The Drifting Classroom
Kazuo Umezu is known for being one of Japan’s most influential horror manga artists, but his simple linework and cartooning style is not typically what one would associate with the look of Horror Manga. In The Drifting Classroom, Umezu is able to achieve an exciting level of horror through a carefully crafted story that perfectly utilizes his own cartooning style. As with all great comic works, art and writing inform each other, and Umezu is able to craft a singular vision for his ambitious story by ensuring that his story and his art strengthen each other and the themes of horror and growth in his longform manga.
The Drifting Classroom centers around Sho Takamatsu, unwittingly thrust into the position of leading his schoolmates through the wasteland of the future world. He’s a good kid, a little rough around the edges, but at his heart he is brave and selfless. His journey from selfish kid to responsible leader is played out across the eleven volumes of The Drifting Classroom, and it’s the kind of character arc that aims to be identifiable to the reader. We have all been in Sho Takamatsu’s place, perhaps not under such supernatural/science fictional stresses, but Sho’s emotional development is meant to mirror our own journey to maturity.
Kazuo Umezu’s designs for each of the kids in Yamato Elementary are fairly uncomplicated, but the simple designs belie a true strength in cartooning that comes out in their juxtaposition to the more detailed and horrible elements of the post-apocalyptic setting. Mouths hang open in simple circles of disbelief and brows furrow as the children encounter terrifying threats rendered in dirty, scaly detail both within and beyond the gates of their school. Umezu effectively uses this juxtaposition of the simple with the more detailed as a tactic of identification and, conversely, alienation. The simple designs and cartooning encourage a sense of identification with the reader. We are meant to recognize something of ourselves in these children, and Umezu’s purposeful sparseness with their look makes them open for us to project both ourselves and our friends on them. This capacity for identification draws in the readers and better positions them to empathize with the terror the characters feel upon encountering the monsters and strange environments outside in the wasteland of this future earth.
The monsters and environments, on the other hand, are drawn with a specificity that imposes a feeling of otherness to their appearance. These are all things that have never been been seen in real life, and as such they must look the part. Their detailed and distinct appearances leave no question about their otherness, a quality that is further augmented by the juxtaposition with the straightforward designs of the children, and because we’ve been drawn into identifying with these children, the horror at seeing these creatures comes from the alienation we experience when we are exposed to such a strongly confrontational visual representation of “otherness.” One of the main sources of abject terror in The Drifting Classroom is that the adversary doesn’t look like us, they don’t look like anything we’ve ever seen, and that nothing in this world is familiar anymore. Umezu is playing into some very primal fears of otherness and alienation, primal fears that embody the kill-or-be-killed nature of this new world, and he does this by allowing us to create an internal logic to interpret his art-- namely that simple, familiar looking things like the kids of Yamato Elementary are meant to be reflections ourselves, and that anything that is drawn in much darker detail is meant to signify unfamiliarity and hostility.
However, this internal logic that we are meant to follow gets flipped on its head in later volumes when the adversary becomes not only the monsters outside the gates, but also the children inside who disagree with Sho, namely Otomo. He is drawn just like any of the other kids, and he is also a part of the group of survivors in this future world, but his violent opposition to the cause of unity reveals him to be just as deadly as any giant monster. Umezu does this to further reinforce the idea that no one is safe and that danger is everywhere, even in those we trust. That Sho and Otomo eventually are able to work out their differences despite many bloody battles speaks to a message of hope that Umezu holds to amidst this landscape of fear.
It’s important to note that the terror of the children is not the entire focal point of The Drifting Classroom. While The Drifting Classroom does act as an allegory of the trials of adolescence, Umezu also takes time to shift his focus to Sho’s Mother. While the children are trapped in a desolate future, Sho’s mother is trapped in her own time, unable to help her son. Sho’s supernatural connection to her (aside from being a convenient plot device) effectively sustains her pain and grief, creating a portrait of the desperation you would feel if you were in a position of being helpless to aid those closest to you. That she can’t simply mourn her son is its own abject kind of horror, parallel to the grief of each of the students of Yamato Elementary. Her connection to her son adds a level of frustration to her pain; She knows her son is out there somewhere, but no one will believe her, a feeling that is consistent with Umezu’s tactics of forcing you to wonder what you would do in this character’s place. Umezu is again using the idea of identification or empathy as a tactic for evoking horror in his story, and in some respects the problems of Sho’s mother reflect those of Sho himself. Sho’s mother is in a world that feels unfamiliar to her, a world where her son is dead but she can still hear her voice and no one believes her, while Sho and his group are literally in an unfamiliar world where they can only rely on themselves. Both are helpless, but both still cling to the hope that there is a way to make things right.
By the end of the series we do get something of an explanation as to how the world got this way, and again, it is reflective of Sho’s experience. The world has been reduced to such a state after lifetimes of humans living recklessly have finally taken their toll on the world. Sho also once lived his life recklessly without any inkling of responsibility for himself and others. Being forced into this future wasteland, however, has changed Sho, and as such, when an opportunity to get back home presents itself, Sho instead chooses Yu, the youngest member of their group to go back. Sho sends him back with the message to change the world for the better, so that they hopefully won’t have to live in the wasteland surrounding them. In keeping with this message, Sho and the rest of the kids stay in the future, determined to make the earth habitable once again. It’s the culmination of the journey of learning responsibility. Sho has learned responsibility for himself and others through leading his schoolmates through countless dangers, but he has also learned about taking responsibility on a global scale, sending Yu back to help everyone in the past make sure they all learn to take responsibility for their world and the environment. Umezu’s optimistic ending may seem incongruous with the horrors his characters endured, but even when horrible things were happening, there remained a sense of optimism, that things could change for the better. The conclusion of the series takes the optimism that had been laying buried beneath the horror and brings it to the forefront of our attention, in turn reflecting what he had been showing us all along in this world full of monsters and disaster: That though there may be darkness and danger, there must always be hope to make the world better.