Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Insanity of Fourteen

Connie of Slightly Biased Manga recently made a request for Fourteen to be licensed. However, I have to admit to a cardinal sin - I don’t actually like most of Kazuo Umezu’s works. Other than Drifting Classroom, which was a romping pace of ever-increasing outlandish horror in an apocalyptic setting, none of the other stuff I’ve seen have matched that intensity. I cautiously bought the first volume of Cat-Eye Boy, even though it didn’t seem too promising upon first sight. I was willing to give the man’s early work a chance to see how his storytelling evolved. Sadly to say, I was less than impressed with the collection of short stories, and never bothered ordering the second volume to find out how “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” ended.

I’ve had the opportunity to read some of Kazuo’s other works from scanlations, and I’ve got to say that Fourteen is one of the stupidest comic I’ve ever read.

I always thought that if this Manga was licensed for an American audience, it would be retitled “Chicken George”, since most of the beginning action focuses on this creature. Even though it starts out with a fortuneteller making a prophetic proclamation that “It will all end at fourteen!”, the scene suddenly shifts to a chicken factory where a mutated chicken breast is growing an eyeball. Naturally, the scientist in charge decides not to lop the eyeball off and sell it, but take it home with him and cultivate it until it grows into a humanoid-sized being that proclaims itself as the manifestation of animal revenge on humans.
Cute little bugger ain’t he?

Shortly after growing vocal chords and absorbing knowledge at an inhuman pace, he declares himself as a doctor, and vows to rid the planet Earth of all humans. He’s even smart enough to create a chicken capable of speech, though why he’d bother teaching a chicken hatred human language is something that’s never explained. Like most Kazuo Umezu Manga, this is something you’re better off not thinking too much about. This also shows one of Kazuo's illustrative tics - nobody can ever make a speech without pointing their finger at someone. However, Chicken George’s plan to wipe out all humans hits a slight snag after running a computer stimulation that defies his calculations.
Nice to know where her priorities lie.
If Stephen King suffers from verbal diarrhea, then Kazuo Umezu suffers from visual diarrhea. Most of his chapters end on a single typically unremarkable panel of shock, then the next title page has a close-up of the previous panel, then another version of the last panel. This makes for easy transition between chapters, but also feels like a lazy attempt at filling up panel space. Not to mention that dialogue is not the most Kazuo’s strongest suit. A typical exchange between Chicken George and his prisoner goes something like this:

Chicken George: I thought I knew the truth! But now that I know the truth, I must confess that the truth of the truth has left me in shock! Now, I must tell you the truth so that you won’t be so shocked when the time comes! Now I'm going to tell you the truth! And the truth is...
Cut to cliffhanger page zoom-in title page
Chicken George: The truth is...
Prisoner: (covering ears) No! I don’t want to hear the truth!

See how annoying this is? Before Chicken George can even reveal his secret, he’s found out news that revenge of the plants have started, which is why green-skinned babies have been being born all over the world, causing panic among the public. Naturally, there’s a conflict of interest when the President’s newborn son winds up with green hair. Normally, this wouldn’t seem out of place compared to the colour of the majority of Anime/Manga characters who have different hair styles in order to differentiate themselves from each other. But this is the part of Japan that thrives on monotony between their people. As one of my favorite mangled sayings go, “The hammer that sticks out gets nailed in.

During all this, Grand Master Rose appears on the scene. He’s an effeminate man who wants to be eternally young and beautiful forever by using a special cream made out of the hormones of young children. As ruler of the world economics, there’s nothing he’ll stoop to to keep his beauty. Not to pleading to use the President’s baby as an ingredient for youth, nor even accepting Chicken George’s help. (Further complicating matters is Vice President Gorman, a woman who looks and schemes suspiciously similar to Grand Master Rose, so it’s easy to mistake the two for the same person) In exchange for giving a recipe for immortality, Chicken George wants enough funding to afford a rocket that’ll be the equivalent of Noah’s Ark. This amounts to nine quadrillion dollars, the economy of the entire world for two years.

On a minor note, one of the scientists on their staff looks remarkably similar to Filgate from Cerebus.

Meanwhile, the President’s green-haired baby boy, America seems to have a special rapport with plant life. (Yes, the President named his son America. Apparently all the other good names were taken) America’s made close friends with a dandelion and a cactus, and weeds seem to sprout up inside the White House. Then all of a sudden, the 2-year old begs his father not to order an old dying tree to be chopped down. Normally, the President would comply with his son’s wishes, but decides to ignore it for the better good. This is a reoccurring theme of Kazuo Umezu - untrustworthy adults who don’t listen to children who know better.

DAD! Don’t cut the dying tree! All the plants will die!
Of course I won’t. Now get off to bed.
DAD! The butterflies are attacking us!
“Uh huh, that’s nice. Now leave me alone - what’s that flapping noise - oh God the colours!

So because the President ordered the tree to be chopped down, all the plants worldwide begin to die off. The authorities are absolutely shocked, and don’t want the public to know (they were still reeling from the green babies) so how did they decide to cover up this incident? Implant artificial plants in place of the dead trees while distracting everyone with a sensationalistic newscast of a Hollywood movie on the airwaves.

I’m sure you can already see the fallacy of this entire operation. While this would be perfectly suitable for keeping people’s attentions in their homes, how would they keep them riveted 24/7 without the audience getting bored, going to the bathroom or getting some snacks, and catching a glimpse of plant-replacement people? And what about people who don’t own TV sets? Sure, they could walk over to their neighbors, but I’m sure they might notice a large construction company replacing all the foliage along the way. That's not even taking in account of countries where electronics aren't even available.

However, Grand Master Rose feels that having special effects isn’t enough to capture the attention of the public, so he decides to use an actual hotel for the disaster, while having actors display the rescue operation. Meanwhile, Chicken George observing the deaths of all plant life, sees the newscast, and even though he’s of different species, falls in love with the action girl. Because he’s conflicted with wanting to save the animals and wanting to be with the female celebrity, Chicken George decides to erase his memory so he can be with the woman he’s loved since an hour ago.

However, even though Chicken George's memory's been erased, his notes are still around, and he somehow managed to download his thoughts onto a computer that somehow has psychic powers if he thinks hard enough. The immortality serum is implemented, but even immortality doesn't last forever. It's soon discovered that the formula has a tendency to self-destruct the host when they reach fourteen years of age. Further compounding their despair is the news that because of all the environmental crisis done to the Earth, the planet only has three years to live.

Upon receiving data that the world will end, the President displays a sense of guilt over their wrongdoings that feels more like self-proposed righteousness. But it’s not just America - everybody over the world wants to admit the end of the world is their fault, when they’d be more likely to blame somebody else. Their only chance for a future is to send their children into space, which is a good thing that Chicken George hasn’t launched his Noah’s Rocket yet. And he’s decided to have it shaped like a Tyrannosaurus Rex, because hey, why not? As one of the Laws of Anime goes, *ANY* shape, no matter how convoluted or odd-looking, is automatically aerodynamic.

With the Earth in danger, the decision to choose which children are worthy of survival isn’t going to be decided by their parent’s bank accounts, but on three principles: the children's health, intelligence and luck. Only the luckiest children who survive the conveyor belt from hell will be accepted into the space program. Then all of a sudden, nymphomaniac aliens appear out of nowhere and start raping hundreds of humans, young and old by sucking their moisture through their mouths, hands and genitals. This is less erotic than you’d think.

Then, just as suddenly as they arrived, the entire invasion is called off. Like everybody on Earth, the aliens wanted to preserve their race, and were desperate to do anything to continue their line. They were absorbing human body fluids in an attempt to change either’s DNA, and were unable to do so. However, before leaving to find another planet that’ll support their lives, the aliens took the Earth’s “spirit” as fuel for their engines. This has the result of speeding up the rotation of the planet, causing multiple volcanic eruptions, further damage to nearby buildings and decreasing property values. This sudden influx of natural disasters has just further increased the panic of the people, and now everybody wants to get off the planet by any means necessary. This is my favorite reaction to the sudden increase of the Earth's revolution:

With most of the children having escaped into the stars, the action switches to the drama taking place on the Tyrannosaurus rocket and the other rockets. If you’ve ever read The Drifting Classroom, what happens next is that Manga in cliffnote form, with adult guardians doing the brunt of the damage, a cloned girl of Grand Master Rose and another reincarnation of Chicken George. (He’s died at least twice around this point, and I’ve given up trying to make sense of what’s happening around here) After a particularly awful cliffhanger, we switch scenes to the last moments on Earth. Apparently, when humans are on the verge of death, they transform into monsters and attack anything in sight. This is not a metaphor - they literally develop fangs, horns, and other grotesque features. Amidst all this madness is one final plea for the President to pass one last law during his last term.

After the last apocalyptic days on Earth, we switch back to the madness on the Dinosaur rocket which involves retrieving Chicken George’s corpse from the outside of the ship. (Don’t ask - I’m just as confused as you are) A hundred or so pages later, we switch back to Earth where we’re graced with the presence of anthropomorphic cockroaches giving flattering eulogies to the wonderful creatures known as human beings. These cockroaches somehow evolved to the point where they could speak and read human language and even decipher their last days written in the President’s diary. This is clearly a case of implanting human traits since actual insects wouldn’t be that interested in a species that’s been trying to kill them since the beginning of civilization. Besides, bugs have had millions of years of evolution for the chance to communicate with us. Why would they start now?

Strangely enough, this sequence somehow manages to tie into the end, which built upon the whole premise that the universe was dying because of humanity's arrogance. I won’t spoil the ending for you, save that it fits the entire demented childlike logic that’s been happening since the beginning. ANY attempt to guess the ending upon reading the first volume is akin to determining the migrational chart of a Bohemian Waxwing using a fishing tackle box. Any hypotheses made would be widely off the mark.

This whole Manga is very much a consecutive series of did not do the research in stereo. The only real reason to keep reading it is because of consistent ludicrous lines spoken every dozen pages or so.

Another major fault is Kazuo’s insistence on using archaic devices totally out of synch with the time period, and are closer to a man perpetually stuck in the 60's. This would be acceptable if this were created in the 80's when such machines were still commonplace. However, this story takes place in the future, and the Manga was created in 1990. Some erroneous examples include:

1. Every world power communicates via radio headsets that allows their hands to stick out. Here's those pointing fingers again!

2. Showing said radio headsets in profile when viewed from another angle. It looks like they're hiding their heads inside these transistors.

3. Computers that print out punched-out hole data. Seriously.

Not to mention some off-model characters. Just look at the proportions of the head in the second panel.

The stiff artwork also means there's some ridiculous poses used to convey action. People are always kicking straight ahead, leaving no room for a knee to bend. Here, an assassin clutching a knife is machine-gunned, then the hand holding the knife somehow leaps towards the victim before it too is shot away.

My only real regret is that, as Kazuo Umezu’s last Manga, the omnibus collection only goes up to 13 volumes, and doesn’t stop at the legendary 14, which is a recurring theme throughout the book.


  1. I just hope that you realize its utter stupidity and ludicrousness is what makes it one of the best comics ever.

    1. 100% this. This manga is one of the best things ever.

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  2. I have to admit, you're so right. It's the dumbest, most illogical thing, nonsensical ever -- the most polite way to describe it is "a comic for children", as a friend of mine said. I'm still blown away by its imagery and its sheer malice, but it's one of those manga that is probably best to flip through in its untranslated form when you don't know Japanese.

  3. Correction: the dumbest, most illogical, nonsensical thing ever.

    BUT I STILL LOVE IT!!! *sob* Does your Cerebus reference mean that you, too, appreciate insanely long, indulgent comics produced by lone madmen?

  4. In its core, reading Fourteen is pretty much all about masochism.

  5. I never thanked you for this, I really appreciated the lengthy summary. I had no idea what the real plot to Fourteen was. After reading this, it seems like that's a question it leaves the reader with all the way to the end.

    I understand and agree with pretty much everything you say here. But on the other hand, somehow the bad points only make me want to read it more. I am kind of a horror masochist, though.

  6. I started reading Fourteen because of this post. This is truly the most insane, hilarious thing I have ever read, and I would like to thank you for convincing me that I needed it in my life.

  7. Brilliant review! I honestly couldn't agree with you anymore about the ridiculousness of this manga, especially the part about the "consistent ludicrous lines spoken every dozen pages or so". And that's precisely what I love about it! Shame this was his last work. Its left me craving for something even more insane.

  8. Fourteen simply uses dream logic, which isnt that weird or amazing tbh, David Lynch fucking lives for that shit.

    But this is like, SOLID dream logic, down the the point of mismatched technology from the author's past being used and such, it seems to me that he proly just wrote a manga based off dream journals he kept, trying to find a way to tie it all together, and since a dream can take you from eating ice cream to fucking the sky while gravity cusses at you (as if it is a sentient being rather than a law of physics) then the jumps Umezu takes come off either wonderful in their own way, or they just seem like a generic transition in plot.

  9. Most would think horror in the form of a chicken is absurd, but let me tell you from experience, aggressive roosters will run right up to you and attack. We've had free range chickens in our neighborhood, including a very territorial rooster, and everyone was wary of it, if not downright fearful. Myself and my wife were attacked several times from behind, our calves powerfully scratched. The kids (and wife) would see it sprinting toward them 20+ mph and they would scream and run for escape. With lightning reflexes, it could dodge rocks, sticks, bags, and our shoes. I don't think the scary chicken concept was intended to be absurd humor. To the experienced, roosters can be worse than dogs. A giant chicken man could be comparable to a werewolf.

    For all it's flaws, this manga isn't boring. I can't even list all the incredibly well executed yet boring manga I've read over the years, because that stuff is completely forgettable. But Fourteen is memorable, and with a chuckle.

  10. Most of his works were boring as all hell... you have to be in a specific mindset before reading them. His works are not something you pick up and read on a whim.

    I'm coming after reading Junji Ito's inspirational authors.

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  12. I really like Fourteen! It's unique, weird, intriguing and horrifying. I can't stop reading it!

  13. At least it doesn't make you sad that it ended like Franken Fran did.

  14. I agree with all of your points, yet I see all of those points as a reason why the manga is so great.

  15. Thanks for sharing. Always a pleasure to read.

  16. Well. I am glad I read your posts before I read fourteen. I can't wait to digest its ridiculousness.

  17. Technically, the 11(?) volumes of Drifting Classroom could all be considered the actual 14th volume of Fourteen. A long ass story fitting for the number 14, that seemingly takes place years after the destruction of the Earth. It can be assumed that America and the rest will eventually come back to Earth with the data for all the animals and plants embedded into America's DNA, and they'll find out Sho and his friends from Drifting classroom are repopulating and trying to fix the world already.