Horror serves many different purposes for those who seek it. Some people stare down the existential dread of death by seeing it inevitably claim lives in fiction. Others think gore and murder are kickin’ rad, not because they want to enact violence themselves, but because seeing it done in art is one of the only acceptable ways to indulge in the macabre. Horror and insurmountable odds are also the stuff of inspiration: plenty of authors embrace terrifying narratives, they claim, in order to teach and demonstrate that such frights can be overcome. In Kazuo Umezz’s The Drifting Classroom, there is ripe material for all these tastes and more.

One day, a Japanese school and all 864 of it students, faculty, and staff are transported to what seems like a weird, alien land. The “drift” itself is precluded by the casual nastiness and obscured kindness of sixth-grader Sho and his mother. They yell at each other about her strictness and nosiness and his keeping a messy room and dangerous objects. He saved up money to buy her a gift in lieu of a toy he greatly desired, but it was accidentally broken before he could get home. Much of The Drifting Classroom has to do with good intentions being sidelined by sudden catastrophe, and the great effort it takes to recover from the resulting trauma and collateral damage.

To describe in plain terms what happens next would be a massive disservice without emphasizing the timing, pacing, abrupt tonal shifts, and constant mounting dread demonstrated in lingering shots of panicked faces distorted with fear. This story is violent, despairing, and dehumanizing, yet is also at turns encouraging and even silly. The adults at the school do their best to maintain order, but without any rational explanation for what’s happened, they quickly become as authoritarian and abusive as the students eventually become toward each other. Food becomes a hot commodity, as does sane leadership. A monstrous insect terrorizes the school, unifying everyone against it one moment, but also wedging apart the useful, practically minded students from those experiencing meltdowns or trying to assert control.

I suspect teen readers will be better able to roll with the flexible tone of The Drifting Classroom than adults, who might hyper-focus on a given violent scene to the exclusion of the greater narrative. One show-stopper after another keeps readers too frightened, grossed out, or even exhilarated to slow down. Many of these have to do with terrible things happening to children. First-graders, screaming from the rooftops for their parents, decide to jump, believing they’ll turn into birds and fly home. Adults and students hit, cut, and scheme against each other, sometimes out of survival or grievance against the school, other times because someone has been named a scapegoat and must be punished. One student is crucified and burned alive by classmates. One girl, demanding to be called “Princess,” makes examples of a couple of students by pummeling them, including having her minions strip a boy naked and step on his groin.

What purpose does this all this grisly business serve? The children are resilient and want to take care of each other, physically and emotionally. A last-minute gambit against a monster rampaging through the school is for the kids to pretend with every fiber of their being that they are chairs. Aggressive denial of one’s own personhood as the price to be paid for continued survival says a lot about the generational trauma Umezz (also known as Umezu) frequently implies. There’s evidence that the school has traveled into the future, and that any continued civility among the survivors is moot because the planet’s dead anyway. The series may have been first published in the early 1970s, but its themes reach directly into modern-day despondency over the world tilting into extinction. The brutal betrayals, murders, and bullying make the occasional appeal to humanity and shared purpose a welcome relief and reminder that we are still responsible for ourselves. The new hardcover omnibus editions from Viz are a godsend for every reader who will be transformed by them, especially teens, for whom this series has been waiting like a dire warning in a bottle.

The Drifting Classroom: Perfect Edition, vol. 1
By Kazuo Umezz
ISBN: 9781974709373
Viz, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)

  • Thomas

    | He/Him Teen Services Librarian, Richland Library

    Features Writer

    Thomas is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. While studying for his MLIS at the University of South Carolina, he won an award from Thomas Cooper Library for his curation of the works of “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. He has spoken about manga, graphic novels, teen programming, and podcasting at NashiCon, DragonCon, ColaCon, New York Comic Con, and American Library Association conferences. He has been on on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels For Teens selection committee, written articles for Public Libraries, The Hub, Book Riot, and Library Trends, and reviews for School Library Journal and Kirkus.

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