One last old-school work for the month, and I'm taking things out with yet another 1970s series. This one, though, is very different from the others I've reviewed. This time it's a horror series by a mangaka who is just as well respected as the others I've covered but is far less well-known or renowned.
THE DRIFTING CLASSROOM (Hyoryu Kyoshitsu), by Kazuo Umezu. First published in 1972, and first published in North America in 2006.
One morning, Sho wakes up in a bad mood. It's not his fault, though. She didn't wake him up on time, plus she threw out all the treasures and things he had kept stashed in his drawer! So like a brat, he trashes the breakfast table, yells at his mother, and basically acts like a wee little bastard. That would probably be the most notable thing about his day, if this day were like any other.
That day, Sho's elementary school disappears in a loud explosion. This sounds like the end of the story, but it is only the beginning, for the school did not truly explode. Instead it was transported to an unknown dimension, a blank vast wasteland that kills those who venture out into it. As the families left behind try to figure out what happened, those within the school - staff and student alike - begin to panic as they come to grips with the fact that they are trapped in a place with no way out and no way to communicate their plight to the world.
The best summary of the story would be to simply call it Mass Hysteria: The Manga! At first this seems like it will solely be Sho's story, but once the school is teleported the story widens its focus to encompass some of the other fellow students and staff members around Sho. The way people react to their situation, as unreal as it may be, is very realistic onto itself. Some try to be proactive and try to leave or communicate with the world. Some curl up into a gibbering mess. Others give in to their basest instincts and lash out at others.
This part takes up roughly the second half of the story, and it's so deadly serious in tone as to make the first half kind of ridiculous. It doesn't help that I found Sho to be an insufferable little brat. I didn't want to follow this kid's story, I wanted someone to smack him! Still, he gets the lion's share of character development here, so I guess we the readers are stuck with him. It is worth sticking it out, though, because once things get supernatural, they do get very good. Unlike a lot of horror manga, the horror here doesn't come so much from the supernatural forces at work so much as it comes from the despair and horror of the human mind when faced with a disaster it could never imagine, never prepare for, and is seemingly hopeless to fight against.
I'm glad that the story is pretty solid because this has to be some of the ugliest artwork I've seen in a manga. The faces are strangely realistic, but also very stiff and seemingly too small for the characters' heads. It doesn't help that their reactions come in one of two variations: Realistic and Completely Over-the-Top Cartoony. The only that does seem to express itself are the characters' eyebrows. It's particularly weird when characters cry, because it looks like their eyes are melting, which is horrific all on its own but not what the mangaka intended. There's very little flow of action between panels, and the ones where characters run are the goofiest look things ever, stuck in a jaunty running pose like an action figure floating in the background.
Indeed, the artwork as a whole is very dark and unshifting, regardless of mood. The backgrounds are equally dark and detailed, full of hatching. That's one of the few places where the darkness works, as it effectively matches the dark and foreboding mood of the work. Sadly, it can't compensate for the stiffness and oddness of the characters within it, and it sometimes undercuts the seriousness and horror of the story.
There's a surprisingly thorough biography of Umezu, as well as a bibliography of his works. It's nice that Viz chose to give the reader some context for the mangaka as well as this work.
The psychological horror in the story is fascinating, but it sadly can't compensate for the hideous, stiff artwork.
This series was released by Viz. All 11 volumes were released and are in print. This series is also available in full in e-book form via Viz Digital.
You can purchase this volume and many more like it through RightStuf.com!