The distance between the present and utopia is measured in centuries. We locate utopian societies in the future, and prefigure them with premonitions of apocalypse; the dysfunctional order of the present must be swept aside by some vaguely grasped apocalyptic event to allow a new and better world to emerge. Every generation faces their own unique brand of the end of the world: religious rapture, nuclear annihilation, natural disasters, clash of civilizations, Malthusian overpopulation, and so on. Ecological collapse caused by industrial pollution fuels the horror in Kazuo Umezu’s inventive, eleven-volume manga horror epic, The Drifting Classroom.
Adults As Part of the Problem
The titular classroom is actually Yamato Elementary School, which due to unknown circumstances finds itself ripped out of time and flung into a devastated future. The school, housing 863 students and teachers, becomes an ark adrift on the sea of toxic sand that covers the remains of Tokyo and the rest of the world. The school’s temporal realignment brings the kids and adults face to face with the deadly consequences of Japan’s famed “economic miracle.” They become the last remnants of civilization and, at the same time, the last hope for humanity’s survival.
It’s clear that Umezu perceives adults as part of the problem, for he dispenses with the teachers early on. One by one the grown-ups succumb to madness and die off quickly. They can’t process what is happening to them—the idea that the school might be in the future is utterly impossible—and unable to imagine the impossible they have to die off, like dinosaurs. The children, not yet saddled with dogmas of adulthood, are able to imagine the possibility of time travel and thus grasp the reality of their predicament. Their capacity to imagine the impossible becomes their salvation, but also the source of the horrors to come.
By the third volume the kids are on their own, allowing Umezu to present a kind of post-apocalyptic Lord of The Flies, with several hundred Piggies. Led by the idealistic sixth grader Sho and a few of his friends, the children try to survive both the inhospitable environment and themselves. The body count grows rapidly as they face toxic mushrooms, vicious plagues, freak floods, mutated spider-humans, mummies, bizarre starfish, gigantic sand worms, and starvation. This degraded future sharpens the children’s connection to the environment in several ways; for example, they can no longer take things like clean water for granted, and they have to conserve what meager supplies they have (a swimming pool with water, lunch room food, etc.).
These are just the more obvious lessons of ecology, however—Umezu’s genius is that he broadens ecology to include the social. To survive, the kids form the Nation of Yamato Elementary and elect Sho as the Prime Minister. But, like its counterparts in the present (their past), the nascent nation quickly succumbs to infighting and breaks into rival factions. Their society devolves from an idealistic democracy through various stages of feudalism to a band of starving nomads. For Umezu, the Nation of Yamato Elementary becomes a stand-in for the present world and shows the fate of civil society deprived of its ecological base.
Working in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, the horror of The Drifting Classroom is purely material—it isn’t mystical, as it tends to be in earlier Umezu works like Cat-Eyed Boy. He dispenses with ghosts, spirits and unexplained monsters, locating the real sources of “evil” in our ignorance of the workings of the world and the hubris of technological progress. And buried under the desert wasteland around the school are the remnants of human civilization; Umezu thus turns our own world into something akin to Lovecraft’s cyclopean ruins of some ancient antediluvian civilization (like the corpse-city of R’lyeh). Seen through the prism of the destroyed future, the industrialized world we live in seems like an apocalypse in slow motion. The skeletons of our cities seem bizarre and alien, the fossilized bones of a civilization choking on its own success.
Gods and Mutants
Umezu does break with Lovecraft in some ways. Lovecraft’s universe is completely indifferent to the fate of humanity. His gods are cosmic entities that have crossed into our world from unknowable dimensions. The destruction they wreak is almost accidental. In Umezu’s universe, the fate of humans and the planet is more intertwined and symbiotic; a poisoned planet leads to a toxic society and vice-versa. In one revealing sequence, the children decide to create a religion, and the image of Sho’s mother becomes a benevolent Goddess designed to give the kids hope in a hopeless world. Meanwhile, a small group of children slowly mutating from having ingested toxic mushrooms (!) create their own god: a one-eyed devil. Religion is not something divine and eternal—it’s a product of the environment and our imagination, and it offers both comfort and destruction. But neither can be our salvation. One leads to a debased existence as mutant spider-humans, the other only offers temporary relief. Ultimately, we have to listen to the planet and use our imagination to avoid the kind of future The Drifting Classroom posits.
Unfortunately, according to Umezu, the imaginative powers of the present are tainted by our “miraculous” industrial society. When we first meet Sho, he’s a typical kid. He covets toys, especially a “future car”—a sleek UFO-like automobile. And he has a conflicted relationship with adults; he tries to be nice to his mother, but ends up having a childish argument with her about some thrown-out marbles. Enraged, Sho runs off to school discarding an unwrapped present his mother gave him (it contains, of course, the “future car”). For both of them, futurity is embodied by the toy, a shining symbol of Japan’s relentless economic progress and technological prowess. Yet later in the series, after the children are forced to evacuate the school ahead of a toxic cloud and have been wandering through the lifeless desert, the starving kids end up in a UFO-domed amusement park—an impressive, automated relic from Japan’s industrial peak. At first it appears like paradise to the famished children, but the techno-Eden isn’t as benign as it seems. Everything is artificial—there is nothing that the kids can eat—and the park’s helpful robots, damaged by the ravages of time, have turned into deadly Terminator-like killers.
In fact, both the UFO-domed park and car had real world counterparts at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair Expo. Housed in part under a space-age dome by architect Kenzo Tange, the Expo presented Japan with an airbrushed techno-utopian vision that was becoming increasingly preposterous to the visitors. The Drifting Classroom was serialized in 1972-74. Japan at that time saw the emergence of its nascent environmental movement. Up until then, a single-minded pursuit of economic strength, characterized Japan’s post-war years. The “Japanese Miracle,” as it came to be known, saw a decades-long increase in the industrial output of the nation and a corresponding increase in the wealth of its citizens.
But the counterpoint to the economic miracle was a high level of environmental degradation. Japan’s industrial might was tainted by ecological disasters, increasing occurrences of birth defects, and a string of incurable disease outbreaks: Morinaga Milk Powder Poisoning (arsenic), Yokkaichi Asthma (sulphur dioxide), Minamata Disease (mercury), Itai-itai Disease (cadmium). All this led to a greater ecological consciousness, the emergence of the environmental movement, and eventually, the creation of the Japanese Environmental Protection Agency in 1971.
Until the disappearance of the school, both Sho and his mother are oblivious to the ultimate fate of the planet. They haven’t realized the damage their way of life was doing to the Earth. Paradoxically, when they become separated by centuries their relationship grows stronger. Through a handicapped girl, Nishi, who appears to have unexplained powers, Sho is able to communicate with his mother. Several times she is able to help her son, by strategically placing valuable objects (a knife, vaccine, etc.) in the past for Sho to excavate and use in the future.
Once the future cataclysm is made concrete by Sho’s time travel, his mother can finally take steps to try to avert that catastrophe. Her love for Sho enables her to overcome adult skepticism, bear the ridicule of others, and put her mind to work. If she can’t bring Sho back, at least she can change the present to make his future a better place.
If this makes the book sound didactic and preachy, it’s not. The themes and ideas outlined above simmer beneath a shimmering surface of a fast-paced and slickly drawn comics narrative. Since The Drifting Classroom was serialized in weekly episodes, it’s chock-full of cliffhangers and surprise twists and turns. It’s a compelling page-turner designed to move the reader efficiently through the narrative. Umezu’s detailed art skillfully builds tension in series of cinematic sequences. He uses darkness very effectively: sequences comprised entirely of panicked dark silhouettes can go on for page after suspenseful page.
Finally, when he unveils the bizarre mutant monsters of the future, they’re lovingly embellished with detailed renditions of blood, bone, and peeling skin. Also, the 863 inhabitants of Yamato Elementary give Umezu ample opportunity to rack up a high body count, and he doesn’t flinch; the students die off quickly, dispatched in new and inventive ways. He often lingers on a violent scene with sadistic glee, just to make us feel a little queasier. With a few deft pen strokes he can change an innocent child into one possessed by some unknown menace.
Stephen King of Japan
Often called the “Stephen King of Japan,” Kazuo Umezu is a giant of Japanese horror. A steady trickle of his comics has begun appearing in the US since the 2002 publication of Orochi: Blood, yet The Drifting Classroom remains his best-known work. Regardless, this is an opportune time for its appearance on American shores. It’s an artifact of a fertile period in Japan. The eco-awareness of the Japanese was mirrored by a growing sophistication of their manga.
Umezu’s sprawling epic dates from the same period that saw the rise of mature comics known as Gekiga (see the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi). Around the same time, Osamu Tezuka, the “god of manga” and creator of Astro Boy, serialized Ode to Kirihito, his first mature work. As American comic books make their steady climb into respectability and the specter of global ecological collapse appears imminent again, the horrors of Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom are a useful glimpse of a strange parallel world not that different from the one we encounter today.
The Drifting Classroom
VIZ Media ($9.99 each)
by Tom Kaczynski
I wrote this review a decade ago, but only a small snippet ever appeared online.