You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Sunday, July 17, 2011


The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 1 The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 1 by Kazuo Umezu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Umezu is the best visual storyteller of the horror manga writers I've read, but I think I have found his stylistic weak point in The Drifting Classroom. The event the sends Yamato Elementary School into another dimension is part explosion, part earthquake, but truly otherworldly. In the real world, the campus has left an enormous cravasse in the town, but threre are no visible ruins of the school. The school itself seems to have survived undamaged a serious earthquake, until faculty and students realize that their campus is the only structure that exists in a landscape that could be called lunar except for the heavy cloud cover. All this Umezu narrates and depicts concisely with unsettling images. But for the range of emotions that his characters must be experiencing, he depicts them the most part as looking furious if not deranged.

The Japanese version of "tough love" might give Western proponents of the same reasons to rethink the technique. Sho is a sixth grader at the center of the tale. In the first chapter his mother purposely lets him sleep through his alarm as a lesson in responsibility. The ensuing fight escalates to the point that after he calls her a witch he leaves the house threatening never to return. His mother, surrounded by broken crockery, shouts after him, "Fine by me. You are no son of mine. I hope you never come back." Later, after the catastrophe, one male teacher's technique for calming the sobbing students is to grab a first grader and stab him in the arm with a shattered pair of glasses, shouting, "This is what will happen if you don't stop!" Since he has used his own son for the graphic demonstration, the situation blows over.

This is volume 1 of an 11 volume series, and most of the second half sets up characters and mysteries to be solved in subsequent installments. Older students are asked to keep younger students calm. First graders happily continue their group singing, but third graders prove to be a real threat. The teachers try lying to calm the students, but we know they are also capable of violence. The principal appears to have slept through the whole event until the last pages of the book. He shows up concerned that some one has stolen the month's paychecks. The cliffhanger ending introduces a power-mad cafeteria manager who realizes his chance to become most the important player in the days to come.

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