Every one of his characters goes full throttle at everything. The pursuer and the pursued, the frightened weakling, the ominously disfigured freak, the snake woman, the crimson spider, all the characters in Iara… Even in death, they die falling forward.
Kingyo Used Books, Vol. 3, “Umezu Salon”
Kazuo Umezu may be the strangest cartoonist in Japan, and that’s saying a lot. With his wild shock of frizzy hair and wardrobe of outsized children’s clothing (always including a shirt of red and white stripes, the pattern he painted his house), “Kazz” is instantly recognizable on the streets and subways of Tokyo. Now 75 years old, he has a bouncy demeanor and a mad, relentless grin, giving the impression of an elderly child. He’s best known for horror manga, but is almost as famous as the creator of the children’s comedy series Makoto-chan. Think of the EC horror artists who created MAD. (Umezu’s own description of the difference between the genres: “If you’re doing the chasing, it’s comedy. If you’re being chased, it’s horror.”)
There are cultures where artists are expected to be quirky, but modern Japan is not among them, and the cheerfully nonconformist, happily gruesome Umezu has always seemed adrift from humanity, an astronaut from an alternate reality with its own idiosyncratic laws. And yet his comics bleed out of universal human fears and desires; their logic is the logic of the id.
That’s clear enough in Drifting Classroom, arguably Umezu’s masterpiece (although if I know Jason Thompson, he may make a spirited case for recent works like the probably-unpublishable-in-English Fourteen). Nothing that happens in this manga makes sense. Adults go murderously insane at the first sign of trouble. Children are more reasonable but sometimes do bizarre, suicidal things, like when the younger students suddenly decide to jump off the school building en masse. Monsters come out of children’s minds, and you can hide by covering your eyes. Young hero Sho has a telepathic link to his mother that extends through time and space. Survival depends not just on the familiar tactics of desert-island stories—collecting water, growing food, developing a rudimentary government and fighting to keep it together—but weird rituals, psychic transmissions, and trusting in strange stories told by frightened children.
It doesn’t make logical sense, but it makes id-sense. It’s a child’s logic. When you’re a child, adults are impossible to understand. Other children aren’t much better. Fantasies have power. (In her writing lessons, Lynda Barry advises adults to watch children playing “pretend.” They don’t smile.) And the link to Mother is the realest thing in life. Umezu’s manga often play on primal childhood fears, but in his hands they’re not childish; they’re old. Among his early stories is one with the most fundamentally frightening title in horror fiction: Mama ga Kowai, “Scared of Mama.”
If the reality of Drifting Classroom is a child’s reality, that makes the premise even more deeply horrifying. The children are thrust into the future, the adulthood they will inhabit, to find only a ruined, hopeless wasteland. There’s nothing to be done about it, either; their only hope is to get back to their childhoods, to the time when they were, if not loved, at least fed and sheltered and protected. Nothing waits for them in the future but death.
Yet they keep going. Umezu’s protagonists are constantly overcome with shock, terror, and horror, but never with despair. Characters who give into hopelessness tend to die quickly. (There’s the id-logic again; if you give up, you might as well drop dead.) Sho is constantly running, shouting, ordering and begging everyone around him to press on. That’s the one chance Umezu offers: the chance to keep running.
Umezu’s stiff, old-fashioned, almost childlike art increases the sense of urgency and desperation. Hewn from the page in thick, crude lines, the characters seem to be clawing their way into existence, bent on telling their story even as it dooms them. They hardly seem to have come from a human hand at all.
The theme of soldiering on in the face of existential despair is not uncommon in manga, to the point that it’s become something of a cliché cop-out in some recent trying-too-hard-to-be-deep series. But it’s a theme that’s deeply moving—and deeply disturbing—when done well. The climax of Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa manga (not the anime, which ends at an earlier and more optimistic point in the narrative), in which the heroine courageously seals the doom of the human race, is a classic example. So is the entirety of Drifting Classroom, although, as with all of Umezu’s work, it’s pointless to say if it’s “done well” or “done poorly.” It’s done. As done as anything has ever been done. Full throttle.