The Snake Women of Kazuo Umezu

That darkness is a part of me. Living in a world without streetlights allows you to understand the true meaning of utter darkness. White indicates a lack of matter, while black shows an abundance. It makes you think that something is lurking just beyond, hidden in the blackness. We all know that there aren’t any monsters or snake women lurking in the shadows. But the darkness creates the possibility that they might be! ~ Kazuo Umezu

There are snake women all over the world. There are snake women who are queens beneath the sea. And there are snake women who dance in the Himalayas and dance battle evil gentlemen. There are ancient snake ladies who are very beautiful and looking for love with human scholars. There are snake women who oppose evil landlords. And there are snake women with snakes for hair who fall in love with human beings. And snake women with snakes for hair who are cursed to turn human beings to stone. There are snake women sacrificing men to their snake god while other snake women hunt down GI’s who have desecrated a ritual. And then there are snake ladies who live in the mountains and want to gaslight a young girl.

I recently watched Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968), an engaging film about a girl who thought she was orphaned and discovers her biological family is alive and wants her to come live with them. She also discovers that her new sister is probably a snake girl, and a malicious one at that. This is an unusual story because I didn’t sympathize with the snake. In fact, I liked the protagonist’s moxie. After watching Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch and researching it a bit, I discovered it was adapted from Kazuo Umezu’s “Snake Woman/ Hebi Onna” series of stories. When I found out these snake lady stories had been published in English by IDW Publishing as Reptilia in 2007, I knew I needed to read them. So this month, I’m going to talk about Reptilia and then next month, prepare yourselves for the film adaptation slithering onto your screens.

Born in 1936, Kazuo Umezu, aka, Kazz, aka, Umezz, is a character and a foundational figure in both manga and horror. He’s featured in a documentary and his manga My Name Is Shingo has been made into a musical. His work in horror paved the way for Junjo Ito’s Tomie and Uzumaki. He first discovered manga in the rental libraries of the post-World War II era. And like many mangaka, Osamu Tezuka was a revelation for him. He says in his five-part 2009 interview with Tokyo Scum Brigade. (PS, read the whole thing).

Tezuka’s creativity set him apart from the pack. He introduced elements that were largely foreign to manga at the time, such as robots and rocket ships. Children ate it up. He inspired a generation to become manga artists, myself included. If your drawings didn’t look like his, companies wouldn’t pick up your work. So at first I drew characters Tezuka-style, cartoony with circular faces. Once I got popular I was able to do my own thing.

Umezu found his thing with gekiga* horror stories in the 1960s.

When I decided to become a professional manga artist, I focused on horror because there wasn’t any out there. Armed with a framework, the next step was fleshing it out. What is horror, anyway? I didn’t know the answer myself, so I stuck to what I knew personally found to be the most horrifying—the creepy folklore my father tormented me with!

His 11 volume series The Drifting Classroom, written in the early 1970s about an elementary school that slips through time, remains popular and is available in English from both Viz And Comixology. As is Umezu’s Cat-Eyed Boy, about a boy caught between the worlds of monsters and humans. But in the mid-1960s, Umezu’s publisher didn’t want to do long form horror, and so we have the first two snake girl short stories published in 1965.

IDW’s presentation of Umezu’s snake woman stories is pretty straightforward. The collection has a new evocative title and a cover by IDW stalwart and Zombies vs Robots super-artist, Ashley Wood, but otherwise editor Justin Eisinger is letting Umezu’s stories do the talking. Reptilia contains: “Scared of Mama” / Mama ga Kowai” (1965); “The Spotted Girl” / “Madara no Shōjo” (1968); and “Reptilia” / “Hebi Shōjo” (1965). The stories are connected. “The Spotted Girl” is a sequel to “Scared of Mama” and “Reptilia” is a prequel to both. And there are elements that all share, beyond a girl tormented by a malicious snake lady. They take great pleasure not only in frightening their victims, but in tormenting them psychologically. The snakes are associated with storms. They are partial to frogs. And there is often the image of a single eye peering into an intimate space through a dark window or knothole.

Right to left. The snake woman of East Sogo Hospital wants a frog.

“Scared of Mama” opens at the East Sogo Hospital as a girl named Yumiko visits her mother. Yumiko’s mother tells her the patients have been gossiping about a woman locked in another ward, a woman who might be a snake. Curious, Yumiko investigates. Sure enough, she finds a woman locked in a room. The woman demands a picture of a frog. She says that the doctor “remembers, so he won’t even show me a picture” (15). Yumiko gives the woman a picture torn from her biology textbook. The woman is fixated by the image and her intensity frightens Yumiko, who flees. The women’s intensity transforms into a snake monster and escapes. Searching for frogs to eat, she slithers into Yumiko’s mother’s room and notes how much alike they look.

When Yumiko returns the next day, her mother has amnesia and her visible eye looks strange. The doctor tells Yumiko that her mother fell, but she should recover her memory at home. Yumiko grows more and more frightened of her mother. And her mother grows more and more vicious towards Yumiko. She even mentions how soft Yumiko’s hand is, how delicious it must be.

The snake woman’s transformation, her fixation on frogs and eating Yumiko is horrifying. But the gaslighting of Yumiko might be almost as horrifying. People don’t listen when Yumiko says that this woman is not her mother and, worse, that she is a snake.

Transformation from girl to snake monster.

“The Spotted Girl” opens again at East Sogo Hospital during a stormy night in the aftermath of “Scared of Mama.” Nurses express their disgust over the snake lady, locked in her room once again. Yumiko goes to stay with her aunt and cousins in Midoro village. But the snake lady escapes the hospital and works hard to ruin the poor girl’s life again. A local priestess has warned the townsfolk a snake is coming, and they suspect Yumiko is that very snake. Her aunt and uncle want to send her back to Tokyo, but it’s too late. And it’s way too late after Yumiko and her cousin Kyoko wander into an abandoned house, locally known as “the snake house.” The snake woman is in residence and the house is filled with spotted vipers. The girls are attacked by the snake woman, who is bitten by a viper, and the girls escape. Unfortunately, Kyoko is bitten by one of the vipers. (This is where proper signage comes in, but then again the snake lady is just the kind of person who’d take the sign down). The local doctor saves Kyoko’s life with a blood serum and the townspeople burn down the snake house. But Kyoko seems different. Her teeth seem sharper. She’s crueler. She’s transfixed by a frog. There’s something different about her expression, though it’s not as extreme as the transformations of the original snake lady. And Kyoko’s sister, Kanna, fears her and has nightmares about snakes. Until one morning, Mariko has a bandage on her neck and she’s not afraid of Kyoko at all anymore. In fact, Mariko becomes scary herself. And then a typhoon delays Yumiko’s departure and Kyoko’s family all have marks on their necks. Of the three stories, the presentation of snake monsters is most vampiric in “The Spotted Girl.”

Frogs are so good, you don’t even know.

The final story, “Reptilia” reveals the snake woman’s curse began in August, 1907, when Rihei Nakamura went hunting for pheasants in Shinobazu Swamp despite the warnings of an old man about a snake monster in the swamp. Rihei is a hothead of the Meiji Era and goes hunting anyway. He’s attacked and shoots snake monster of Shinobazu Swamp in the eye. (The snake monster killed Rihei’s dog, dammit). Rihei returns home terrified and feverish. “Eventually, slithering along the ground like a snake… Rihei died. They say when he died, his face had changed beyond recognition” (186; ellipsis in the original).

The snake monster wants revenge and she sees her chance in Rihei’s granddaughter, Yoko, best friend of our protagonist, Satsuki. The very night Satsuki and her sister hear this story for the first time, Satsuki sees a single eye staring in the window. Her grandmother sees nothing, but notes it has begun snowing. Then a woman in an eyepatch knocks at their door, telling them that she’s freezing. She tries to be casual as she asks where the Nakamura house is. When she leaves, Satsuki and Kanna follow. They hear screams in the Nakamura house, but don’t see the snake kill Yoko’s aunt, though we do. And they don’t see that the woman who offers to adopt newly orphaned Yoko is the same woman they saw slip into Yoko’s house the night her aunt was killed. A servant warns Yoko never to mention snakes to her new mother because she is “cursed by snakes.” Yoko also throws away a charm filled with tobacco leaves to protect her from snakes, because of its terrible effect on her mother and the servants. Yoko’s new mother tells Yoko about how she had a daughter named Yoko who looked exactly like Yoko, but that other Yoko died of a terrible illness. And she tells Yoko to stay away from the storage shed where her own mother sleeps. Yoko is troubled, but has nowhere to go.

Yoko has a bad first night in her new home.

Unlike the snake woman at East Sogo Hospital, the woman is not transformed by thoughts of frogs. In fact, she seems largely unconcerned with frogs. And she is much less vampiric than Kyoko. Instead, her transformation takes her at sunset. During the day she’s loving and kind. At night, she becomes a snake and wants to avenge herself turning Yoko into a snake, and then blinding her in one eye.

Great sense of motion and speed as the snake woman pursues Satsuki.

And her transformation is not through her bite, but by feeding children her scales, whether in water or in school lunches. Satsuki sees what happens to Yoko and Satsuki pursues, in an amazing series of panels by Umezu. He captures the snake woman’s motion beautifully. Failing to catch Satsuki, the snake monster sends Yoko to transform her friend by putting snake scales in her lunch for school. Satsuki almost succumbs but is rescued by her father, and, strangely enough, by Yoko, who attacks her mother. A heavy rain washes the snakes away, but Satsuki hopes Yoko survives. And perhaps she does, since we end “Reptilia” in East Sogo Hospital, in a barred room containing a woman who believes she is a snake, and suffers from a “paranormal illness,” which makes her body transform because of her belief.

East Sogo Hospital

The stories in Reptilia were written for children, though I don’t think IDW’s current design is directed towards children. Umezu’s snake women stories are a reminder that young adult fiction can be more daring than movies for young adults and children usually are in English. And both Reptilia and Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch are daring and often emotionally intense. Umezu’s art has a fine balance between the realistically detailed and the cleanly formalized that makes the expressions of his characters, even when they are apparently blank and in some kind of thrall, evocative. And again, he conveys so well the snake woman’s urgency, speed and threat when she pursues her prey.

As in so much Japanese horror, the horror is not deserved. It’s not an outgrowth of a European morality play tradition where someone does something wrong and is punished. (And so if you do all the right things you never have to worry about Pinhead, slashers or Hannibal killing you). Instead, it’s almost always an unfortunate convergence. You get someone or something’s attention. Yumiko, Kyoko and Satsuki are targeted because they cross the snake woman’s path, not for any mistake they make or sin they commit. Only Yoko has an unfortunate familial connection. Rihei should’ve listened to that old man about staying out of the swamp. But if it weren’t him, it would’ve been someone else.

*gekiga–“Dramatic pictures.” The [Gekiga] Workshop’s influence was so pervasive that gekiga’s almost invisible now. Gekiga artists created a cinematic, multipanel style. They invented speedlines and sound characters. They used silence. But their influence was also so pervasive that parents groups worried about gekiga‘s effect on children,” from “Portrait of the Artist (With the Sound of Cicadas).”

~~~

Carol Borden doesn’t want to eat frogs. She just likes looking at pictures of them, okay?

 

This essay was originally published by The Cultural Gutter.

 

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