Dir. Naoko Omi
There's a surprising lack of horror anime in existence. Even in the golden era of straight-to-video anime in the eighties and nineties, where in most cases it was of higher production quality than TV series and could get away with more adult content, there was a rare amount of them only. Now, with these straight-to-video works, OVAs, sorely missed and needed to be brought back, there's a gap left what can be released. Films are rarely made already, let alone horror ones. TV series have restrictions in content, and even those which have shocked Western viewers like Elfen Lied (2004) were probably censored on broadcast or showed past midnight. Only hentai could get away with more horror related content; its already porn, so aside from certain Japanese laws, you could probably get away with more. Manga is usually where horror thrives, slowly being dripped into the West in bookstores. As for those rare horror anime that do exist, The Curse of Kazuo Umezu is a truly rare one, which I only discovered the existence of within a few weeks. It's not even included in the version I've read of The Anime Encyclopedia by Helen McCarthy and Jonathan Clements, which catalogues every anime ever made from 1917 including all the hentai tapes. Its existence, once released on video in its home country in 1990, meeting it myself in a VHS rip probably taken from a Japanese VHS a Western otaku has acquired and made available, shows how deep the well anime is outside from what its usually labelled as.
Kazuo Umezu is a well regarded horror manga author. He's apparently obsessed with red and white stripes, which would make passing a barber's shop and a candy cane stand bliss for him, and I confess to having yet to read his work, as most or nearly all of his work is not available in the West at all. This anime consists of two stories over forty five minutes. The first, a schoolgirl suspects that the new transfer student is a female vampire, but thanks to videotape the truth is more horrifying. The second is of a group of schoolgirls going into a haunted house to their peril. The most distinct aspect of the anime, bookended by a mysterious thin narrator/crypt keeper who entices us with morality tales, is the visual look of the anime. Clearly there was an attempt to replicate the style of Umezu's manga, black lines heavily used and very grotesque imagery. It shows in the female characters, if just their eye lashes and eyes, who dominate the entire anime. I cannot help but think of Western influences such as gothic art to maybe even dolls with the look of the anime, more so when showing moments of terror for the characters through excessive use of said black lines. It looks good in terms of design, and the format allows for more nastier material. The first story brings in a freakish level of body horror that the cutesy break between two stories cannot make into a complete joke - think of very, very big teeth. The second story, lots of raspberry jam smeared everywhere.
In terms of quality in other areas, it's not a great work if I'm completely honest. It's grown on me, but this must be stated. The visual look is distinct, but the actual animation is rudimentary. The obsession with moments where the characters freeze in terror do go on a bit, and the stories are very predictable. In terms of entertainment value, it's about the presentation of what's on screen, not originality, that will be whether you like this anime or not. Interestingly, the stories do occupy themselves with the ideas of seeing something only to live to regret it, curiosity killing the cat literally. The first centres around how a video camera can reveal the truth, pre-empting the obsession with technology's tangibility in Japanese horror, only for it to reveal too much. The second, cut into by the narrator, becomes purposely abstract, reality cut to pieces by going to the wrong place. It even gets a bit dreamlike and also reflective of itself, the main two characters watching horror movies, including one called the Curse of Kazuo Umezu, before they end up investigating the haunted house.
It's a completely minor work. The technical and plotting failings do undermine it. But it's still fascinating, immensely fascinating. Beginners to anime shouldn't view this first - this is for those looking for the deepest, obscurest cuts of anime or horror, forgotten in history and made unique for this and its appearance. Done in the era of hand drawn animation, it still has a textual quality, despite rudimentary animation, that stands out far more than the plastic sheen of post-2000s work made on computers. Almost carnivalesque in its horror - the subversion of body parts and the body, obsessions with toys - it's encouraging to investigate the author's original work, and despite the failings of it, it has stayed on my mind since seeing it. The rarity of horror anime helps it, but it's a strange beast by itself, its forty five minutes memorable. A layer of eeriness trickles throughout it, emphasised by the likelihood the version I saw was an original Japanese videotape release from 1990, having survived to reappear in some form for someone from a different country, me, to find. Myths, legends, eroticism, body horror, historical and cultural information, even Western and Eastern pop culture seeps throughout a great deal of anime and its animation plates alongside the genres within it. They feel far more rooted in deeper and more interesting influences than a lot of Western animation, where even a minor work like The Curse of Kazuo Umezu has something incredibly distinct despite its predictabilities. And since horror anime is rare, its great to see one that brings something interesting with it instead of fail miserably.