"No, I can make it on my own."

The Drifting Classroom Vol. 11 (of 11)

The final volume of this series is 11, because that's where the volume is set. Like always.

In case anyone was afraid that Kazuo Umezu was planning to cool it off for the grand finale, rest assured that the desperate final scheme of our lost band of children revolves almost entirely around explosions and earthquakes, Sho's mom unveils her most crackpot gambit yet, there's a musical interlude by boy band pop sensation The Angel Four, and a crucial threat to Our Heroes is removed by somebody reaching through the very fabric of time to strangle it. So, it sort of ends as it begins.

Oh sure - now that we're all the way through, it's clear that there's a hundred or so things 'wrong' with The Drifting Classroom, if you want to take it like a lot of other manga out there. Umezu's art has gotten increasingly haggard over the course of the series, with several pages near the beginning of this final volume filled with almost nothing but close-ups of smudged, black-eyed yowling faces, surrounded by spiny zones of screaming white; you'd be forgiven for wondering if some of that yelling was really there to avoid having to draw too much stuff under those killer deadlines.

Well, I like it anyway; it's as if the situation has gotten so intense in-story for the characters that the makeup of their world, the art on the page, is becoming more and more harsh and furied. I do miss Umezu's excellent, frequent use of splashes from earlier in the series, but there's still a few good ones - the image of all the children laying on the bellies in a circle, with one crucial girl facing up toward the reader, is an effective one indeed.

Effect has always been most crucial to this series. The characters never so much develop as encounter new things to test their latant spirit. You can't derive enjoyment from picking apart the clockwork precision of this series' construction; major plot points in this last installment are set up only a few dozen pages before they're needed, and characters operate on what seems closer to dream logic than rational impetus. But that's the fun - more than with any other traditional storytelling-type comic around, I really and truly believe that whole segments of this series originated with Kazuo Umezu shooting up in bed on certain mornings, shouting HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT and scribbling out notes and sketches like man possessed.

Hell, I'm sure some of these machinations were of more cynical origin -- can't you just hear some Weekly Shōnen Sunday editor approaching Our Man and whispering "baseball is popular with boys, Umezu," the result being that extended game in the middle of Vol. 6? -- but it always fits, because Umezu is never less than confident in his style and tone. And yeah, some will surely find the series' loud-and-louder nature to be numbing, but I think there's so much to enjoy in Umezu's drifting between frequencies of noise.

Little wonder that the series has found itself adopted by certain alternative comics readers for this VIZ-published run; the moment was nearly perfect for such unfettered mad ideas and damn-it-all visual idiosyncrasy running rampant through a once-mainstream. The series may have been aimed at kids during its 1972-74 serialization, but there's so much fascination inherent to its lack of moderation and its blowsy cultural critique that it's hard not to take it at face value, and get wrapped up in the tribulations it sends its young cast through. Even at seven panels per page, on average, it flies by.

All of this serves to make the final volume a bit more interesting, because it's here that the story's underlying spirit, something awfully specific to its time and place of creation, shines brightest. It may be an archetypical survival horror saga, but The Drifting Classroom is also an old-stock shōnen epic, redolent with classic values of friendship, perseverance and victory. Pure young love is affirmed, old foes join forces, hard work and guts reign supreme, smiling faces appear in the sky and tears are shed... there's even a message of Japan-U.S. cooperation! And god love him, Umezu hits each and every one of those beloved virtues with exactly the same guitar rock fury he brings to earlier visions of panic and blood - it's unashamed, and immensely satisfying.

Yet there are things lurking around behind these tight maneuvers. As always, Umezu's subtext is unfailingly critical of adult activity beyond parental love; early volumes all but shouted at young readers not to trust in their stupid goddamned authority figures, load of nutcases and incompetents they are. Adults ruin the world, and fill it with conniving and violence. So can kids, but kids can change, and with them change society. I doubt it's a coincidence that the most horrible of the series' adults seems to be designed as a self-portrait of the author himself - why should the adult Umezu be off the hook? The world of children might be one of total, random fear, as critic Saburo Kawamoto notes in a two-page supplementary essay (there's also a bonus Umezu horror short, best described as 31 pages of awesome), but Umezu's story suggests it's also one of immense hope, that new potential might rise from the deadly earth like a miracle river.

I haven't read nearly enough vintage shōnen to know if this counts as subversive, but it seems the final fates of Umezu's children, their embodiment of good values, rises from their rejection of the very society that has deemed those values good, but failed to live up to them; a far cry from some of the author's early horror stories, which often served to reinforce societal norms! Adults can be good in Umezu's world, but they cannot affect lasting change; they can only ease the way for the young.

Such a simple theme, for a series that thrives in easy-to-grasp meanings: adults can look to the future, but children need to live there. God, you'd swear he's talking to us, through the vortex of time, 1974 to 2008, man to children and back to men. Like it never gets through.

Can you blame him for saying it loud?