Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

22 Sept 2011

(Graphic Novel) The Drifting Classroom by: Umezu Kazuo

(Reaction) Welcome to Someone Else's Nightmare by: Jose Angelo Singson

The Drifting Classroom is a horror graphic novel written by one of the progenitors of the genre, Umezu Kazuo. It is a chilling story of a group of young children whose entire school is mysteriously transported to a bleak, unforgiving landscape filled with horrible beasts which they find out much later on is actually Earth/Japan in the very distant future after an unnamed apocalyptic event.

The graphic novel is an ecological cautionary tale warning the reader about the dangers that our current way of life could realistically escalate towards. These admonitions are not just about pollution but also about the increasing callousness of people towards each other and a backhanded poke at today's unfair or usurious trade practices.

This is the second of Umezu-sensei's works written along this vein, the other being Fourteen. Make no mistake though; The Drifting Classroom is nowhere near anything like Ursula Le Guinn's writings or Hayao Miyazaki's animated films. Kazuo Umezu makes heavy use of cinematic pacing and elements of noir and hard sci-fi. Umezu-sensei has further set himself apart from his contemporaries by liberally lacing his hardened tales with supernatural undertones. The Drifting Classroom is more like Lost meets Lord of the Flies meets The Mist in a blender rather than Changing Planes or Nausicaa. Although he tackles an ecological-save-the-earth-for-the-future-generations theme, the approach is decidedly different and it is what really puts the graphic novel in a class of its own.

First there's the art... I've never been a great fan of Umezu-sensei's art. I've always found it too cartoon-y, outright silly and sometimes downright bad. His character's movements are often penned like those four-pannel comic strips in the newspaper, especially when they run. They're often drawn with both legs suspended in the air in a running motion with nothing more than dynamic movement lines to give you a sense of their movement. The children are all uniformly drawn with the exception of some that have been given humorously exaggerated features to distiguish them from the rest, like buck teeth, or squinty eyes; but for some strange reason, it works for the story.

The juxtaposition of wide-eyed anime art and the austere, grotesque surroundings and situations the children find themselves in only serves to highlight the recurring themes of the story; that is, the innocence and positive potential of the youth and survival amidst maddening horror. Despite the doe-eyed look of the characters in the novel the artist-author is also a master of the visual macbre. He uses light and shade, utilizing subtle shifts in brightness and darkess to accentuate the overall atmosphere of dread, often to truly effective heights. When the characters are frightened, and they often are; all the Disney-esque sweetness disappears and is replaced by this look of wild terror that can only be found in trauma victims or those that have gone insane...

Again, is it this marriage of the absurd and the monstrous, of cartoon and Lovecraftian horror that makes the novel so effective in moving a reader out of his comfort zone. Indeed, towards the later parts of the novel it would seem like the reader is taking a peep at someone's nightmares or a terrible chemically-induced hallucination.

Similar to the Grimm fairy tailes that his early works used as its muse, this story yanks the rug out from under his readers and drops them like the proverbial hot potato into a truly sinister portrayal of human morality or in many cases, the utter lack thereof. In this notorious masterpiece, The Drifting Classroom, the elementary students are pitted against monsters, famine, and disease but learn very quickly that these terrors do not hold a candle when compared to the evils that men are capable of.

Although the overall theme of the graphic novel is to warn the reader of the dangers of poor environmental management the other theme that is heavily featured is the innocence and nobility of character that is, at least to the author, inherent in very young children. This is apparent in the author's choice of both protagonist and antagonist. The main character of the story, Sho Takamatsu, is depicted as being noble, brave, and quite selfless. He consistently refuses to sacrifice anyone for the good of the rest. He and the other 5th grade children band together to form a crude government, an equally crude agricultural system and a series of simple by-laws to help establish order in their post-apocalyptic society.

The antagonists on the other hand are the adults and older children (6th graders). Mind you, the depiction of the adult antagonists are hardly anything like stuffy, rule-of-law obsessed disciplinarians commonly depicted in Hollywood movies. These characters are sick, twisted individuals that were already deeply mentally scarred who then crack under the horrible conditions that the doomsday world subjects them through. A handful of the teaching staff give way to the immense emotional strain and commit suicide while another teacher that had witnessed the suicide suffers from a mental breakdown and goes on a killing spree murdering children and other surviving teachers. Another notable adult villain in the novel is Yusaku Sekiya, the 38 year old school lunch delivery man. Children, in his opinion, are resources to be exploited by him. Even teenagers in the graphic novel are featured as villains. Chief among these is a character known only as Princess/Hime. She is the leader of a girl gang who attempts to take over the school after all the adults died. She is a sadistic, cruel bully who advocates capital punishment for petty crimes and readily inflicts harm to anyone she feels like hurting.

The Drifting Classroom constantly features very young children as a powerful force of good as well as an agents of positive change. This is provides us with a very interesting bit of insight on Umezu-sensei's personal outlook. Despite his gory, dark and brooding works he remains at the very heart of things, an optimist. Yes, he is an optimist despite the deeply cynical flavor of his works. I say this because the author constantly features his very young characters as having a nobility of character rare in people and this nobility of character is often coupled with a deep understanding of the situations they are in. This wholistic understanding of their situation spurs them to move forward and survive, not just for survival's sake but often for the sake of others too. The author sees children as hope for the future. He places great faith in these young souls that they will become great minds who will revolutionize this jaded, weary world. The author doesn't make attempts to conceal his disdain for adults either. He constantly depicts them as greedy, murderous and irredeembly evil.

The children in The Drifting Classroom, or at least those that survive long enough to get to the 5th chapters without suffering from some nervous breakdown are amazingly resilient. They are able to encourage each other, pool together and effectively manage whatever scant resources they have available. They are also able to adequately rationalize the awful circumstances they are in and bravely face whatever dangers they are confronted with, which is without exaggeration nearly constant and comes from both human and fantastic sources.

Interestingly all this zeal for survival is done without sacrificing any of their humanity. They refuse to resort to cannibalism when food supplies are limited. They treat the sick and wounded rather than let them die. They opt to draw up a simple constitution rather than go with a might makes right rule. Many of the children survive clear through the end without themselves becoming beasts, again proving the author's view of children as ultimately more noble than adults.

This is another predominant theme in the graphic novel: survival. They plant what seeds they can get from their science classes and raise them for food. They band together using makeshift weapons to defend themselves against mutants and murderous adults and teens. They even go as far as to begin worshiping an image of Sho's mother as a symbol of hope to keep their morale afloat and their sanity intact. Some of the situations in the graphic novel are pretty extreme examples of what the children are capable of doing in order to live in the barren hellscape that they are in.

There is a scene in the The Drifting Classroom where the hero suffers from appendicitis and has to be operated on by another child without anesthesia. Although it is highly implausible that anyone could survive or that they could carry out such a procedure, you just read through it gritting your teeth at the prospect of being cut open by a frightened 11-year old while you are conscious, while you feel every stroke of the scalpel. However, you read through it hoping to yourself that the hero pulls through after the operation.

Visual and visceral horror aside, what makes The Drifting Classroom a truly successful work of horror fiction is the utter absurdity of their situation and unrelenting danger the characters are immersed in. The author makes no attempts to clearly explain how the school was transported into the wasteland of future earth. Towards the end of the graphic novel however the surviving children manage to piece together the closest thing to a plausible answer they can get. They deduce that they were transported there via a classmate's latent psychic ability that was aggravated by a flubbed attempt at arson by another classmate. Unfortunately, their resident psychic has no mastery over her own powers or proper mental strength to successfully bring them back to their previous reality. The graphic novel ends with the children making a surprising decision to stay behind and try to restore the wasteland to some semblance of its former glory but before that they make the selfless decision to send the youngest member of their group, a toddler named Yuichi, back to pre-apocalypse Japan to live out his days in the care of his parents.

Review:

I am a huge fan of the strange and the awful but I found The Drifting Classroom to be a difficult read. I found myself needing to take frequent mental breaks from reading it because it was so...depressing. That and it the sheer amount of visual detail of the graphic novel's art really strains the eyesight. I also found myself needing to move back and forth between chapters to try to make sense of what had happened and what had been accomplished since mostly because of the sheer bizarre-ness of it all.

Needless to say this is not a bad bit of work. In fact it is one of the most truly original works of science-fiction/horror that I have had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. You know that a horror novel or movie is effective when you are still unnerved after you put down the book or after you leave the theater. The Drifting Classroom is exactly that. It makes you think about unpleasant possibilities of living life after some sort of holocaust and those images of screaming, fear-maddened children, well...its hard to forget that sort of imagery.

Kitschy as it sounds The Drifting Classroom is indeed a roller coaster ride of emotions through nightmarescapes of a visionary with a decidedly unhinged mind.

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