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DVD Review: Kazuo Umezz’s Horror Theater (2005)

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Volume 1 of this DVD release contains the stories “House of Bugs” (Mushitachi no Ie) and “Diet” (Zesshoku). They're part of a Japanese TV series (Kazuo Umezu Kyofu Gekijo) that celebrates 50 years of horror stories from artist/writer Kazuo Umezu (who also uses the nick-names Kazz and Umezz). 

Umezu's first horror manga was published in 1955 and he continues to be an influence on modern horror writers and filmmakers. Besides his vampire manga series Orochi, he's written fantasy series like Drifting Classroom and creepy dramas like Long Love Letter that have also been filmed in Japan.

I’ll just mention here that despite the similar titles, these DVDs are not to be confused with the J-Horror Theater series of films (released as Infection, Premonition, and Reincarnation, with a fourth on the way).

I was lured into the series by the catchy theme tune (sung by Rurutia). Amontage of images of Kazuo Umezu himself are superimposed over some of his grisly illustrations.

Having watched volume 1, the images and atmosphere are still sinking in. They weren’t as graphic as I was expecting. This isn’t schlock horror; it’s more psychological horror that sometimes lapses into the extreme.

Also, like most Japanese drama, these are made on video -– a very unusual medium for Western horror fans to get into. The ‘TV look’ combined with the exceedingly slow pace could easily disappoint. The horror elements are quite sleight, though the atmosphere is promisingly grim.

There are some heavyweight names onboard for the first story, “House of Bugs,” headed by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who brought us the eerie Pulse (1998). His latest film, Loft, is almost upon us. Kurosawa has cast regular collaborator Hidetoshi Nishijima (from Loft and Casshern) in the lead as Renji, and the beautiful Tamaki Ogawa as Ruiko (who dazzled me as the daughter in Samurai Fiction SF, Episode 1).

Plotwise, a young husband appears to be cheating on his wife. He thinks she is having an affair with her cousin. She retreats to a large upstairs room covered in cobwebs and is trying to will herself into becoming an insect, just like the character in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.”

“House of Bugs” is an impressively constructed tale, flashing forwards and backwards in time as well as dodging between different characters' viewpoints. It’s beautifully acted and slowly builds to a creepy dream-like climax.

The episode is impressive in many ways and works on several levels, as it was intended. The brief CG special effects aren’t totally photo-realistic, but they certainly work well for the piece.

The second tale, “Diet,” is less successful because it’s a much simpler story, perhaps too lightweight to carry a whole episode. But at least it takes us to a poorly explored area of horror (or even drama) – appetite and body weight.

Dramatically, it makes an impression. Tomoko is a schoolgirl who blames her lack of luck in love on her weight. She has a distorted view of herself when looking in the mirror and keeps misreading the bathroom scales. Tomoko’s mother keeps on feeding her up, while her best friend starts homing in on the boy who dumped her.

This was an unusual drama, but once the stage had been set, it didn’t seem to develop enough. It certainly didn’t lead me to understand the horrifying climax. That seemed to come out of nowhere. Perhaps if I watch it again…

The DVD is presented in anamorphic widescreen with good English subtitles. The extras are plentiful enough – behind-the-scenes footage from both stories – starting with the producers getting their ritual blessing from a Shinto priest (this happens on most Japanese productions, to ensure success).

We also see a sprightly Kazuo Umezu turning up on set to the delight of the young actors who all seem to be fans. Besides shooting on location, we also see some of the special effects work.

Also included are trailers for all six stories. It looks like the horror-heavy episodes are still to come, particularly one that looks like a Santa Claus slasher episode! There’s also a brief word from Umezu about the themes of the first two stories.

This Horror Theater series is brimming with potential, so I’ll stick with it and look forward to the rest, but I won’t recommend this DVD title as being particularly horrific.

From the two remaining DVDs I’ll be expecting more manic stories and more graphic horror to be able to capture the distressed emotional tones of Umezu’s original manga characters.

Lastly, if I was Tamaki Ogawa, I'd be horrified by the photo on the DVD cover. It doesn't look like her at all. 

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