Drifting Classroom Vol. 1-2

By Kazuo Umezu
192 pages, black and white
Published by Viz

When Viz released Kazuo Umezu’s Orochi: Blood back in 2002, I’d hoped it was the start of a long line of releases by the noted Japanese master of horror. It’s taken a few years, but Umezu’s works are now appearing in English again, both in Dark Horse’s Scary Book series of Umezu short works, and Viz’s The Drifting Classroom. With The Drifting Classroom two of its eleven volumes are now translated, and I can’t help but wonder if publishing the other nine books could somehow result in a worldwide shortage of exclamation points thanks to its relentless intensity.

Sixth-grade student Sho is prone to melodrama. Making a big deal over minor events like his alarm clock being broken or inconsequential arguments with his mother, he’s ready to stomp off to school while tossing off barbs about never coming home, or hating his mother. Unfortunately for Sho, he’s about to discover what real problems are. A strange earthquake transports his entire school to a desolate wasteland with no sign of life; there, cut off from the rest of civilization, madness will soon set in. But that’s the least of their problems, as Sho will quickly find out, and it may come down to the students to find a way to save themselves.

Umezu’s basic set-up for The Drifting Classroom is terrifying in its simplicity and elegance. A school full of children and teachers suddenly moved to an apocalyptic landscape of sands and howling winds, with no electricity, running water, or supplies beyond what exists in the building. Under even the best of circumstances it’s hard to imagine people holding their sanity together for long when confronted with such a situation, and Umezu isn’t afraid to assemble a cast of average, ordinary people who quickly melt under the pressure. Ultimately it’s up to some of the older students (who can simultaneously understand the gravity of the situation and also have pliable enough minds to adapt) such as Sho to try and save everyone, but every time one problem is solved a new one arises—and that’s in many ways the biggest problem with The Drifting Classroom.

Umezu doesn’t seem willing to ever let up on the level of intensity and shock rippling through his story; it’s like you’re watching a movie where the characters can’t stop shouting their dialogue for well over an hour. The more of The Drifting Classroom that you read in close proximity to each other, the more wearying the experience can become. In some ways The Drifting Classroom is a wonderful example of an argument against collected editions; this is a series that seems to be read only in short bursts, chapter-by-chapter in initial serialization. When read in small doses, The Drifting Classroom‘s melodrama doesn’t seem so over-the-top and exaggerated. This is important, because in that format it’s really a chilling and creepy story. It’s amazing what a difference a simple format change can make.

The art in The Drifting Classroom has both its ups and downs. When it comes to painting the basic look and feel of The Drifting Classroom, Umezu delivers in spades. The new world that the characters find themselves in is perfect-looking, with its shifting sand dunes and roiling black clouds always overhead. This is a nightmare come to life, and Umezu presents it to the reader unflinching. Even the school itself takes on a sinister appearance, with shadows around every corner and it beginning to resemble less a place of learning and more of a forsaken prison. It’s a strong piece of storytelling, and for that alone Umezu’s art achieves its purpose. Unfortunately, not all of the art is quite as strong in The Drifting Classroom. Umezu’s characters come across unnaturally stiff and posed; there’s never any real sense of movement or action among them, as if the book is populated by toy figures that were carefully placed and photographed for each scene. It’s frustrating, because once you notice how poorly Umezu can portray motion it’s impossible to not notice. In some scenes it actually diminishes the impact because the reader’s attention is less on the events and more on the weaknesses of the art.

The Drifting Classroom‘s first two volumes are unfortunately a bit flawed. The art is stiff in places, and the intensity is annoyingly strong when read in large doses. Umezu’s ideas and twists are unnerving, though, and his story is well worth reading. It says a lot that The Drifting Classroom is still a must-read when it comes to horror. For all of its problems, its strengths still more than outweigh any negatives.

Purchase Links (Vol. 1): Amazon.com
Purchase Links (Vol. 2): Amazon.com

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