Kazuo Umezu is a god among men. This is not up for argument. The seventy-two year old manga-ka has his own brand of sneakers, his own YouTube channel, had an award named after him, makes guest appearances on Japanese shows singing Paul Anka songs in English, won a suit against some fussy middle-aged women to construct his red-and-white-striped Makoto-chan house, and much more. His highly-acclaimed 70s horror comic, The Drifting Classroom, can be accurately described as certifiably insane.
It is then no surprise that his 90s horror epic, Fourteen, is even more deranged than the aforementioned award-winning manga. The setting is an apocalyptic Earth circa 2118, a time and place that shows humanity has not learned from the lesson of environmental destruction Umezu warns of in The Drifting Classroom. Domed cities with long, interconnecting walkways and multiple levels are transplanted right out of the heart of sci-fi. Numerous animals have gone extinct, and problems of food and resources need to be addressed. Luckily, the Chicken Company, set in the Tokyo Pyramid, aids the ailing population by producing bio-chicken. But such experiments give rise to monstrous discoveries and curiosities, and our anti-hero, Chicken George, is born.
The process is a gradual one -- first, an eye; next, a heart; then a torso with organs and non-functioning limbs, and at last full awareness and intelligence. And Chicken George is a damn smart bird, much to the shock of his creator, whom is tied up by the man-chicken, watching as the creation immerses himself in total knowledge (calculus, chemistry, physics, linguistics, cosmology, geophysics, zoology, et cetera). His initial actions are one of survival, wordlessly ripping a hidden microphone off his creator, and then killing off vicious, hungry dogs as a he lumbers to find creator's apartment as the latter struggles in the hospital. Emotional development comes quickly, lamenting the dogs' deaths with a cross and crying A RIVER OF TEARS as he learns of the untimely fates of other animals, courtesy of the cruelty of humans. But it does not end there, as his epiphany of vengeance comes at a trip to the zoo, where he discovers a new breed of animals formed from "gene recombination" -- spider-tigers, human-dogs, lizard-praying mantises and donkey-elephants. The small communities of rabbits, frogs, snakes and chickens are a calming revelation, but not enough to relinquish his anger. Chicken George lets loose these demon-animals, allowing them to kill all zoo visitors -- male and female, young and old -- in their sights.
Umezu's timelessly dated art is even more effective and consistent here than in The Drifting Classroom, going even further to grasp a stiff claustrophobia with character movement and shadows. His pacing also allows the more routine bits of horror -- like a woman looking through a window to find Chicken George in a bath tub, then glancing back to see him gone -- to ratchet the terror up higher. Make no mistake, this is a constantly tense work; I can only imagine how effective it must have been in serialized form, with each chapter pushing the plot forward just enough, but always ending on a palm-tightening cliffhanger.
However, Umezu knows when to pull back, relenting as we transition towards the end of volume one to a few years later, set in the United States of America. With a JFK-esque president prepared to lead the way in expanding humanity's reach towards the stars -- partially due to searching for resources on moons and planets -- his son, whom he hopes to name "America Young," is born. But news breaks out that there is an alarming trend around the globe where babies are being born with green hair -- the president's child is no exception! What could be behind this?! A scholar suggests that this is a curse from the plants and the animal kingdom! Who is this scholar?! Dr. Chicken George of Cambridge University!