The Drifting Classroom
Having coined the “horror manga” term, Umezu Kazuo experienced his first success with Hebi Shôjo (“The snake-girl”) in 1966, the first book from a bibliography specialized in the nightmarish. Incidentally, Hyôryû Kyôshitsu (The drifting classroom) won the annual award from Shôgakkan in 1975, and was even adapted as a television series in 2001, under the title Long Love Letter.
The story’s outline is fairly classic, focusing on the adventures and internal tensions of a small group left to their own devices in a situation involving survival — in this case, an elementary school transported to a sinister universe, the sole island of life in the middle of a desert under a constantly stormy sky. Then follows the detail of how this little group organizes or tears itself, torn between the practical contingencies and the growing power struggles. While the adults are depicted as greedy, egoist, and for the most part irresponsible, the children are the ones who will retain control.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies quickly springs to mind, with those children putting in place a structure of crisis government, which will very soon fall into violence and hatred. But Umezu Kazuo isn’t satisfied with only having those schoolkids’ rivalries play out, and conjures a whole gallery of strange and viscerally horrific creatures to step in — insects and reptiles ruling supreme over this chtonian world.
Often, the narration (complete with art that sometimes feels clumsy and shows its age, while always remaining extremely dark) tremendously hits the spot, with scenes that can prove difficult to stomach and where all moral taboos will be transgressed, including cannibalism. Some other times, the too blatant naivety breaks the spell : from the children’s dialogs, displaying an exaggerated maturity for elementary schoolkids, to the explanation of their being in this devastated universe, struck with the pseudo-scientific mumbojumbo fairly customary with Japanese science-fiction.
Like many other works labeled as “historical”, Hyôryû Kyôshitsu betrays its age and is not devoid of defaults, but it nonetheless remains a viscerally disturbing journey into the universe of horror manga.
- The symbolic adoption of the little Yuu is a striking example. Incidentally, this thematic of adults withdrawal from facing their responsibilities is one of the classical traits of “slashers” movies, with Freddy and Jason at the top of the list, where teenagers have to gain salvation through mutual aid and altruism — in a way reconstituting a familial structure.
- Excepted for the sexual.
- Like a few repetitions along those two thousands pages or so (in six small and thick, bunkô-sized volumes), in the last part of the story, with the reappearance of fights between groups of students, for instance.