This is an old horror manga from the middle of the sixties, and it deals with subjects that are older still: Japanese yokai legends from the Middle Ages. In this case, an evil snake spirit that possesses women and turns them into regressive half human/half reptile monsters. Umezu’s conceit seems based on Nure-onna, a snake-bodied woman. There are three interlinked stories in this book, with the final “Reptilia” clearly being the centerpiece.
Umezu has made better things than this. This is his “Carrie.”, an early work expressed with a limited skillset.
The main thing that stands out is that he doesn’t do 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’re drawn exactly the same except for their hair. 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 like 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 repulsive. Whenever he draws a “normal” person it’s always in that Tezuka inspired 60s style, which is too cute to evoke much feeling. Another thing that annoys me is how he keeps drawing characters with cartoonish exaggerated reflections in their eyes. This is a 60s light manga touch that makes no sense in a horror context.
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 fair amount of depth and intrigue. The final section is pulverisingly intense, and the final few pages that remind us that sometimes “the end” is another way of saying “the beginning.”
But if 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 shocking, and demonstrates Umezu’s gifts for doing a lot with a little (although he also often does a little with a lot).