Don’t walk; run. Don’t speak; shout. Don’t cry; wail until your throat is raw. These are some of the guiding principles of Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom, a horror classic that’s been licensed as part of Viz’s Signature line.
People who have rejected manga based on its reflective tendencies and leisurely pace won’t have anything to worry about here. Umezu’s tale of the students and teachers of a suburban elementary school mysteriously transported to a menacing wasteland moves at an insane clip. Describing anything as a roller-coaster ride is beyond cliché, but it applies here, assuming lengths of track are missing and the coaster has been built over an active volcano.
I’m reluctant to describe any of the book’s plot beyond a bare-bones summary, because I think the thrill of it comes from the shocks that arrive on just about every page. Umezu doesn’t dwell on the hows of his story; the school has disappeared, and that’s all that matters. The Drifting Classroom concentrates instead on the ensuing panic and its influence on human behavior.
And that behavior is genuinely shocking. The children are desperate for some kind of guidance or comfort, and the adults are far too out of their depth to provide it, though they try to go through the motions. Hysteria manifests in anger and violence. No one knows what’s happening or what to do, and the ordinary order of the school dissolves in terrifying ways.
I admit that I laughed several times while reading The Drifting Classroom. I think it was laughter born of disbelief. “Did I actually just read that? Did Umezu actually just draw that?” I did, and he did. It’s pure madness, and it almost never rests.
Despite the fact that it was originally released in 1972, there’s nothing particularly quaint about the book. It looks less like a manga that was ahead of its time when published as it does a weirdly brilliant contemporary pastiche of its original period.
In a text piece at the end, author Patrick Macias notes that The Drifting Classroom came after the period where Umezu’s work was strongly influenced by Osamu Tezuka. I still think there’s a great deal of Tezuka here. (I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Astro Boy come soaring into the school’s playground, though I’m fairly sure no good would have come of it if he had.)
But it’s Tezuka providing the architecture for Umezu’s own style. Umezu takes the open faces of children and crumples them with suspicion, grief and rage. He takes the stalwart composure of adults and undermines it with bewildered panic. Thick speed lines are used to illustrate terror instead of adventure.
The Drifting Classroom is unquestionably one of the weirdest manga I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most exciting. Umezu has crafted a nightmare out of disturbing but believable human behavior.