Instead of gore or monsters, The Drifting Classroom derives horror from the fall of humanity; it intends not so much to induce vomit as to shake us to our souls. The first four volumes describe the social collapse between students and teachers after their school teleports to a desolate alternate world, abandoning them to the ruthless game of survival. ‘Social collapse’ is of course an understatement: by volume two there have been stabbings, shootings, people being set on fire, an epileptic fit, a murderous car chase, a hostage situation, a monster attack, and students leaping to their deaths from the school roof. What stops the plot sinking into a tedious string of atrocities is the budding theme of improbable courage and endurance.
Working firmly in the Lord of the Flies mould, The Drifting Classroom‘s tale of moral erosion has a predictable trajectory – problems amass, events spiral out of control, people die. And naturally, it builds a microcosm of society, an abstracted situation to highlight the fundamental mechanisms behind social ills. Thus we see Darwinian instincts take over during fights with the nasty janitor over resources and attempts to bring order by electing a government turn into a negative campaign. In one sense, we know what to expect before turning the first page.
But the manga confronts us with such unusually distressing scenarios along the way that it can’t help but feel extraordinary. One upsetting scene involves the older students chloroforming the infants as a life-saving measure – the frightened little ones try to run, forcing the protagonist Sho Takamatsu and his group to tackle them with force. Although the situation requires nothing less, the children’s abject terror sours the moment to almost unbearable levels. Another sees Sho inspecting the results of a battle and finding a fallen comrade. Something about the corpse’s staring eyes in the foreground and the tear in his leg in the background evokes shivers.
Mangaka Kazuo Umezu generally recreates traumas in a way that defies desensitisation. His art oozes eeriness out of its very ink thanks to the shadowed faces and aggressive bold lines. As the teachers first peer through the school gates to witness the desolate wasteland beyond, Umezu smothers them in so much shadow that they become almost formless. A more apt image he could not have chosen, for that moment marks the first crack in their sense of responsibility towards the children; soon, they become as monstrous as they look.
But the news is not all defeatist, because Umezu nurtures among the horror a wondrous theme of redemption and courage. None reflect this journey more than Sho, who, against expectation, becomes an indispensable symbol of hope. A telling exchange early on shows him impatiently pushing away a classmate and calling her a ‘sissy’ when she clings to him during a quake. Contrast that with the bravery he shows later in the midst of growing tragedy. He is the one who figures out that they are no longer home and makes a speech to muster his classmates’ strength. And as his teachers react with violence, hitting or even stabbing children when they panic, he performs the first logical act – trying to call his mother on the school office phone and switching on the television to see if it receives signal. All his friends unsurprisingly begin to cling to him as a figurehead and he shoulders his new leadership with exemplary determination.
While these first four volumes largely focus on building thick layers of tragedy, they also take time to develop an affirmative subtext. The manga stabs straight into our insecurities as psychologically vulnerable human beings and creates a chillingly palpable dread, but it also presents a protagonist brimming with empathy in a situation where most don’t have that luxury. The Drifting Classroom thus starts as a profoundly gripping fable about the complexities of human nature and displays a forceful momentum that I hope will not ebb anytime soon.