“The cat-eyed boy”. Forty years later, the idea resonates with all the retro charm of the most outrageous inventions of the wildy imaginative sixties. And indeed, the (superb) covers of those two volumes wouldn’t seem out of place among movie posters of the time.
Having established his solid reputation as “master of horror” in the girls magazine Shoujo Friend, Umezu Kazuo delivers here his first long story to be published in a boys-targeted magazine. This adventure, though, will not be without drama, as the title will go through three distinct eras : after a quick debut in December 1967 in the monthly Shounen Gahou, the series will then transfer to the pages of the weekly Shounen King, where it will stay from May 1968 to March 1969 ; finally, after seven long years (of reflexion ?), a new version will come to life in 1976 in the pages of Shounen Sunday for only four apparitions.
If I devote some time to this introduction — this “archeology” of Neko-me Kozou, it is because it impacts strongly the narrative, which presents three rhythms, three atmospheres — nearly three characters — for each support.
If the first incarnation of the character follows the recurring themes of Umezu Kazuo’s work (in particular the figure of the metamorphosis, physical as much as psychological), the second and longest era opens on a beginning that definitely recalls Mizuki Shigeru — a full reset of the story, as we get to witness the birth of the famous boy, in the middle of a marvelous gathering of youkai ready to celebrate this exceptional event.
But while this first story in this re-creation turns out being rather efficient, what follows is far less convincing and more than often gives the impression of dragging storylines. The blame is likely on the publication format, as we go from fifty-page long installments in the monthly to twenty-so-page servings in the weekly — a rhythm that visibly does not suit Umezu, more used to having more time and pages for setting up his atmospheres and stories. The consequence of those shorter chapters casting away slow-progressing and suffocating narratives, is the fact that horror here turns out to be more outrageous, more immediate too, resorting to an escalation that quickly shows its limits.
Let’s mention also the importance of the main character, which turns out in this central part to be a quick-witted and sharp-tongued edokko — but also cold and detached. From his status of observer in the shadows who would grant his protection in exchange of the involuntary hospitality of his hosts, he becomes a small cynical pest, taking what he sees as granted, but also unable of surprise. Another problem is the recourse to his budding youkai powers that are never clearly defined, and end up as far too convenient deus ex machina to get him out of seemingly inextricable situations. And while Umezu’s great strength was indeed to build a diffuse anxiety and foster doubt, this second-era Neko-me Kozou delivers exactly the opposite — to wit over-simplistic resolutions and easy explanations presented matter-of-factly.
In spite of what could be seen as growing pains, Umezu still excels when it comes to representing madness, as can be seen in the story Youkain Niku-dama — the “Meat-Ball Monster” that graces the cover of the second volume.
Relying more on an atmosphere of anxiety and mystery than on over-the-top action, the four short stories (about thirty pages each) that constitute the last cycle explore territories that are resolutely darker and more adult. The Neko-me Kozou returns to a less central role, displays more compassion, and we leave aside youkai stories to focus more on human drama. More subtle and nuanced, this last part only suffers from the coloring of the time, which see the art drawn in a indistinct bloody mass — the consequence of a sometimes badly executed bichromy.
Yet, this conclusion only emphasizes the unanswered promises of a narration in the making, which is only partly counterbalanced by the retro and kitch appeal of the time. Following this experience, Umezu Kazuo will then embark on a long year of regular publication of one of his key series, Orochi, where he will introduce some of the elements already present in Neko-me Kozou — from the wandering hero to the fantastic emerging in the most mundane, family lives — furthering this impression of the work of an artist-in-training.
- This reprint by Shougakkan is to be saluted, keeping to the high standards of the “Umezz Perfection” collection — two large books, the use of three different papers for each era of the title, with cardboard separators bearing full-color illustrations.
- Youkai Mizu maneki, with the English subtitle : The Tsunami Summoners.
- Especially when it happens within the family circle, and in particular in the parent-child relationship, another recurring theme of the author.
- In Shoukan Shounen Sunday, from June 1969 to September 1970.