 11).

Figure 10. Tales to Astonish #60 (Oct. 1964)
Figure 11. Tales to Astonish #62 (Dec. 1964)

The artist here takes an unusual step of visualizing a mini-panel of self-sacrifice within the word bubble next to Banner’s eyes. His eyes not only speak of his guilt but they also show the actual scene that originated his life debt. Scenes like this one, where the eye close up triggers a mini-scene or panel within a panel, seem to be restricted to Ditko’s work for Marvel’s anthology stories like Tales to Astonish in the mid-1960s, but they are common in his Hulk run. In the same issue, even the dim-witted Hulk can recall a similar scene and his eyes tell and show a similar feeling of guilt about his friend’s self-sacrifice.38 In both cases, the green man-monster shows a remarkable sense of self-awareness. This self-awareness, as in the case of Umezu’s characters, is always accompanied by a sense of failure or hypocrisy. Unlike Umezu’s ugly beautiful-eyed characters, Ditko’s superhero Hulk will overcome his failures and make up for them. What Ditko did for the Hulk in the mid-1960s with these eye close-up panels is create a sense of psychological depth—almost shōjo-esque—for even the most ugly and brutish of Marvel’s superhero demigods.

Losing Sight of Interiority

If Umezu skillfully developed a somewhat fetishistic narrative style in the late 1960s, it seems clear he moved on and abandoned his reliance on these eye close-up panels in favor of a more distant and dispassionate way to depict his characters. An early example of this transition be seen even in Umezu’s last Cat-Eyed Boy story from 1969, “The Thousand-Handed Demon” (“Yōkai Senjū Kannon”). Cat-Eyed Boy lodges in the rafters of an old temple where he observes the morbid practice a nun takes to feed human blood to the statue of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, hoping to animate this relic, the “savior of their village,” who instead returns dark and murderous “benefits” (go-riyaku) to its praying adherents.39 At first, the nun is a mystery to Cat-Eyed Boy and perhaps it is for this reason that Umezu draws her suffering face (Figure 12) in an oblique close-up, tantalizing the reader with her interiority but ultimately postponing access until two panels later, where we see her contemplative moment unravel to reveal her overly earnest, twisted religious mentality.

Figure 12. “Yōkai senjū Kannon” (Cat-Eyed Boy, volume 2; page 302). © Umezu / Shogakukan.

In fact, given this initial close-up on her face, one would expect her character to be more thoroughly explored, but Umezu ultimately refrains from following this pattern that he set in earlier Cat-Eyed Boy stories. A few panels later on the opposite page, Cat-Eyed shows his disgust for both her and her Kannon by urinating on the wooden statue, only to be confronted by an otherworldly presence. Drawn from the point of view of Cat-Eyed Boy, the last panel shows the dark and observing face of the ominous statue. In this straight, tight frame of the Kannon’s eyes, the tables are turned on Cat-Eyed Boy as he loses his usual observer status and becomes objectified by a statue observing him (Figure 13). Although the two types of Umezu close-ups are in play in this two-page sequence, there is a marked lack of interiority in either.

Figure 13. “Yōkai senjū Kannon” (Cat-Eyed Boy, volume 2; page 303). © Umezu / Shogakukan.

What follows is a fast-paced action story, where any type of criticality is abandoned in favor of plot. Reacting to her satanic practice, Cat-Eyed Boy struggles to save an innocent young woman (whose only wish is to have a “good husband”) from the monster Kannon’s vampire-enabler nun. “Look at what you’ve done!  You brought to life a monster who drained you of your own blood!” he says to the dying nun, pointing out poetic justice dealt to this hypocrite nun with her perverse worship.40 Characters in Umezu’s stories who should be good, beautiful, or in this case holy, often deviate from the good and will deserve a harsh comeuppance; at the same time Umezu manipulates the reader to feel some measure of sympathy for them usually in the form of detached irony. As the nun is murdered by the demonic Kannon, Umezu disallows Shunka the nun the opportunity to show regret over her hypocritical views of life and religion. She dies quickly, so there is no chance for her to repent for her sins. Umezu avoids giving her even a brief introspective moment as there are no eye close-up panels for the latter half of the story.

Compare the treatment of shock and realization panels from this final 1969 story with the 1976 reprise of the series. Here we can see an even more sober Umezu, who treats his characters quite dispassionately. In “The Stairs” (“Kaidan”) from 1976, when Umezu re-launched the series for Shōgakukan and Shōnen Sunday, Cat-Eyed Boy picks up his old habit of hiding in people’s attics, and, in doing so, discovers human perversity under his roof. In this story, the young boy Chihiro longs for his dead mother to an unnatural extent. “He will forget her in time,” his grandmother says, but the boy’s weakness is that he cannot forget his mother. Cat-Eyed Boy offers Chihiro a chance to see her once more in the flesh in exchange for the boy’s promise to give her up and overcome his grief. In essence, Cat-Eyed Boy acts as a kind of supernatural Freudian therapist, helping the elementary school student a chance to confront the source of his melancholy and exorcise his demon so he can go back to being a regular, jovial boy. (Umezu began his long-running gag comic Makoto-chan the same year for Shōgakukan—and the resemblances between Chihiro’s daft buddy Koichi and Makoto-chan in style are quite strong.) Excited by Cat-Eyed Boy’s offer, Chihiro soon masters his fear of his feline interlocutor and the “Cat Path” to the realm of the dead. Climbing the stairs to the attic of an abandoned house, through the trap door he gets a peek at his seemingly healthy mother looking down at him. He is overjoyed to see her in her “healthy” (genki) form, but this is just an illusion that eventually shatters when Chihiro tries to take her back home, breaking the rules of the Cat Path. This is the first of two fearful shocks experienced by both Chihiro and the reader. Initially, when he realizes his obsession has caused him to drag outside instead the shambling corpse of his mother from hell, he feels “physiological fear” or revulsion for the decaying flesh of his mother. However, as I noted earlier, the pleasure of a Umezu manga comes not from the comeuppance of the foolish or vain human characters. Nearly devoured by the mother zombie, Chihiro is rescued by Cat-Eyed Boy. However, the story, in fact, does not end there.

Figure 14. “Kaidan” (Umezu, Cat-Eyed Boy). © Umezu / Shogakukan.

Far more disturbing in “The Stairs” is one of the final panels depicting Chihiro in an otherwise normal state. Whereas the reader might expect the boy never to outgrow his supernatural encounter, instead Umezu frames the boy’s placid self-disgust in a panel atypical for this series’ artist: Chihiro eyes are not drawn in close-up, but at a greater remove (Figure 14). Umezu does not privilege Chihiro as the thinking, feeling subject as he did with his earlier 1960s characters, depicting “something primal.”  Chihiro coldly realizes that his melancholy and perhaps Oedipal obsession have taken him far outside the social norms. However, that realization does not require Umezu to spend a full panel focusing on the boy’s eyes, emphasizing his dark inner discovery. Instead, the reader is distanced from Chihiro, suggesting that on the surface, there is nothing special about this emotionally scarred boy. Ironically, Chihiro is just another average Japanese child growing up in Japan in the 1970s. The fear depicted is sublimated, perhaps best representing a kind of unnerving “societal fear” found in Umezu later works.

The three other 1976 new Cat-Eyed Boy stories are all quite dispassionate, echoing the tone in “The Stairs,” as if Umezu was then no longer wedded to his shōjo-like origins and what Ōtsuka calls the genre’s hallmark, the “discovery of interiority” (naimen no hakken). Kurihara Yūichirō correctly assesses how these last four stories brilliantly shift the series in theme away from yōkai horror to human “delusion and karma” (mōsō to gō), signaling a “complete change in Umezu’s approach” (tacchi mo garatto kawar[u]),41 indicating Umezu brought these stories more in line with recent style of Drifting Classroom and other mature works. Thus, a concrete way in which we can understand changes in Umezu’s style is noting his avoidance of using his older style eye panels. Although Takahashi argues against the notion that all three types of fear were simultaneously present in Umezu’s work,42 it is clear with these later Cat-Eyed Boy stories that by the 1970s Umezu draws less physiological or psychological fear and the artist is more interested in exploring “societal fear” (shakaiteki na kyōfu). What might really be scary about Japan in the 1970s to an older Umezu is how normal people in civilized Japan continue to function, carrying around their traumatic scars like the walking dead.

Examples of Umezu’s earlier close-up eyes panels can be found in works from the 1970s, but they are less prominent. One notable example is an early and pivotal scene from Drifting Classroom where the boy protagonist Shō, who is truly one of the most introspective and interiority-rich characters in all of Umezu’s works, knowingly betrays his classmates by covering up the shocking truth they have all lost their mothers and fathers. In this important scene (Figure 15), Shō, forced by the adult world of the teachers to help maintain order, falsely tells his fellow sixth graders that he did indeed hear his mother on the phone. This lie obviously weighs heavy on Shō’s mind, as seen in the way Umezu slowly lingers over Shō’s eyes with an additional, excessive panel.43 This example certainly reminds one of Umezu’s earlier 1960s style, which we have already seen in Cat-Eyed Boy, but there are surprisingly few other readily available examples from Drifting Classroom, which is a work replete with children characters who must make hard choices, often rejecting the hypocrisy of the adult world, and thereby maturing into adults before the reader’s eyes.

Figure 15. Hyōryū kyōshitsu. © Umezu / Shogakukan.


Umezu’s narrative art is many things. From his origins in the late 1950s, he drew stories for almost every kind of genre or story until he had his epiphany as a “fear manga” artist, and henceforth devoted himself to becoming a leader in those kinds of stories. Certinaly other artists who have come after him, most notably Itō Junji (Uzumaki, Tomie, Yōkai Kyōshitsu [Dissolving Classroom]), owe much to the master. In a sense, much of Umezu’s stories are stories of narcissism. Characters often look out of their panels often without having anything concrete to see; thus, they are thinking, but more importantly, they are introspective characters. Cat-Eyed Boy often looks directly out of his panels at the viewer, talking to us but also talking to himself. Much more could be explored in considering how the horror genre often tragically blends elements of interiority and narcissism. My study of Umezu reveals that something as simple as a close-up panel on the eyes of a character can be a door into new, astonishing worlds to be explored if we are not afraid to look.


[1] Takahashi, Umezu Kazuo ron, 23.

[2] Ozawa, “Front Interview #111: Umezu Kazuo,” 8:  In interviews and in his own writings, Umezu prefers the term “fear manga” (kyōfu manga) over “horror manga” (hor&amcr; manga), noting that he felt he innovated the former sub-genre, following in the tradition of fear movies (kyōfu eiga). “At the time, there was such a genre in film but ‘fear manga’ did not yet exist. I thought, ‘Eureka!’ but I hadn’t yet figured out what the term meant. Going to see movies like Yotsuya KaidanBanchō sarayashiki, and the Western movie The Revenge of Frankenstein helped. Frankenstein didn’t scare me at all, but [in Yotsuya] when O-Iwa drinks the poison and dies, it’s so pathetic. I thought, ‘Don’t give up, O-Iwa!  Keep haunting them!’ There’s something really scary when she becomes ugly and her body changes.”

[3] Takahashi, Umezu Kazuo ron, 23.

[4] Takahashi, “Umezu Kazuo sakuhin mokuroku kō,” 218-219.

[5] Takahashi, “Umezu Kazuo o-nenpu kō,” 199.

[6] It is unclear whether Umezu lost interest in the character, or, if his move from Shōnen Gahō/King Comics to work for other companies (Shogakukan, etc.) necessitated he drop the character. In his summary chronology of Umezu’s life, Takahashi notes that in 1968 Umezu quit a number of projects with magazines like Shōjo furendo and Nakayoshi. He also suffered problems with his liver that year from overwork and took time from work, resting away from Tokyo at his family home in Gojō.

[7] Mori, “Nekome Kozō [Film Review],” 99.

[8] Ozawa, ibid., 10.

[9] For a good survey of the religious importance of the Kumano region in Medieval Japan, see D. Max Moerman, Localizing Paradise: Kumano Pilgrimage and the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan (2006).

[10] Hosokawa, Umezu Kazuo to kaiki manga, 111.

[11] Ōtsuka, Sengo manga no hyōgen k?kan: kigō-teki shintai no jubaku, 65.

[12] McCloud, Understanding Comics, 78-79.

[13] Holt, “Literature Short on Time: Modern Moments in Haiku and Tanka,” 26-41.

[14] McCloud, Understanding Comics, 79.

[15] Hori, “Tezuka, Shōjo Manga, and Hagio Moto,” 308. For a full roster of this vanguard group, see Thorn, “The Magnificent Forty-Niners,” v-vii.

[16] Yomota, Manga genron, 144-145.

[17] Ozawa, ibid., 10.

[18] Umezu, Kyōfu e no shōtai, 53.

[19] Kamioka, “‘Zazaza’ no kyōfu,” 126. See also: Shamoon, “The Yōkai in the Database,” 276-289.

[20] Takahashi, Umezu Kazuo ron, 243.

[21] Ibid.

[22] McCloud, ibid., 70. For an overview of McCloud’s six types of panel transitions, see 70-72.

[23] McCloud, ibid., 76.

[24] See Taniguchi Jirō’s complex dual scene-to-scene and aspect-to-shifts in “Botchan” no jidai as described by Holt, ibid., 35-36.

[25] Although the story title has been written with different kanji (including kagami and eizō), Umezu provided the reading “Kage” for the story’s master volume title. The story is translated in English with the title of “The Mirror” (Umezu, Scary Book: Reflections [2006]).

[26] Katō, “Furea, hitomi no bakuhatsu: Umezu Kazuo no kyōfu no juyō to hyōshō,” 103.

[27] Katō, ibid., 103.

[28] Ibid., 105.

[29] Ibid., 105-106.

[30] Ibid., 106.

[31] See Bill Randall, “Ditko’s Hands: An Appreciation,” 91-93. I disagree with Randall’s statement: “Ditko’s characters live through touch, feeling the world more than seeing it” (91). See also Andrew Hultkrans, “Steve Ditko’s Hands,” 208-225.

[32] Hatfield, Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, 161.

[33] Hatfield notes Marvel’s innovation as its “self-reflexive” treatment of superhero characters, and that “Marvel[’s] ethos demanded heroes whose superpowers were counterbalanced by deformities, disabilities, or social stigmas…For instance, the antiheroic Spider-Man was often persecuted as a criminal menace, and the bestial Hulk hunted as a monster.” Hatfield, ibid., 116.

[34] Ditko, Impossible Tales, 137.

[35] Hatfield, ibid., 119.

[36] Lee and Ditko, “The Power of Doctor Banner” in Tales to Astonish Vol. 1, No. 66 (1965), 8 (reprinted in Lee, Ditko, and Kirby, Marvel Masterworks [Vol. 39] The Incredible Hulk Volume 2, 95).

[37] My assumption here is that Ditko may have taken his Hulk story nuggets from Lee, but that he actually plotted them out as it is suspected he did for many of early 1960s Marvel collaborations with Lee, like Amazing Spider-Man. In other words, Ditko is the main force shaping the story and Lee probably went back to script Ditko’s art. Unlike other lesser Marvel artists, Ditko probably did not follow the “Marvel Method”—he prefigured it. See Fischer, “Unmasking the Villain: Notes on Ditko, Kirby and Marvel-Style Plotting,” 97-100.

[38] Ibid., p. 2 (and p. 89 in the reprint).

[39] Umezu, Nekome Kozō (Vol. 2), 307.

[40] Umezu, ibid., 346. Cat-Eyed Boy urinates on the Kannon statue; in his treatments of Buddhist iconography, religious figures, or religious figures (e.g., the hell scene in the 1976 story “The Hand” [“Te”]), Umezu typically maintains a resolutely anti-religious stance throughout Cat-Eyed Boy and his other works.

[41] Kurihara, “Nekome Kozō,” 178.

[42] Takahashi, Umezu Kazuo ron, 31-35. Takahashi quite rightly sees weakness in this overview of the artist’s oeuvre, questioning the author’s own claim of the “shift” in his storytelling direction by noting inconsistencies in Umezu’s facts in his Invitation to Fear autobiography.

[43] Umezu, Hyōryū kyōshitsu (Vol. 1), 166.

Works Cited

Ditko, Steve. Impossible TalesSteve Ditko Archives Volume 4. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics, 2013. Print.

Fischer, Craig. “Unmasking the Villain: Notes on Ditko, Kirby and Marvel-Style Plotting.” The Comics Journal Feb. 2004: 97-100. Print.

Foulsham, Tom, Dean Wybrow, and Neil Cohn. “Reading without Words: Eye Movements in the Comprehension of Comic Strips.” Applied Cognitive Psychology 30.4 (2016): 566-579. Print.

Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2007. Print.

Hatfield, Charles. Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2012. Print.

Holt, Jon. “Literature Short on Time: Modern Moments in Haiku and Tanka.” Routledge Handbook of Modern Japanese Literature. Eds. Leith Morton and Rachael Hutchinson. New York: Routledge, 2016. 26-41. Print.

Hori, Hikari. “Tezuka, Shōjo Manga, and Hagio Moto.” Mechademia 8 (2013): 299-311. Print.

Hosokawa Ryōichi. Umezu Kazuo to kaiki manga. Kyoto: Hakuchisha, 2012. Print.

Hultkrans, Andrew. “Steve Ditko’s Hands.” Give Our Regards to the Atomsmashers! EdSean Howe. New York: Pantheon, 2004. 208-225. Print.

Kamioka Masashi. “‘Zazaza’ no kyōfu.” Kawade yume mukku sōtokushū: Umezu Kazuo. Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2004. 122-126. Print.

Kurihara Yūichirō. “Nekome Kozō.” Kawade yume mukku sōtokushū: Umezu Kazuo. Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 2004. 178. Print.

Katō Mikirō. “Furea, hitomi no bakuhatsu: Umezu Kazuo no kyōfu no juyō to hyōshō.” Yuriika July 2004: 100-107. Print.

Kikuta Hiroshi. Shōwa no yabai manga: shirarezaru kashihon-manga no DEEP na sekai. Tokyo: Saizusha, 2016. Print.

Lee, Stan, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby, Marvel Masterworks [Vol. 39] The Incredible Hulk, Volume 2. New York: Marvel, 2012. Print.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. New York: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993. Print.

Moerman, D. Max. Localizing Paradise: Kumano Pilgrimage and the Religious Landscape of Premodern Japan. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2006. Print.

Mori Naoto. “Nekome Kozō [Film Review].” Kinema junpō July 2006: 99. Print.

Natsume Fusanosuke. Manga no chikara. Tokyo: Shōbunsha, 1999. Print.

Ōtsuka Eiji. Sengo manga no hyōgen kūkan: kigō-teki shintai no jubaku. Tokyo: Hōzōkan, 1994. Print.

Ozawa Yasuhiro. “Front Interview #111: Umezu Kazuo.” Kinema junpō June 2006: 8-10. Print.

Randall, Bill. “Ditko’s Hands: An Appreciation.” The Comics Journal Feb. 2004: 91-93. Print.

Shamoon, Deborah. “Situating the Shōjo in Shōjo Manga: Teenage Girls, Romance Comics, and Contemporary Japanese Culture.” Japanese Visual Culture: Explorations in the World of Manga and Anime. Ed. Mark W. MacWilliams. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2008. 137-154. Print.

—. “The Yōkai in the Database: Supernatural Creatures and Folklore in Manga and Anime.” Marvels and Tales 27:2 (2013): 276-289. Print.

Takahashi Akihiko. “Umezu Kazuo o-nenpu kō.” Yuriika July 2004: 194-205. Print.

—. “Umezu Kazuo sakuhin mokuroku kō.” Yuriika July 2004: 206-231. Print.

—. Umezu Kazuo ron. Tokyo: Seikyūsha, 2015. Print.

Thorn, Matt. “The Magnificent Forty-Niners.” Hagio Moto. A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2010. v-vii. Print.

Umezu Kazuo. Cat-Eyed Boy. 2 vols. San Francisco: Viz Comics, 2006. Print.

—. The Drifting Classroom. 11 vols. San Francisco: Viz Comics, 2006-2008. Print.

—. Hyōryū kyōshitsu. 3 vols. Tokyo: Shōgakukan, 2007. Print.

—. Kyōfu e no shōtai. Tokyo: Kawade Shobō Shinsha, 1996. Print.

—. Nekome Kōzō. 2 vols. Tokyo: Shōgakukan, 2006. Print.

—. Onna no ko atsumare! Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2011. Print.

—. Scary Book: Reflections. Milwaukee, Oregon: Dark Horse Comics, 2003. Print.

Yomota Inuhiko. Manga genron. Tokyo: Chikuma Gakugei Bunko, 1999. Print.

Related Articles