Monday, 12 October 2015

#8 - The Curse of Kazuo Umezu (1990)

Director: Naoko Omi
Screenplay: Shiira Shimazaki
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles

Kazuo Umezu is an intriguing horror manga author of immense acclaim in his country, one that I've not been able to get into yet as I have Junji Ito. Umezu is up for a few English translated editions of his work in the same hardbacked releases Ito has had in the UK. His work from the images viewable online are suitably gruesome and not for the squeamish, heavily stylised and exaggerated. Umezu himself is as memorable in appearance as well, a very gaunt thin elderly man in a Where's Wally red and white stripped jumper. Apparently he also lives in a house that's red and white stripes as well, adding through the creator a personality for his work as much as Ito's drawn version of himself being turned insane by spirals works so well reading Uzumaki (1998-9).

The anime is two stories based on Umezu's work. The first is of a schoolgirl who fears the new female transfer student is a vampire, waking up one morning with a small puncture wound in the centre of her neck. The second is four girls going into a supposedly haunted house. They don't hide that they're ghoulish stories, a twist in both with tones as if you could tell them to another personally around a campfire for a good chill. There's not a lot on the bones of the anime in terms of greater meanings, but the stories are appropriately macabre.

Visually, the anime looks very unique from others from this era, transforming Umezu's illustration style into moving figures. The female cast who are central to each story manage to have even bigger eyes than the stereotypical anime heroine, and striking use of black lines and shadows is prominent for moments of horror, particularly for character's horrified reactions. The music, starting off with slightly cheesy synth, is also memorable. The synth itself gets creepy in its tininess as it goes along, but especially in the second story you can pick up some clever music cue choices for creating tension, from atonal jazz noise for a scene of terror where the haunted house's original owner makes themselves known, to an eerie reinterpretation of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky using what the music director might've chosen as the most sinister sounding bells possible. Even for this utterly obscure straight-to-video anime, which I and many can only find online in a VHS rip with fan added subtitles, there's ingenuity in the production nonetheless.

The stories themselves run with the body horror and general grossness that follows on from (blog entry #7) Twilight of the Dark Master (1997), not of the school of Ringu (1998). The first story eventually becomes overt body horror with an added twist of an unknown internal evil, a giant teeth mouth, spiders crawling on flesh, and a somewhat startling appearance and use  of a tentacle like tongue I didn't remember last time viewing this anime, encouraging the animators to draw the most gross distortions of the human body possible. The second story is more ridiculous in the amount of blood split, including a bloody teddy bear, but seeing a limb pop off like if one pulled a leg off a Barbie doll, especially with the character designs, is creepy in itself.

Naturally Umezu's own work is as appropriately disgusting looking at un-translated panels, but if there's one flaw with this adaptation, it's that while even when he's utterly vile in some of the images he draws, the panels can also be beautiful in a perverse way at the same time, like with Junji Ito and other manga authors who develop personalities to their horror writing and the drawings. This is not like the infamous anime adaptation Midori (1992) which managed to transfer an entire aesthetic based on the early years of Showa Era Japan as much as the original manga creator's style into cels, but at least Umezu may have appreciated the faithfulness to his work shown here. Even the strange minute long short between the stories turning the characters in the first story, including the monster, into chibi cartoon figures doesn't feel outside the tone but keeping within the grim glee of the material.

Sadly there hasn't been many other adaptations into anime of Umezu's work, barring a couple from the late seventies and eighties. The utter obscurity of this particular title somewhat emphasises this. It's a shame as, while there have been live action adaptations, this anime sets up a Tales of the Crypt tone that could've gone further. It even has a mascot who is a skinny goth-like ghoul bookending the anime, functioning in the same position as the Crypt Keeper but with a quieter, unsettling manner. An in-joke of the second story characters watching "The Curse of Kazuo Umezu" during their movie night, food wrapping littering the floor when the lights are turned back on, emphasises how this could've been a fun straight-to-video anthology series if it had legs. What exists in itself in terms of quality is a curiosity only, but considering the lack of horror anime in comparison to other genres likes romance or sci-fi, it still has virtue to it and would've been a suitably watchable series if more episodes were ever to have existed.


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