Friday, December 11, 2009

Kazuo Umezu VS TSB (Part 3)

(The following is the third of a five-part interview with living legend of manga, Kazuo Umezu, whose works released in English include Cat Eyed Boy and the award winning Drifting Classroom. Our event coverage on Same Hat! caught the attention of his official homepage's staff, who then contacted us directly about helping to produce information about the author for the benefit of his English speaking audience. At the end of November, we were invited to the infamous Makoto-Chan House, his recently-completed home and physical embodiment of his vast works, for a face-to-face talk with Umezologist Demerin Kaneko and the man behind five decades of mayhem.)

Part 3: Legacy of Brutality

Tokyo Scum Brigade (T): Your stories are infamous for their violent imagery.

Kazuo Umezu (K): Fear is created when certain conditions are met. One of these is physical appearances. The more bizarre and ugly the imagery, the greater the fear. It's simple to make a picture scary, but to make an action scary is a different matter. That's where brutality comes in.

When I did Cat Face (Nekomen) in 1963 I made the deliberate choice to push my boundaries. I’ve never looked back!

T: How was this received by the general public?

K: Oh you know, I’d get postcards from parents protesting that, “You can’t show this type of brutality to children!”

I remember there was an old woman who worked at a Kashihon shop. Every time I visited she would lecture me, “I would never ever ever let children read this filth!” Then three years later, the horror boom hits and shops like hers are flooded with children looking for my manga. Store owners needed to get with the times! (Laughs.)

I was protested but never boycotted. I considered such criticism to be a form of praise.

T: It shows that your work had an impact.

K: Of course I held back in some areas. For example, in The Gill Man (Hangyo-Jin), there’s a part where a character has their mouth slit open with a knife. The editor told me to make the wound smaller, but that would have killed the scene! So I scaled back the gore but used perspective tricks to make the wound look huge.

Serials were more flexible. If they made me take something out, I could put it back in when the graphic novel release. Like in I’m Scared of Mommy (Mama ga Kowai), they asked me to white out some of the scale’s on the mother’s back as she transforms into a snake, making it an easy fix later.

The heroine of Abrosia (Zesshoku) goes on an extreme diet with stomach-turning results.
T: Your stellar track record let you get away with more than other artists.

K: These scenes play an important part of the story. They need to be there to tie the package together. I don’t do gore for the sake of gore. If I ever lost sight of that, I’d take my lumps and be thankful for the criticism.

T: I can't imagine getting your rawest works past American censors.

K: I believe that America views manga as something that parents monitor and purchase for their children. Here in Japan, all children read manga, and continue to as they become adults. This blurs the line between titles for children and titles for adults.

I learned many things from Tezuka as a child, but this was the most important: He didn't pull any punches for children or dumb down his works. He dealt with complicated themes and let the readers work it out on their own. This always impressed me. Even after I moved away from the Tezuka drawing style, his uncompromising attitude stuck with me.

T: Which is more important to protect: The work or the children?

K: The earth is filled with children, and not every one of them will read the work. But the work is unique. If you don’t seize that moment to say what you need to say, be it brutal or filthy or what have you, the work suffers for it.

You only get one chance to do it right. If a child is upset by a work, they grow up, they get over it. But the compromised work will stay imperfect forever, never reclaiming what was taken from it.
As a child, I liked stories with a grown-up taste. An author must do everything in their power to make the texture of their work palpable. When the time comes for the work to be judged, the scales won't be weighed by its audience, but by how it lived up to its potential.

Demerin: Kids can tell if they’re being pandered to. Even more so if the author tries to conceal the fact.

T: In 1950’s America, works similar to yours suffered backlash from parents and politicians alike.

K: I’m no authority on the subject, but I think that’s partially because those comics made themselves an easy target. You can’t be all gore, all the time. If you don’t balance the publication out with other genres it makes the content look more graphic than it actually is.

This problem isn’t unique to America. Old Japanese folk stories and fairy tales could be unflinchingly brutal. They come from a time when tragedy and carnage was an everyday part of life. Now we have people calling to water them down, which essentially whitewashes history. It’s insulting to the memory of those who suffered to bring us these stories.

If you’re going to be a critic, you need to step up the plate with a valid alternative. Otherwise, you’re all talk and no talent.

T: Anything goes, so long as it contributes to the story.

K: A creator needs to ask themselves if a certain element is necessary to tell their story. Like nudity in films, the director will insist that it’s necessary for the plot, though I get the feeling that this is not always the case. (Laughs.)

Otherwise, you’re only drawing what you want to draw, not what you need to draw. I've always made it a point to keep my narratives tight.

An entire elementary school is brutalized in The Drifting Classroom.
T: The Drifting Classroom was originally printed in a magazine aimed at elementary students, but in America it has an “explicit content” sticker on the cover. How do you feel about that?

K: I think that’s fine. Readers will just have to discover it when they’re older. However, it’s unfortunate that they lose that chance to sympathize with characters of the same age. Reading it as an adult, you have a disconnected view of the characters elementary students and can’t get the same visceral thrill.

T: Which of your works do you recommend for people like us in our 20’s?

K: The Drifting Classroom! I consider it my finest work. The message is clear and the drama is top-notch. Go and reconnect with your inner child!

As the title suggest, The Drifting Classroom is just that—a place to study. The children apply math, music, P.E., science, and politics outside the confines of school as they experience a new, harsh reality.

Demerin: It’s only a matter of time before The Drifting Classroom becomes part of the national curriculum.

Part 4


  1. Man, this is a totally fascinating series. I can't wait for the rest, killer job with this.

  2. @Joseph Luster: I'm glad that you are liking it. We'll do our best to finish 4 and 5 as soon as possible!

    When can I expect a Drifting Classroom music video?

  3. Congrats on the the great, so far, interview.

  4. The Drifting Classroom taught me how precious everything I took for granted was (family, friends, being able to lead a healthy, safe life), so I totally think it should be on school textbooks too. In that sense, I want to call Kazz "Umezu-sensei," not meaning master of comics but my teacher of life.