Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, January 24, 2010
      ( 1/24/2010 08:47:00 AM ) Bill S.  


THE GIFT FROM THE SKY Living out in the boonies -- where the closest bookstore or comic book shop is a two-hour drive away -- it’s not easy keeping current with continued series. Having easy walk-in access to a bookstore makes it easier to keep up: you stroll into the store, buy a single volume and walk out. Buying online, for all its conveniences, tends to discourage quickie purchases, though. Shipping costs make it less likely you’ll only buy one book, for one, and when you’re on a limited budget, you tend to take your time making orders.

With manga series, for instance, I often find myself several books behind before I can get an Amazon order in. That recently happened to me with Kazuo Umezu’s seventies era sci-fi horror series, The Drifting Classroom. Viz Media had even sent me a review copy of the last volume (#11) in the series, and though I took a sneak peak at the story’s finish, I didn’t want to actually read it until I picked up volumes nine and ten, the two in the series that were still on my “to buy” list. Finally got those two missing books for the New Year, though, and after speeding my way to the series’ conclusion, I wish I hadn’t waited so long.

Classroom tells the story of a Japanese elementary school which mysteriously disappears after a large explosive boom is heard. Everyone inside the school -- students, teachers and a particularly psychotic custodian -- is transported with the building to a desolate landscape that we later learn is an ecologically ravaged future. The primary figures of authority, the school’s teachers, don’t make it to the series’ halfway point, so our kids are forced to fend for themselves against an environment so unfriendly that it almost seems to consciously thwart their every attempt at survival.

Told primarily from the point of view of Sho Takamatsu, a believably courageous sixth grader who becomes one of the school’s leaders, the manga series pits its cast of grade schoolers against a series of increasingly horrific dangers: swarms of killer insects, monstrous mutants, robotic dinosaurs and a growing madness within the school itself that will split the students into two tribes violently fighting for supremacy. Oh yeah, we also get some cannibalism.

The school, we learn, has been transported to Earth’s ecologically ravaged future, though there are moments when Sho is able to communicate with his mother in the past. The connection between present and future is fragile and mysterious, as we’re shown in the final volume with one of Umezu’s more visually startling creations: a burglar partially caught in the school’s transportation, who survives in the present with both an arm and part of his head stuck in the future. Lying in a hospital bed, he’s able to feel the desert sands with his hand, see the future world around him with one eye. Pretty outlandish, but if you’ve gotten this far into the story, you’re ready to accept it.

The Drifting Classroom is decidedly not a series for those who want their horrors grounded in reality. Late in the series, for instance, our hero Sho has a burst appendix which is removed by a fellow classmate (a doctor’s son); not only does he survive this fantastic procedure, he’s up and actively fighting his cannibalistic classmates in the next volume and carrying an unconscious schoolgirl across the wasteland. When we learn how the school was sent into the future (and who was responsible), the explanation proves equally preposterous -- it’s reminiscent of one of those cheesy moments from an old drive-in flick where the scientist shows up to provide a “rational” explanation that nobody in the audience really believes.

In the end, Umezu’s series is about the kind of kid terrors that have nothing to do with rational explanations: fear of parental abandonment, of being at the mercy of a world beyond your control, of irrational and abusive adults, of things that jump out at you in the dark. It’s a visually imaginative trip -- as an artist and storyteller Umezu concocted horror images here that it took his peers decades to match -- and if you’ve got the willingness to mute your adult mind, it’s an unforgettable one. The last volume’s final ambiguous image of his characters, traveling into an uncertain future, is both moving and unsettling. In his large-mouth, cartoonish fashion, Kazuo Umezu is a poet of childhood anxiety. Glad I had a chance to finally make it to Classroom's finale.

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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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