Kazuo Umezu is to horror manga what Osamu Tezuka is to… manga. Anyway, Umezu knows horror. Probably his most well-known work in the West is The Drifting Classroom. Written between 1972 and 1974, the series ran weekly in Shonen Sunday magazine and was adapted into a live-action film in 1987.
The Drifting Classroom centers around an elementary school that mysteriously disappears off the face of the planet. People aren’t exactly sure what happened. The most common explanation is that there was a gas explosion that completely demolished the building. The only problem with that hypothesis is that there’s no debris left over from the explosion.
What really happened is that the school is transported to a strange desert landscape where they are surrounded by nothing but endless sand dunes. The students and the few faculty have to find a way to survive in their harsh, new environment.
In the beginning of the story, there’s a plot point concerning a student who is under stress and imagines a giant insect that attacks the school. The bug is a manifestation of his fears. With the help of the other students, he learns how to overcome this fear, and the giant insect vanishes.
This sets up an interesting notion that this place, wherever it may be, is influenced by the character’s psyche. However, this idea is quickly thrown out the window after the bug story wraps up. I’m not really sure what happened, but it seems that the weekly chapter format is to blame for a lot of the plot holes and shifts in direction that come about as the story progresses.
Shortly after one of the teachers goes insane, kills all the other adults, and then ends up dying himself, the student’s discover that they are in the future where Earth has been transformed into a wasteland thanks to pollution. The environmental overtones only grow stronger as the story continues.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, some of the environmental messages are a bit heavy-handed, but it helps ground the story and push things forward. I still can’t help but wonder how things would have played out if Umezu had followed the more metaphysical horror elements introduced in the giant insect story, though.
After it is accepted by the student body that they have arrived in the future, the story turns into a Lord of the Flies-esque tale where the students alternate between working together, being paranoid of one another, and straight up murdering each other. Also, there’s cannibalism, and as you can imagine, that part is pretty disturbing.
Despite some plot holes and hokey deus ex-machina elements that run throughout, The Drifting Classroom‘s story is fast-paced and nail-biting. Once the revelation about them being in the future hits, the story becomes less horror and more suspense. However, it maintains a futurist, H.G. Wells’ style foreboding vibe to it the whole way through.
One of the most gripping scenes comes after the students have split into two opposing factions. The leader of one side ends up contracting appendicitis, and the rest of his group is forced to operate. One student’s father is a doctor, which of course doesn’t really qualify him to do anything medical related, and he protests as much when the rest of the kids choose him to perform the operation, but they have no other choice.
It’s an incredibly tense scene as the students fumble through a medical book from the school library and use what meager supplies are available to them to perform the procedure. Pencil sharpening knives turn into scalpels and an old bottle of whiskey left in one of the deceased teacher’s desk is used as antiseptic. During the operation, the doctor’s son almost passes out and a girl working as his nurse spits in his face to keep him from fainting as she’s holding open the kid’s stomach incision with her bare hands.
These are elementary school kids. It’s absolutely insane.
Things get a bit out of control toward the end with one of the student’s mother having a psychic connection to her son and a burglar who happened to be in the school at the time it was teleported only having his arm and half of his face transported to the future. That latter point is also only revealed toward the final few chapters of the story as well.
That’s what I’m talking about when I say the weekly format kind of hurt the story overall. Umezu was working under tight deadlines and probably didn’t have much time to really map things out or think through some of his plot points before having to hand in his work for publication.
The Drifting Classroom has some flawed storytelling and some heavy-handed environmental overtones, but that doesn’t really distract from the ominous atmosphere and tense pacing. If anything, it makes it more unique and worth discussing. There are dozens of other little episodes throughout the story that are bizarre, frightening, and intense, but I’ll let you discover them for yourself.
All 11 volumes have been translated into English. The paperbacks are out of print and becoming more expensive as the years go on, but the entire series is available digitally through Amazon, so it’s still very easy to get your hands on and a perfect read for the Halloween season.