Pop Culture Gadabout
Thursday, July 17, 2008
      ( 7/17/2008 10:10:00 PM ) Bill S.  


"BUT AT THE LAST MINUTE, I COULDN'T HELP BUT SAY, 'I'M HOME!'" Though I may be lagging by at least a year in relation to its American publication schedule, I'm still following Kazuo Umezu's hyperactive survival horror series, The Drifting Classroom. Recently finished volume five in the eleven-volume "Mature Reader"-rated series, and, lemme tell you, the series is as thrillingly messed-up as ever.

To quickly recap the first four volumes, Classroom centers on a young school boy, Sho Takamatsu, who finds himself and all his schoolmates trapped in a deadly wasteland after the entire building is mysteriously transported to what appears to be the future. It doesn't take long for all the adult teachers to kick it, leaving the elementary schoolers to fend for themselves in a profoundly hostile environment. When volume five opens, it's on the image of a schoolboy futilely fleeing a swarm of flesh-eating insects - and that's just the beginning.

Because of his demonstrated bravery, Sho has been elected "prime minister" of the students, but he's unable to halt the escalating scapegoating and divisiveness that begins to sweep through his schoolmates. They first focus on a likely victim, an imaginative student named Nakata, and blame him for somehow "creating" the bugs. When a despairing Nakata kills himself, the focus quickly shifts to other unfortunate students - especially after one of them turns sick from a mysterious plague. Before long, we see frightened schoolchildren attempting to burn down the nurse's infirmary and impaling potential plague-carriers with spears in an attempt to stem the fatal disease. Sho and his comrades, as the ones who first attempted to aid the sick boy, are chased out of the school grounds and forced to survive in the desert. Within this banished group, ironically, is Otomo, the original ringleader of the gang who'd earlier blamed Nakata for the insect attack.

Umezu's art is packed with images of open-mouthed, panicky kids - but he also demonstrates an unsentimental empathy for his young characters. In an early chapter in book five, for example, Sho and a group of classmates return to the school building that remains their primary shelter. As he approaches the school gate, he remembers the gate of his home and the way he used to eagerly run home after school. To keep from breaking down, he calls out "I'm home!" as he walks through the gateway. The words are so potent that the rest of the group takes up the cry, desperate to hold onto even this small act of normalcy: a surprisingly affecting little moment.

Still, the images that linger are more typically the disturbing ones - whether it's the violent mob behavior of Sho's schoolmates or the sight of a bloated mummified body found in a buried hospital. Umezu's stylized art is direct and unflinching. His regular depiction of small bodies hemmed in by both their surroundings and the book's shrunken, small panels emphasizes just how overwhelming his characters' plight is. It's an effective visual ploy.

As a manga series, The Drifting Classroom is definitely not for the easily upset, but for those with more adventurous tastes, Umezu's classic Babes in the Post-Apocalypse tale is damned unforgettable.

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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