This is an old, old horror manga from the middle of the sixties, and it deals with subjects that are older still: ancient myths and legends that reach with scaly hands into the modern day. In this case, an evil snake spirit that possesses women and turns them into regressive half human/half reptile monsters.
There are three interlinked stories in this book, with the final “Reptilia” being clearly the centerpiece…such as it is. I’ll just come right out and say that Kazuo Umezu has made better things than this. This is his “Carrie.” Satisfying, but his creative ideas impose themselves upon a somewhat limited skillset.
The main thing that jumps out at me about Reptilia is that he didn’t think to include any character design. As far as I can tell, Reptilia has three characters, a generic young girl, a generic adult woman, and a generic old lady. This is highlighted during an early scene when two characters are walking side by side…and they look exactly the same except one of them has a different hairstyle. Otherwise they look identical. This problem keeps threatening to derail the story, as awful, shocking things happen to…uh, samey-looking girl 1, I guess. Or maybe it’s samey-looking girl 2..
Kazuo’s distinctive art style is featured here in embryonic form. He’s always had a gift for articulating motion and making the pages seem to move (I love the parts that involve the snake women climbing to high places), but there’s little humanity in the staccato explosions of ink of “Reptilia.” The best bits of art, again, are the snake women, who look absolutely repulsive. Whenever he draws a “normal” person it’s always in that Tezuka inspired 60s style, where everyone looks like Astro Boy. Another thing that annoys me is how he keeps drawing characters with cartoonish hyper-exaggerated reflections in their eyes. It makes no sense in a horror manga.
Yet as Kazuo’s story pulls you along like a tractor-beam, the manga’s problems do seem to become smaller. The plot is simple enough for children to follow but packs a surprising amount of depth and intrigue. The final section is intense, pulverising, and breathless, and with a final few pages that remind us that sometimes “the end” is another way of saying “the beginning.”
But there’s one sequence that really struck me as inspired, and that’s the opening scene. A girl is visiting her mother in hospital. She encounters a woman who has been locked behind bars. She seems lucid and sane…until she asks the girl for a frog. The girl does not have a frog. However, she does have a schoolbook with a picture of the frog. The strange woman rips the picture out of the book and stuffs it into her mouth. This scene is bizarre and horrible. After reading it, you can see Kazuo Umezu’s gifts, plain as day, despite Reptilia’s antiquity.