Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, May 01, 2009
      ( 5/01/2009 11:26:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"EVEN THE ATTICS OF THE RICH ARE COMFORTABLE AND SPACIOUS." An Eisner Award nominee for 2009, Kazuo Umezu's Cat Eyed Boy is a gleefully disturbing horror manga about the shifting boundaries between human and monstrous. Its title hero is a small boy with pointed ears and cat-shaped eyes that allow him to see in the dark. This look is enough to get him shunned by both humans and demons (the latter consider his human physiognomy "too extreme"), so our protagonist moves from home to home, taking up hidden residence in the attics of each home he selects. "The residents don't have a clue that I'm living here," he tells the reader, adding that "Wherever I appear, something frightening happens."

Though he's forced to scrounge for food and shelter -- and his schoolboy outfit has holes in it -- Cat Eyed Boy (we're never given another name) proves a remarkably cheerful creature. Following the residents of the houses he has chosen as his temporary shelter, he watches their stories unfold, occasionally intervening to stave off catastrophe but just as often letting the horrifying events run their course. The first volume of Umezu's 2006 series, published by Viz Media, is a meaty 536-page tome featuring five stories, though it should be noted that the last tale, "The Band of A Hundred Monsters," carries on into concluding Volume Two. In each piece, at least one unfortunate human is victimized by a hideous creature, though in most cases we don't feel too badly about it since the victim is not exactly a paragon of virtue.

In "One-Legged Monster of Oudai," for instance, a young boy with an unhealthy fixation on catching and pinning insects to a specimen board ("When I pierce them like this," he states, "I get such a rush.") is warned by a one-legged mountain demon to cease this practice and "apologize to the insects" else he "suffer a terrible death." The kid doesn't listen, of course, so the O-LM enacts some EC-styled vengeance on the little sadist by forcing him to experience the same death he's inflicted on his bugs. To expedite this, the hopping demon takes over Cat Eyed Boy's body with a nail that burrows under our hero's skin and travels to his stomach. When our hero attempts to get the nail removed by an "eccentric doctor," the possessed Boy spits poison in the unfortunate physician's face.

The first volume's centerpiece is "The Tsunami Summoners," which tells the story of the Boy's birth and early years in a village by the Mountains of Omine. Born to mountain demons, the young "Nekomata" (cat goblin) is cast away by the community of grotesques for not looking sufficiently demonic. He's adopted by a village spinster named Mimi, but the rest of the villagers refuse to have anything to do with him. When our hero learns that a group of demons capable of bringing a tsunami down on the village are gathering in strength, Cat Eyed Boy attempts to warn the humans. But his demon-like appearance interferes with their ability to hear his message; even his adopted mother turns away from him and ultimately falls victim to the tsunami. "Even I betrayed Cat Eyed Boy in the end," she thinks as the waters overpower her. "This is my punishment."

As with Umezu's post-Apocalyptic horror classic, The Drifting Classroom (also nominated for an Eisner), Umezu illustrates his tales with a boyish love of cartoonish overstatement. Nobody reacts quietly in an Umezu horror tale, and who can blame 'em, when the monsters he creates look like something Basil Wolverton might've cast aside as being too excessive. At first, the artist's typical page layouts (four tiers with two or three panels in a tier) may strike some readers as being overly old-fashioned, though it soon becomes apparent that Umezu is using this cramped and conservative construction to add impact to the moments when his monsters go berserk.

Cat Eyed Boy is given an "Older Teen" rating by Viz Signature in its English-language edition, though there are times when it appears to be aimed at a younger, if no less blood-thirsty, audience. The young hero/observer regularly breaks the wall to speak to the reader, occasionally threatening to spend time in the reader's home. At one point, our childish lead pisses on a regenerating corpse through the attic floor; in another, he gives an injured mad scientist diarrhea medication instead of something to help with his wound. In such moments, you can imagine a pre-teen reader (Sho from The Drifting Classroom, for instance) snickering at Cat Eyed Boy's antics.

As a horror manga, Cat Eyed Boy is free-wheeling, over-the-top and inventive, if considerably less gripping than Classroom -- primarily because we never truly worry about the safety of our title lead as we do the plucky protagonist of Uzemu's futuristic survival story. Bound and caged, for instance, the Boy digs a tunnel to freedom with his mouth, spitting out dirt as he goes. "Only I could pull this off," he tells the reader. "I'm different from your average human."

Now that's an understatement.


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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