115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Beautiful Eyes, Ugly Eyes: Close-Up Panels in Horror Manga

Jon Holt, Portland State University

Umezu Kazuo created horror comics for young audiences, drawing monster stories that opened readers’ eyes to the ugliness of contemporary Japan. Through child characters, Umezu ridiculed the hypocrisy of this emerging economic giant.  I explore Umezu’s fetishistic reliance on eye close-ups to understand how his children’s manga critiqued social norms.

Proposal: 

Umezu Kazuo (1936- ) is undisputedly the father of horror comics (horaa manga) in Japan.  His reputation solidly rests on works like Orochi, Drifting Classroom, and Cat-Eyed Boy.  Umezu’s style is often riddled with gags and without a doubt he wrote for a young audience, but his legions of fans both in Japan and in the world attest to his skills as a mature sequential artist on par with Mizuki Shigeru, Tezuka Osamu, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Whereas his contemporary Mizuki was more focused on the childlike wonder and modern discovery of traditional yōkai (monsters) in his manga (Kitarō, Kappa no Sanpei, and Nonnonba), Umezu draws monster stories that absolutely horrify his audience, opening their eyes more to the ugliness of contemporary Japanese society than to monsters and spirits that shape our world.  In Umezu, human beings are truly ugly and to be feared.  This paper explores Umezu’s fetishistic reliance on close-ups on the eyes of his child characters to understand how the artist develops children’s manga into sophisticated graphic narratives, which shockingly critique adult social norms.  Umezu’s fetishistic eyes embody the point of view of children or the disempowered; they see the contradictions, hypocrisy, and ugliness of Japan as it emerged as an economic power in the 1960s.  Taking a cue from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, I analyze the way in which Umezu skillfully uses aspect-to-aspect panel transitions to create wordless, ambiguous scenes that the reader must imaginatively interpret and consider deeply.  Like his American contemporary, Steve Ditko (Amazing Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Mr. A), who also focalized his contempt for a morally flabby society through his close-up panels on eyes, Umezu does what few comic-book artists do these days:  he consistently relies on gestures, more than words, to reveal the emotions and psychological insights of his characters.  Umezu’s use of eye close-ups can be characterized as fetishistic, and thus, through an examination of his shocked and shocking eyes, we can understand how this trope represents a larger theme in his art––an art of cruel visuality.  What does it mean in Japanese manga when the eyes of these big-eyed boy or girl characters become even larger with close-up panels?  Why do such eye-centric artists tend to depict and criticize society’s evils and ugly secrets? Umezu’s Cat-Eyed Boy provides an opportunity to consider these questions, understand the role of the face in 1960s manga art, and to appreciate the artistic skill of Umezu, the father of Japanese horror comics.