While not entirely true, the easiest way to think of Cat-Eyed Boy is as a younger shounen version of Kazuo Umezz’s anime“>Orochi, although given that this series dates to 1967 and anime“>Orochi to 1969 that’s an imperfect comparison. (The two did overlap, however; Cat-Eyed Boy ran from 1967-1976, while anime“>Orochi‘s publication was between 1969 and 1970.) Like that character, Cat-Eyed Boy lives on the outskirts of human society, but unlike anime“>Orochi, he’s much more concerned with the affairs of monsters than men. He’s been inspired by Shigeru Mizuki‘s anime“>Kitaro (and anime“>Kitaro is name-dropped in one story), which predates him by seven years, and at times the book feels like a combination of a anime“>GeGeGe no Kitarō knockoff and a work inspired by EC’s horror comics stateside, especially when Cat-Eyed Boy addresses the reader in “The Band of One Hundred Monsters.” It works, honestly, because Umezz is so good at what he does, but it lacks the impact and bittersweetness of anime“>Orochi.
Comparisons aside, these stories largely deal with the disconnect between outer and inner beauty. Cat-Eyed Boy himself is the child of nekomata, a type of cat yokai, who was spurned by his people for looking too human – and then rejected again by humans for looking too monstrous. This has given him a clear sense of the way people are judged for their outer appearances, and with that the understanding that the worst monsters start out looking the most human. This mostly makes him an observer of societies, creeping around the outskirts of both human and supernatural lives as he tracks the day-to-day workings of both groups, never belonging to either. When push comes to shove, he sides with the more wronged party, but across the five stories contained in this omnibus hardcover, the only ones he shows true compassion for are animals, and cats (with whom he can communicate) specifically.
We don’t learn Cat-Eyed Boy’s origins until the third piece in the book, “The Tsunami Summoners,” which is a much more folkloric horror piece than the others in the volume. Up to that point, the book has more overtones of Edogawa Ranpo’s 1925 short story “The Watcher in the Attic” than Mizuki’s anime“>Kitaro, but that changes over time, and by the fifth story, “The Band of One Hundred Monsters,” arrives, the monsters are acting vicious because of how others have treated them, more firmly aligning the protagonist with his yokai roots. (The translation consistently uses “monsters” for even recognizable yokai, a choice I understand but don’t love.) Despite this, Cat-Eyed Boy is very aware of his status as an outsider in all societies, and a clear link to the works of Edogawa Ranpo (also name-dropped in the fifth story alongside Mizuki) and the way Cat-Eyed Boy slithers around on the outskirts of society. This wearing of influences on its sleeve isn’t a terrible thing, but it also makes the work feel perhaps less original than it could, although it’s hard to argue with the results.
Each of the five stories in the book is unique, linked only by the pervading theme of inner nature influencing outer appearance and Cat-Eyed Boy. “The Tsunami Summoners” is pure folk horror in the way it uses mythology to dictate its plot, while “The Immortal Man” trades in notions of how actions always have consequences. “The Ugly Demon” is the least subtle in terms of Umezz’s theme, featuring an ugly man who finds a mad doctor to transfer his brain into the body of a handsome braindead man, only to have his vicious nature turn his new body hideous, and “The One-Legged Monster of Oudai” doubles down on both of those ideas by examining the cruelty inherent in insect collecting/killing. This one is particularly interesting for the way that Umezz uses what was a very common Showa-era pastime for boys – creating specimen boards of various insects – to suggest that it’s no better than any other form of wanton cruelty. The human boy Cat-Eyed Boy is observing derives pleasure from killing the insects, and he has no compunctions about throwing away entire specimen collections in favor of a newer, prettier set. While both “The Ugly Demon” and “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” have cruelty to cats and dogs, “The One-Legged Monster of Oudai” creates the same sense of unease with living beings that most people have no compunctions about slaughtering. Although it is likely that Umezz simply seized upon a common pastime to use as the basis for effective horror, it hits a little differently when you think about it, making this one of the more interesting pieces in the book.
As you might expect, the book can be very gross in a lot of places. Although Umezz doesn’t delight in the sort of body horror we’d see from Junji Ito (and there is a clear link that goes from Shigeru Mizuki to Kazuo Umezz to Ito), his monsters are creative and unsettling, with both the first and the last pieces showing this aspect of his art the best. It does come with a content warning for animal abuse, specifically in those same two tales, but it is at least used to make a specific point rather than just to add to the ick factor. Cat-Eyed Boy combines horror with an understanding of how people deemed to be Other by societies are isolated and ignored, using that to ponder what would happen if they struck back without condoning doing any such thing. It’s an interesting book and well-worth reading for both manga historians and horror fans.