In memoriam: Manga Week, Pt. 1

Last week was Manga Week, and I feel it is my duty to eulogize it.

By “manga week,” I mean that new volumes were published for an unusually large number of the few manga series I actually bother to keep up with. I really don’t read much manga, because I’m picky about how I spend my precious spare time, I detest anime, and it’s pretty tough to find manga that doesn’t just feel like anime in print. So when four volumes of my different series come out at once, it deserves memorialization. At least in a cursory sense.

The Drifting Classroom Vol. 4
Viz | Kazuo Umezu | ten bucks

I first became acquainted with The Drifting Classroom several years ago when someone, I forget who, posted a link to scans of a doujin called Azumanga Daoih Drifting Classroom, which inexplicably placed the heartwarming cast of Kiyohiko Azuma’s four-panel comic in a dark post-apocalyptic scenario which involved a great deal of death and dismemberment. Bewildered, I poked around the Internet (back in the golden age before people thought it was the height of cleverness to call it the “Intertubes”) until I determined that the comic in question was a mashup of Azumanga with a classic horror manga whose name it had co-opted. So while this discovery didn’t make the doujin seem like a better idea, it did at least provide some handy context.

Obviously, when Viz decided to translate the original series, I jumped at it — partly to satisfy my curiosity, but also because I’m a closed-minded old fart who hates most manga and clings to the belief that the best work mostly lays in the past. By that logic, the older the manga, the better. When someone finally brings over a Genji Scrolls collection, I’m gonna be so all over that. I’m not sure I can actually describe The Drifting Classroom as “good,” though — it’s much too harrowing for that. It gets an explicit content warning not for sex or language but because it places an elementary school building full of children into a desolate wasteland where quite a lot of the cast freaks out and starts with the killin’. Little kids being hacked into chunks isn’t really all-ages type material, even if it is in black-and-white and they’re probably just using chocolate syrup instead of blood.

Volume 4 is actually the least-harrowing chapter to date, but that’s like saying a mild heart attack is only sort of cause for concern. By this point in the series, all the adults (read: teachers) have managed to die horribly except the psychotic janitor dude, who’s merely gone mad. So it’s up to the kids to take the reins and prevent the school from transforming into a large scale Lord of the Flies, minus the skewered pig heads of course. Not many pigs to be found in a bleak wasteland of sand. The creation of a de facto government provides the first respite the series has seen — several pages in which no one runs, shouts or dies! Quite a breakthrough.

Granted, the idyll is quickly shattered when the school is attacked by a giant invincible lobster-beast, and even once the kids figure out how to overcome it an even more horrifying threat rears its tiny, tiny head. So basically it’s like a sitcom where the status quo is restored at the end of every episode. Just keep in mind that the difference between Drifting Classroom and Full House, besides a merciful lack of Bob Saget or the Olsen creatures, is that the status quo is heartpounding terror and limbless first graders bleeding out on the floor rather than warm family togetherness. Too bad, really. Full House could have been so much more interesting.

Drifting Classroom is really a strange beast to be sitting alongside store shelves full of Naruto and Strawberry Milk Tea and whatever else kids are buying these days (or at least reading for free while sitting obnoxiously on the floor of Borders’ manga aisle). It’s awkwardly-drawn — Umezu is hardly the most fluid illustrator, and his work looks incredibly dated and stiff — and it’s unrelentingly grim, full of unspeakable horrors visited upon a few hundred children and their ill-fated guardians. Unlike most manga, though, it doesn’t glamorize the violence, and while it may give the youthful cast a little too much credit for scholarliness (the makeshift student government is patterned after what the sixth graders learned in Social Studies — whatever. I refuse to believe even Japanese kids are that dedicated to their stidies) it’s still a compelling read. For one thing, we’re about 700 pages into the story and it’s all happened in the space of a day or two, yet the pacing is breakneck and there’s a real question of how things are going to turn out. A school packed with hungry children is stranded in an endless, dead world, and there’s only so much food and water to go around. It’s difficult to imagine the story ending with everyone slowly starving to death, though, given its breathless rush of events. So I’ll stick around if only to see what fate does befall the drifting classroom. And whether or not Chiyo-chan puts in an apperance. Maybe she’ll airlift everyone out via pigtail express.

36 thoughts on “In memoriam: Manga Week, Pt. 1

  1. Grim, plot-based stories which move at a decent pace?

    Try “Monster” (the Viz one, not that shite Tokyopop has). Quite good. The only title I read (out of… oh… three now?) which I snag instantly when I see it on shelves.

  2. “the makeshift student government is patterned after what the sixth graders learned in Social Studies — whatever. I refuse to believe even Japanese kids are that dedicated to their stidies”

    I was more curious about what materials / techniques they used to cobble together a giant crossbow. I also wonder how they got access to hydrochloric acid. Then again, I was sent volume one and four by Viz and am still waiting on two and three, so I might’ve skipped the part where they all become resourceful geniuses.

    Still an awesome series, though.

  3. Yeah, I hear Monster is pretty good. I’m not really into horror, though, and only picked up Classroom because it’s a classic. So I’ll probably look into it eventually.

  4. A friend of mine had me read a few volumes of Gantz, which sounds a little similar. A couple of dudes get hit by a train and wake up with a bunch of strangers in a little room where a weird black sphere gives them weapons and tells them to go kill aliens. Explicit violence and a naked chick or two ensue. The art was fairly elaborate and the weirdness was intriguing for a while, but… I dunno, I’m not sure it was my thing.

    I detest most anime as well, but I have to put in a word for Gankutsuou for reminding me of what happens when it doesn’t suck. It’s Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo”… IN SPACE!

  5. I have the first three volumes but I haven’t picked up number four yet. I’ve decided to cut back on the sheer volume of manga that I collect and Drifting Classroom, though interesting, wasn’t all that compelling to me.

    Though you probably can’t trust my opinion all that much my copies of Monster are like five inches from Whistle and Hunter x Hunter.

  6. How about Ode to Kirohito? Its old school Tezuka doing horror (or at least very, VERY weird medical/social drama) which is interesting.

  7. So Drifting Classroom isn’t about learning to drive a car sideways? Because I like Initial D.

    Also I used to start the Full House theme song with these lyrical changes:

    What ever happened to death-by-guillotine?
    For the milkman, the paperboy,
    Live on TV.

    That’s all I have. Goodnight!

  8. Drifting Classroom vol. 4 had the only moment in any horror manga I’ve seen that was equivalent to a “jump” moment in a movie: turning the page and seeing the nearly full-page close-up of the deranged kid screaming “I NEED FOOD!” made me drop the book for reals.

  9. Like old manga? Vertical likes you. To Terra isn’t really that good, but it is old and it makes me feel happy and warm when i’m reading it. Now if they’d steal Black Jack from stupid Viz, the world would be better.
    Monster. is. GOOD. It’s up there with my flipping out over Tezuka. In fact, the whole opening book feels like a huge wink to Tezuka fans. I’m not sure if it was on purpose or Tezuka is just that pressed into Urasawa’s brain. He’s also drawing a kind of realistic retelling of the Pluto story of Astro Boy, so i’m sure he knew what he was doing.
    Dragon Head is more horror stuff, and the first few kept me interested. Heard the movie sucks.
    Mushishi is worth reading a chapter to see if you like it too. It won some award, i guess, so other people think it’s good.

  10. If you guys like Monster, wait until you read 20th Century Boys and then Pluto. Urasawa’s work keeps getting exponentially more awesome.

  11. “I have things to say about To Terra.”

    By “things“, i hope you mean, “i’m going to talk about it!”, not, “IT BAD THING, YUCKS!”

  12. In case the endorsement hasn’t already been made strong enough, I, too, recommend Monster. It’s kind of a psychological detective story where the detective is an expert surgeon wanted for murder and the intermediate antagonists are corrupt lawmen and Neo-Nazis. The artwork also has that Toriyama kind of charm where you can tell the author dashed it together with as few lines as possible but it looks amazing anyway.

  13. I’ve dropped off the manga wagon. Not far enough to keep me away from my two favorite serials; Blade of the Immortal and Berserk. Luckily, I was a HUGE nerd in college and helped myself to the Japanese language; going so far as to do fansubs for an anime club… Whew, now that I got that off of my chest, I feel lighter, more free.

    I’ll check out some of the comics you’ve mentioned. Don’t crucify me for saying ‘comics.’

  14. “By this point in the series, all the adults (read: teachers) have managed to die horribly except the psychotic janitor dude, who’s merely gone mad.”
    Sounds kinda like Scrubs.

  15. I’m totally cribbing from this thread for new manga fodder. Any other suggestions for good horror/drama manga that’s not already mentioned?

  16. I just wanted to add my two cents because someone mentioned it:

    Gantz is a horrible, horrible manga. Don’t read it.

    – Eddie

  17. I’d recommend Death Note to everyone here, but if you aren’t reading it already there’s obviously something wrong with you.

  18. I may have to check this out. The whole “bad things happening to children” aspect reminds me of Hitoshi Tomizawa’s work (e.g. Alien Nine), which is amazing even if it makes me feel kind of weird for enjoying it.

    ersatz: Horror/drama you say? If you don’t mind some science fiction grafted on there as well, read Alien Nine. And if you haven’t read Uzumaki, get on that.

  19. Manga means sleeve in spanish. As in, why the fuck people call comic books with awful, dull, most of the time black and white very uninteresting drawings “manga”?

  20. Mr. Thumbnail Theatre hates anime now? I guess it was only a matter of time. Too bad, too. I was hoping the theatre would be re-opened, “rebuilt” if you will, for the upcoming Eva movies.

  21. I burned out on anime years ago. Right about the time it hit critical mass here, which is when enough material made it into English for me to realize how stupid, formulaic and poorly made the majority of it is.

  22. Kevin: Sci-fi only sweetens the deal for me.
    parish: Owch. Just like most American programming, no? (Also danke for sweeping my accidentally-anonymous post away; you run a tight ship.)

  23. Also, I just noticed the line about kids sitting on the floor reading the manga instead of buying it. It’s not just me pissed off by that, then? (Especially when I need to get at the comic trades behind their grubby little backs which they won’t move for…)

  24. Sure, it’s easy to tongue-lash bouffant Bob Saget, but I fail to understand how his presence was less frightening than your manga selection. If, like me, you follow stand-up comedy; seeing a man of his brutality neutered in order to cater to the soccer-moms and PTA crones is terrifying in itself. Mr. Parish, when was the last time you visited your local comedy club?

    For shame…

  25. Grabbed Monster #1 & #2 today; ho-ho-holy crap. Oh, and also Dr. Slump #1.

    Reading Slump between volumes of Monster has bestowed me a special kind of cognitave dissonance.

  26. I remember when I introduced my manga loving magic the gathering playing loser friends to Transmetropolitan, they were all like WTF AIR JESUS ROFL! And they became men and grew hair on their chests.

  27. upcoming Eva movies
    …I think this is where the camera pans upwards and circles around me while I yell an anguished “NOOOOO!”

  28. I’d begun to think I was the only one in the world who had heard of this series. I’m so glad to know I’m not the only one following it. The Full House analogy just kills me.

    I agree with what everyone has already said about Monster. It’s very solid, well planned out, and well researched. It’s set in close to modern day Germany and I find it a great accomplishment that not once did Naoki Urasawa slip up and put in any out of place Japanese mannerisms into the European setting.

    Death Note has its ups and downs but even at its weakest it’s still better than 90% of what’s out there.

    You may also enjoy Planetes (alternate spelling Planet ES). The world of Planetes is a realistic portrait of what human space exploration will be like 60 some years into the future. The story revolves around a team of space garbage collectors working off of a space station orbiting the Earth which already earns it points for originality. Debris collecting ranks among the worst possible jobs to be found in outer space but it’s a job somebody has to do. It’s the type of dead-end low paying job that attracts the worst misfits and unskilled laborers who are so desperate to live their dream of working in outer space that they’ll take anything that comes their way. The anime also has some killer good physics but, unfortunately, also more Ai Tanabe (you’ll know what I mean when you meet her character).

    Another series that might interest you is Mushishi. The main character is a this combination between a detective and a medicine man specializing in these creatures called Mushi. The mushi are creatures inspired by Shinto mythology. They are in essence ghosts and spirits whose worlds occasionally cross with our own and cause unexplained afflictions to unwary humans. However, the series injects a small bit sci-fi to explain their existence. In other words, it’s like a Japanese X-files only it’s not as corny as I just made it sound. If anything, it’s more like Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away but only because both Miyazaki and Yuki Urushibara both drew from the same source of inspiration.

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