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Kazuo Umezz: Japan's horror-manga auteur

The red-and-white stripe loving writer’s unsettling stories have terrified readers for 50 years

Taken from the December 2012 issue of Dazed: 

The red-and-white horizontal striped house, the famous comic characters on the patio, the trees with their green leaves surrounding the doorway... It can only be the home of Kazuo Umezz, Japan’s greatest horror mangaka (manga author) – a man so venerated in the genre that a prestigious award is named after him. When it was built in Kichijoji, Tokyo, in 2007, neighbours complained that the building was an “eyesore”, and the story was widely covered by the media. Today however, the atmosphere is calm, and all seems forgotten. 

When Umezz appears he’s easily recognisable, even from afar, thanks to a trademark red–and–white striped, knitted jumper, worn with a pair of Lee jeans and red, low–cut Converse. As he invites Dazed into “Makoto–chan House” (the name derives from Umezz’s signature manga, Makoto-chan), he explains that “slippers are in the left shoe–case and shoes are in the right.” Almost all his shoes and slippers are in the trademark Umezz colours, in horizontal stripe patterns or as red Converse. In person, as in public, Kazuo Umezz comes across as a down–to–earth, humble man – he tidies the table, puts on his favourite old Japanese pop tunes and is ready for our interview.

Umezz was born in 1936 in Koyasan, Wakayama Prefecture, but raised in Yoshino Kumano in the heart of the mountains. “There were no shops or anything – it was super–remote countryside,” Umezz says of his childhood. “I didn’t even know about or have any concept of money.”

At first, Umezz’s work was very dependent upon his intuition. “I think it was because I was brought up in the mountains, where there are no rules,” he explains. “You can feel a bit unsettled in the mountains, but you don’t know what it is exactly. So I didn’t think too much, I just used my intuition and started drawing. I think it was around the time when I was working on "Watashi wa Shingo" ("My Name is Shingo") that I started using logic and reason. If you don’t think it through very thoroughly, it crumbles easily. Especially when we’re talking about fear. If you do not have the procedure or process in place, you can’t even get to the feeling of fear. But at the same time, if you are only logical and do not use your intuition first, then your work can never get to that unexpected, outrageous zone either.” 

In Japan, his work is terrifying for children – and pretty scary for adults too. To some extent, it provides a more intense horror experience than live–action animation. Umezz’s style unfolds like the storyboard of a film, with careful drawing and detailed touches to maximise the fear factor. “I was searching for the ultimate way for manga to look more real,” he explains, “thinking, ‘How can I make what is drawn on a piece of paper look real, and how should I be drawing?” He discovered that exaggeration was key. “In manga, to exaggerate is in a way expressing reality. When it is amplified, your brain receives the information in a way that makes it look more real. For example, those objects that look like eyeballs that farmers put in the fields to scare birds away. They look real and are very scary for birds and that is why they stay away. I think that is the sort of ‘reality’ I am talking about here.” 

So how is “fear” drawn and depicted by Kazuo Umezz? “There are two ultimate fears for human beings,” he says. “One is nature. There are those who viscerally dislike insects, for instance, or those who have a phobia of snakes, caves, thunderbolts or earthquakes. And the other fear is me and you – human beings. You think I’m a nice person but actually I could be a horrible guy. You can’t read one’s mind or heart. It can’t be helped with nature, because you cannot know, but there is always a dark side in a human being. Well, maybe not always, but at least you don’t know whether someone has it. It is no good if people see things only from one particular dimension or perspective. It is intelligent, moral and rational. But if you take this away then humans are no longer humans. We would become the same as other animals.” 

Umezz’s work is also about extreme situations, in which people lose their moral sense. “Humans do not try eating each other when they are alive,” he notes. “But during the war they would eat human flesh when they faced death. In "Orochi" (one of his most famous comics), at no point is there a scene where any of the characters eat human meat; instead, a character ‘allegedly’ eats human meat.

“You think I’m a nice person but actually I could be a horrible guy. You can’t read one’s mind or heart” – Kazuo Umezz

"This is a search for extreme situations. It is not a scene that would make you scream but it is an extremely tense situation where you have to face eating human flesh, and that is what I drew and described. I always try to look at it as objectively as possible. I see the overall picture and storyline, then I draw.” 

His work is so futuristic that people have claimed that it predicts the future of humanity. In "Hyoryu Kyoshitsu" ("The Drifting Classroom"), primary school pupils flash forward in time to a world where there is no water or plants. “The theme for me is always ‘kids’”, he smiles. “So I created a comic full of children, which was adventurous and dangerous – they could lose their lives there. I also added another topic – school. It’s not the sort of education that you get in a classroom but an education you have to risk your life for.”

All kinds of social problems emerge, cleverly filtered through Umezz’s imagination. “When you read the episode about electing a classroom president, you see the politics. There are scenes that involve environmental matters, which was already a big issue at the time, the mother son relationship and even wars and religions. I was feeling then that Japan was reliant on America, so one of the adults shouts out, ‘America will come and rescue us!’ I naturally integrated the current affairs of the 70s into the manga.”

Was he trying to create and write about the future? “I never tried to predict the future. I may have been thinking, ‘It could possibly happen,’ but not predicting it. But when I was watching the news today about the nuclear power plants, they were saying there is no battery left, and someone said: ‘Why don’t we stack cars vertically and use their batteries?’ This is exactly what I did for "Hyoryu Kyoshitsu", when they try to create electricity by using batteries directly!”

“There are two ultimate fears for human beings. One is nature. And the other fear is me and you” – Kazuo Umezz

Umezz is concerned about the future of Japan. His worry lies in changes in the Japanese way of thinking and attitude. “It is dangerous if you stop thinking,” he warns. “People make some noises and there is some subtle difference in their feelings, yet there is no fundamental change. The Japanese have the energy to come back from rock bottom. Everybody in Japan tries to crawl back up again, don’t they? It is such an incredible trait. But once you are up from there, what do we do?”

He also provides his take on the consequences for Japan of the Fukushima nuclear disaster: “There could be more nasty surprises for us around the corner but people seem to have forgotten about it... As for the nuclear situation, they try to delete it from their memory. It is a scary thought if you try to forget something that really happened. Wars and natural disasters are something that people do not wish to happen but they still happen, unfortunately. It is important to look at the reality and think about it, as they will not go away or kindly avoid pure and innocent kids. It can still happen to these people, and this is what I would like to draw and write about.” 

Nowadays, Umezz is often seen on TV, and he actively makes music too. “Whether I was creating manga, busy or not so busy, I always came home and put music on and sang along to it. I don’t currently draw manga so it was only natural that I started working on music. Songs are just stories, too. Of course it’s a different artform from manga but they are stories of emotion. I strongly believe it is no use if there is no story in art – be it comic or song.” 

Although he is not currently writing or drawing, Umezz has a secret project he has been extremely busy working on, which, he says, has nothing to do with manga or music but is a grand way to express himself nevertheless. Whatever the story, it’s sure to give us the opportunity to look at our lives with morality and learn to co-exist with our fellow human beings and nature. “I feel there are parts of me that have not been expressed so far,” he says, “and areas in a human sense that nobody has discovered.”