The Drifting Classroom is a horror manga series by Kazuo Umezu originally published from 1972 to 1974 in Weekly Shōnen Sunday. Umezu is regularly cited as a master in the horror genre. Some of his most well-known works include The Drifting Classroom, Cat Eyed Boy, and Makoto-chan.
I only recently started exploring horror manga, and I find it fascinating. As a newcomer, I usually end up at the most popular authors, because they are the easiest to find. Since they are also considered staples of the genre, it's a great jumping-off point to see if I want to explore further.
After reading Junji Ito's Gyo and Uzumaki, I decided to seek out those that had inspired him. This led me to Umezu and The Drifting Classroom.
It was horrifying.
It was incredibly depressing.
I loved it.
The premise is pretty cut-and-dried: A Japanese elementary school is inexplicably thrown forward in time to the end of the 20th century, where the entire planet has become a desolate wasteland. The real essence of the story is how the characters live and react after said teleportation.
Their motivations and relationships are based almost entirely on survival instinct, with rational thought and reason thrown out in the face of pure desperation and fear. The fact that they are children made it even more disturbing. At first, I expected grotesque, inhuman monsters to become the huge threat. But I was pleasantly disappointed.
Everyone has a breaking point, no matter how noble or sensible they appear to be. The Drifting Classroom stresses this so well. Almost immediately, people turn on each other. The term "friend" becomes meaningless. Logic and common sense are mercilessly crucified. Psychological trauma is always the underlying menace, from start to finish. I was constantly cringing, but I just couldn't stop reading.
There is never a safe point for these kids. Every time it seemed there was a moment of calm, I found myself dreading to have to turn the page, because I knew some new horrible danger was just around the corner. Umezu's pacing is superb. There are so many unexpected hazards from both the outside world and the children themselves. There is violence, but it's only violence necessary to the story. It never turns into a gore-fest for the sake of just being gross. The focus is the writing, which is what good storytelling is all about. You really feel for these characters and their struggle to survive.
The artwork has a very intentional style. Some argue that the human characters look too cartoonish. I disagree. The fact that the future world and all its unspeakable horrors do not share the same art style works in Umezu's favor, and I would argue that it was a very conscious decision. It accentuates how displaced the children really are from everything they know and love. There is no safe zone, no time to relax even for a moment. They are totally alone and without help. Even with a simpler character style, the complete and utter torture these kids are going through is all too real, and is a testament to Umezu's artistic ability.
Volume 1 didn't really capture my attention all that much. The whole thing basically served as an extended prologue for the rest of the series. My interest didn't pique until the end of Volume 3, at which I frantically devoured the remaining volumes like a lunatic.
It was so good, and something I will be sure to lend out and recommend. It was turned into a live-action movie back in the 80s, but I just watched it on YouTube and it was pretty blah compared to the source material. It has also been turned into a TV series in Japan, but I haven't checked that out yet.
In the States, the series was split into eleven volumes published by Viz as part of their Signature Series. As with most popular series from years past, it shares the distinction of having one or two random volumes at an exorbitant price. In this case, Volume 7. The rest of them are below MSRP. If you don't need physical copies, then all of them are even cheaper digitally. I can't recommend this series enough. It's a great portal into the brilliance that horror manga can be. Pick it up!