Updated: May 28
The mini-gekiga* boom continues along in English as Viz Media re-releases a horror title from the golden age of manga, as part of a plan to give the series a complete release. Kasuo Umezz built up an English fanbase with the release of his 1970s horror series The Drifting Classroom, and now Viz is going back even further to bring Orochi, first published from 1969 to 1970, to a Western audience. While one of four volumes was published in English in 2002, with this new edition, Viz is planning to release the complete series of the influential horror manga in a deluxe hardcover edition.
*Gekiga-manga aimed at adult audiences with mature themes
Like a lot of the more unique manga that gets translated, Orochi scratches an itch I didn’t know I had. It has a lot of the stylistic tropes of the era, both in character design and in pacing, but that’s not a bad thing. It's not what would be considered realistic, instead capturing a pulpy luridness. Japanese comics of the time were far more cinematic and ‘modern’ than what audiences in the West were getting during the same period ( I recently read a collection of Marvel's Werewolf By Night and Gene Colan's '70s Dracula comics, and 300 pages of that took me a week and a half to read, compared to three sittings for Orochi. American comics practiced show and tell... and tell... and tell.). Orochi has virtually no narration, and few thought captions. While the writing and graphic style are still quite far from what comes out today, the book is amazingly smooth for being over 50 years old.
So what is it? Orochi is an anthology horror series featuring a nice young girl named Orochi, who happens to be around when horrific things happen. The book feels like an alternate universe take on 1950s EC comics, where a setting and characters are introduced and concluded in each story, with Orochi being the connecting thread between tales.
The major difference between Orochi and EC comics is the pacing. An EC story might be 12 pages, densely dropping the major plot points of a story. Orochi’s first story is 100 pages, and the second is 200. The actual content and depth of the story is close to an EC one, but it is done with what would now be called decompressed storytelling, which lets the story flow much more cinematically. The stories get more space to let scenes unfold and silent panels tell their story.
Another difference is that Orochi (the character) is actually a character in each story, not simply a narrator delivering the tale. Writer/Artist Umezz lets her advance the plot in places, despite being mainly an observer.
The stories here are most definitely horror, but horror is a very wide term. Specifically, the two stories in the first volume of Orochi are more about dread and atmosphere than about gore, though there most definitely is gore as well.
The first story is about a pair of beautiful sisters living in a mansion, who have an inherited trait to slowly become ugly and mole-covered from their 18th birthday, It deals with the psychological toll knowing their eventual fate causes them. It is a ridiculous concept delivered with absolute seriousness.
The second story tells of a woman who had suffered a life of abuse before marrying the perfect man, and how it all falls apart. While the first story is improbable, the second moves into full-on supernatural territory.
Reflecting on it, it seems like a great concept for a new series in 2022: take the excitement and pulpiness of Silver Age comics and dress them up in modern sensibilities.
When I picked it up, I wasn’t familiar with Umezz, and my main experience with horror manga was Junji Ito. While I like the Ito I’ve read, the horror in a book like Uzumaki is quite over the top. This horror is much more understated. It has a slow build, ratcheting things up more subtly, before going to crazy places.
I definitely want to read some more of this work. It's simply not like anything else on my comic shelf. The closest I have is some EC horror books, but they are quite different from this book. I love that EC stuff, but it's not something I can sit and read 100 pages of at a time. In comparison, this was an enjoyable read.
The series should be four volumes in total. Viz has a second and third volume available for pre-order, but the existing Japanese version has four volumes, so I imagine that Viz's plan is to release the fourth as well. Possibly at the end of four volumes, that will satisfy my interest in this style of work. It's very interesting, but the novelty might wear off. Right now though, I am still excited to see more of this world of Japanese horror from a half-century ago.
When first released in 2002, the American audience for manga was still fairly mainstream-oriented, with books/properties like Naruto or Dragonball. As the market matured over the past 20 years, gekiga has become more and more popular, with manga for adults becoming its own niche market. Hopefully this time around, Orochi can find its audience.
I rate this classic 5 out of 5.
Ian McMurray is a Canadian, now settled and working as an educator in Sapporo, Japan. Starting with Uncanny X-Men #200 in 1985, an unreasonable percentage of his income has gone toward purchasing the sequential arts. He is a lifelong comics proselytizer, yet is genre agnostic, and makes comics under the name Ian M.