It’s not all fun and games
Stories about kids and their lives have a bad tendency to be wildly off the mark of what childhood is like. Swaddling kids in an all-encompassing naive innocence is a common way to go—especially in horror stories, where children are often featured as innocents the adults have to protect from an evil force. It’s a rare, difficult thing to get at what being a kid actually is like, in no small part because to represent the truth of the matter is a very quick way to make your story too “adult” to be read by kids in the first place.
Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are, was one of the ones who got it. In a conversation with Art Spiegelman, Sendak once said:
“People say, ‘Oh Mr. Sendak, I wish I were in touch with my childhood self, like you!’ As if it were all quaint and succulent, like Peter Pan. Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth! … In reality, childhood is deep and rich. It’s vital, mysterious and profound. I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults KNOW I knew… It would scare them.”
In the 1972 horror manga The Drifting Classroom, Kazuo Umezu also grasps around the truth of childhood. Where others would foist adult fears onto a story with children as the protagonists, Umezu depicts the fears, stress, and anxieties that silently make up childhood, taking them to their extreme to cut through the false nostalgia and foggy memories that hide the reality of being a kid.
The premise of The Drifting Classroom is that Sho Takamatsu, a normal sixth grader, and his entire school suddenly and inexplicably gets teleported to what appears to be an entirely inhospitable alien world, leaving behind a massive hole in the ground back where it originally stood on Earth, and forcing a group of schoolchildren, teachers, and one bread deliveryman to figure out how they’re going to survive. But that’s not where Umezu starts you. Not in terms of the plot, or in terms of mood. Almost the entirety of the first chapter is about something far more simple, far more common, something that reaches straight into the gut and twists it into a knot when you remember the same thing happening in your own life: getting into a screaming argument with a parent.
And that only comes after plenty of build up of its own. Sho doesn’t just get into a fight with his mom, Emiko, for going through his desk, throwing out his collected treasures like old marbles, molted snake skin, and even gunpowder—it happens only after Sho spent months saving up money to buy a toy he wanted, a miniature futuristic car that Emiko said she wouldn’t buy for him. Once he put away enough money to do so, he changes his mind when actually looking at the toy through the store’s windows, opting to spend his hard saved cash on a new wristwatch as a gift for his mother, who mentioned she wanted one—nice bit of thoughtful thinking from Sho. But it promptly all goes to hell when he accidentally drops the gift in the crosswalk on the way home, helplessly watches it gets smashed to pieces by the passing cars, goes to the school playground to blow off steam, comes home late because of it, resulting in getting another lecture from his mom about needing to grow up.
When he’s studying that same night, he finds himself resenting his mother because if he’d simply bought the toy car like he wanted, it wouldn’t have gotten destroyed by traffic. What was supposed to be a gift for his mom ended up in, fittingly, a childish blaming of her for the gift being bought and destroyed in the first place. The next day, Sho wakes up late for school, blaming Emiko for not waking him up—which leads directly into the verbal confrontation.
That package that Sho’s throwing into the street as he runs off to school? He thought it was some study guides that Emiko bought for him. It turns out it was the toy car he had been saving up for the whole time. The Gift Of The Magi, filtered down through childhood, but where O. Henry’s story ends with the two gift-givers recognizing their care for each other, all Sho and Emiko have is misunderstandings and anger, and later, guilt—guilt that only gets worse and worse, because then, and only then, Umezu finally brings us to the core of the story. Sho and and hundreds of other children are separated from their parents when the school is torn out of the ground and sent to an apocalyptic wasteland.
Panic spreads through the school, but this is not your standard survival horror story about adults, what they’re afraid of, what eats up their minds when they worry. Umezu is speaking to the fears that consume you as a child, and he hammers these into the gut with no restraint.
Panic and Forgiveness
“Will my parents forgive me if I do something wrong?” “Where are my parents?” And crucially, “How am I going to get home when I’m lost?”
Umezu grabs onto the kind of terror that swells into you as a child when you find yourself lost at the mall, separated from the parent that brought you there—the anxiety and paranoia that brews inside of you when you call out for your parents over and over and get no response. He pulls at the guilt one feels as a kid when every little mistake is the end of the world, that you won’t be able to say you’re sorry, that you’ll never get the chance to tell them that you didn’t mean to hurt them.
The fear that threatens to devour Sho and his classmates isn’t “Am I going to die?” but “Am I never going to make my way home again?” The Drifting Classroom, which is filled with bloodshed and death, torture and murder, is wildly inappropriate for kids to read—but it’s a story that could only be made by understanding the truth of childhood and its fears, without the desire to cover it in a gloss of innocence.
If I was to compare the feeling in The Drifting Classroom to another story, it wouldn’t be any other horror—the first that comes to mind is actually an arc in Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, where Calvin accidentally rolls the family car into a ditch, and fearing that his parents will never forgive him, never love him again for screwing up on that scale, panics and suddenly decides to run away from home.
The Drifting Classroom ends up featuring everything from plant monsters that eat people to psychic communication that travels through thousands of years of time, but it’s not the fantastical that sticks in the mind as you read it—it’s the actual terrors of childhood that it’s built on. Things like the teachers lying to Sho and the other students, and Sho knowing it. Or being ordered by those same teachers to lie to his fellow students. Bullies—teachers and students alike—who abuse others just because they can, and never having an adult around who can or will do anything about it. And over and over again, that fear you can’t find your parents, can’t find your way home, or that you’ve made a mistake you won’t be able to make up for.
Umezu speaks to the same truth of childhood that Sendak understood—that children know fear. They know terror and stress and anxiety and terrible truths that adults at times can’t or won’t understand. Children may be naïve about some things, but not so naïve that terror of one sort or another hasn’t hit them in the chest like a spear. It’s not that kids don’t understand terrible things are out in the world, that danger is very real, it’s that adults don’t understand that kids know these things. A condescension to children, even when trying to look out for them, that they don’t feel the things adults do, couldn’t possibly know the things they do.
A school will never be inexplicably teleported to apocalyptic wastelands. But kids all over the world, every year, every day, will experience fear swelling up inside of them that such a thing might as well have happened to them—because they can’t find their way home. Because they got separated from their parents. Because they made a mistake and they don’t know if they can make up for it.
The Drifting Classroom is the rare story that not only understands childhood, but doesn’t sand off the edges. It puts it together in a way that the adults reading it can understand and remember it, too. That it’s an utterly impossible sci-fi horror story that penetrates the myth of the carefree innocence of being a kid feels only fitting.