Within the list of legendary and beyond influential manga artists, Kazuo Umezu ranks in the Renaissance man section. His catalogue of work ranges through countless genres, each piece with its unique stamp firmly affixed. Among a huge list of classic titles, the Orochi Blood, (the eighth and final volume of the series, and the only one to see English translation), stays true to the overwhelming impact Umezu has had on horror comics. But to immediately ascribe “horror” to Orochi Blood would be a hasty judgement, since many of the tropes and themes common to horror stories are absent. Likewise calling it “suspense” also proves difficult for a similar lack of generic constants. Yet Umezu manages to tell the story of Lisa and Kazusa, the ill-fated Monzen sisters, and make it so effortlessly suspense horror, while not really telling a suspense horror story.
Umezu’s nuanced approach to telling an undeniably horrific tale rests in his ability to construct, maintain, and manipulate tension. Typically in a story we’ll experience waves of dramatic tension and rest, peaks and valleys designed to brace us for further, more intense, episodes. Umezu utterly abandons this model in favor of one with absolutely no valleys or means of escape. We are placed on an unrelenting climb through the trials of the Monzen sisters, only to be released for relief a mere two pages before the end.
This inescapable tension is compounded by how the Monzen sisters’ story evolves. Aside from the mysterious Orochi, no unnatural, or even supernatural element is ever added to the story. Both Lisa and Kazusa live “normal” lives, and never encounter any sort of monster or ghost. All of the horror and suspense is derived from an exploration of human nature, a kind of Hitchcockian venture into the terrors of the human soul. And to make matters even more difficult, all of this is achieved with an extremely minimal amount of violence, blood, or gore.
Everything that makes us shiver, that makes us feel uneasy, occurs through an internal process. Of course Umezu grants us key moments of horrific terror, but he does so sparingly, leaving the rest of the process up to the reader. There are only a handful of moments we are allowed to openly recognize and admit generic constants, forcing the rest of the story’s terrors to be unwrapped on an individual basis. There are some unquestionably terrible things that happen throughout the story, but much like the unseen woes of Lisa’s upbringing, the terror remains hidden in a world of composition. Everything we bear witness to slowly creeps into our mind until it’s too late to anticipate what we are about to experience.
How Umezu accomplishes this balance of horror and un-horror is incredible. Page design and layout are constantly manipulated past conventional usages. The story begins with a constant stream of huge, flowing panels, each one either full of life and detail, or constrained by framing and darkness. These pages allow us to appreciate the affluence of the Monzen family, while simultaneously planting the notion of despair in the back of our minds. Light and dark are balanced so masterfully that the horror begins before the horror really begins.
Lisa is introduced, and we are provided a small bit of insight into her childhood reminiscence. We’re told of happy memories of time Lisa spent with her older sister Kazusa, how she was treated kindly, and how much fun the two had. Suddenly, we are presented a page of Lisa being given a replacement cake for one she dropped, insidiously shrouded in darkness. At this precise moment the notion of horror has been implanted in our minds, even if only subconsciously. This single page creates an inescapable juxtaposition between innocence and corruption that will continue to grow throughout the rest of the book. And just before the page is turned, the words “I loved my sister,” create an eerily sympathetic resonance that sounds more like the justification of a crime than a statement of affection.
And then, without warning, Umezu shifts the panel pacing to a much busier, more cluttered format, and the story becomes a series of panel walls. Generally the pace of a page with heavy panel usage is meant to slow down the pace to allow the story a moment to tell a carefully sequenced moment in time. Although Umezu employs the heavy panel usage to this extent, he concurrently uses a cluttered layout as a way to amplify the level of suffering both we and Lisa experience. The flow of time is indeed slowed down on these pages, (although between some of these pages years pass by), but the use of heavy paneling isn’t exactly utilized to those ends. Where before we were allowed to quickly take in whatever horrific scenes were dished out, here we are forced to endure it lash by lash. Even if no physical violence occurs on the page, we are forced to experience the torment slowly, as if it were being savored like a fine wine.
In reality, Lisa is the one literally experiencing the horror, but we very quickly become figuratively culpable, as if we were being guilted for witnessing unchecked cruelty, and doing nothing to stop it. Of course the reader is only ever a witness of the story, but this amplification of Lisa’s suffering forces an unusual level of guilt onto the shoulders of the reader. The suffering is so blatant, so frequent, Umezu makes it difficult to not want to provide some form of aid to the characters. Thus the trap is set: we are only able to read Lisa’s plight, never to intercede.
Between the variable page layouts tension is controlled expertly to never give us a moment of reprieve. Either we are pulled into the dramatic detail of huge panels, or thrust into the chaotic and stagnated flow of panel heavy pages. Combined these two formats unleash a force of horror and despair that could contend with the masters of the genre. By the end Umezu drives us to a peak of tension unthinkable by standard storytelling methods, and with a smile pushes us off the edge. And if the fall doesn’t deliver the fatal blow, a heart attack before the push will.
It’s easy to see why Kazuo Umezu is such a treasure to comics. His storytelling methods are absolutely insane, laughing contemptuously at how a conventional horror story is told. Where Orochi Blood is lacking in violence and gore it over compensates with intense tension and drama. Horror stories like this are far and few in between, and it’s always a refreshing reminder to know you can be terrified without shock value or monsters.
Orochi Blood is (affordably) available for mature readers by Viz from used book sellers.