The Drifting Classroom (Japan, 1987)

Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 film Hausu (AKA House) has become a surprise revival-sensation in the West, with a Janus print currently touring North America, and a special edition DVD already available in the UK. While Obayashi’s profile has been raised significantly by the cult ascendance of this surreal masterpiece, much of his filmography remains mysterious and inaccessible to audiences outside of Japan.

Obayashi’s The Drifting Classroom (Hyôryu Kyôshitsu), released a decade after Hausu, is a live-action adaptation of Kazuo Umezu’s manga of the same name, serialized between 1972 and 1974, and available in English from Viz’s Signature line in thirteen volumes. Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom is a cross between straight horror and Shounen manga, aimed at teen-aged boys but nevertheless thematically complex and often frightening, with a downbeat narrative and flawed characters. The story in both the manga and the film concerns the mysterious transportation of an entire Japanese grade school—and all within—to a foreboding desert wasteland. As the story unfolds, the diminishing student body weathers this apocalyptic crisis while searching for clues about their surroundings, and dealing with psychological breakdown and dangerous exterior forces.

In both the manga and the film, the story’s protagonist is an outwardly charismatic yet conflicted sixth-grade student named Sho Takamatsu (Yasufumi Hayashi), who leaves his home in anger the morning before the catastrophic “event” which sets the film in motion, smashing dishes off the kitchen table. This bitter parting between Sho and his mother becomes an important thematic hook throughout the story, and prefigures a vague psychic link which develops between the two, connecting not only the pair but the events of the A-story to the mundane world it left, heightening the immensity and loneliness of the school’s newfound environs. Following this initial resemblance, Obayashi’s adaptation swiftly diverges in ways both fascinating and perhaps misguided.

Inexplicably, the film brings the story into the late 1980s, and sets it not in a typical Japanese grade school, but in an international academy in Kobe, populated by both Japanese and American students. Because of this integrated cast, English is spoken for the majority of the film (fan-subs are available for the Japanese portion, although we prefer the Japanese VHS tape). Unlike the original manga, which is consistent in style and tone, the adapted film is a confused jumble, combining tropes of comedy, musical, horror, and children’s melodrama. These genres are hardly integrated; in fact, the film’s sudden shifts in tone are boldly jarring and disorienting.

Filmed at the actual Kobe International School, Obayashi cast a mix of professional Japanese actors and enrolled students, including many hapless American children, populating the film with both non-professional Americans, and Japanese actors and amateurs struggling with phonetic English dialog. The aforementioned breakfast-table confrontation begins with Sho’s declaration “Take your Japanese and shove it!” which prompts a slap in the face from his mother. It’s tempting to read this moment as an exploration of generational disconnect, between Japanese parents and their American pop-culture-obsessed children, but this notion is never fully explored. As this film has not had a legitimate North American release, the international school setting is seemingly a novel concept designed only to appeal to Japanese audiences.

Strange scenes typical of the film lead up to the “event”, including a spontaneous song-and-dance routine performed by Sho’s classmates, after a student finds out that their teacher, the shy and sweet Ms. Midori (Kaho Minami) is to be married. While humming the traditional Bridal March (while one student plays the flute), the children launch a girl holding a bouquet of flowers towards the future bride. The violent quake-like flash that transports the school happens exactly at this moment, triggering a chaotic and nightmarish series of events. While the budget is restrictively low, the hallucinogenic opticals in this sequence are very much like the fantastical special effects found in Hausu. This disorienting scene is typical of the film—and this is the first of two misplaced musical sequences. Scenes like this one, combined with sub-amateur acting and phonetic recitation of unnatural English dialog, provide many moments of unintentional comedy, accounting for the film’s growing cult status among bootleg traders, likely unaware of the source material and looking for an experience comparable to a viewing of Troll 2.

While events in the manga are allowed to play out at a realistic pace, there is in the film a problem of compression. The forty-three chapters of the manga are forced into a 100-minute film. A problem compounded by low budget, the film has an inevitably truncated, depopulated feel, with the amount of characters severely restricted from the source material. Aside from the scaling-down of characters, the film’s narrative is streamlined, with only the most basic parts of the beginning and end of the manga’s story arc remaining. For example, the ad-hoc governing body painstakingly formed in the manga is represented by a power struggle between Sho and his rival, the wealthy American, Mark (played by Thomas Sutton, perhaps the worst actor of the bad bunch), which serves only to reinforce the arcs of both characters, and denies the socio-political depth found in the manga.

While Sho and Mark maneuver for leadership and power, the situation for the greater student and faculty body becomes increasingly hopeless, as food becomes scarce and the school comes under siege by giant cockroach-like monsters (seemingly the desert’s only inhabitants, and the butt of a sick joke which is made apparent by revelations later in the film), and characters collapse psychologically. Slowly the majority of the school expires, whether from the harsh climate or violence, both human and alien in origin.

Aside from Sho, Mark and Midori, the film is populated by mostly B-roll characters, some based in part on characters from the manga and some invented (likely written specifically for selected Kobe International students). Aside from Sho, the only other character presented with any semblance of similarity to the manga is the young Yuichi (or simply “Yu”) Played by Kazushige Sasaki. Yu is a bemused and joyful Buddha of a child caught in the transportation field by chance. He rides blissfully through the film on his tricycle, and plays a pivotal role in the story.

Interestingly, American genre-film stalwart Troy Donahue has a small role in the film as the school’s principal, Mr. Taggart. Donahue’s performance is bizarre yet deliberate, and somehow his stilted delivery and performance works, and aligns with the unintentionally shaky English spoken in the film by so much of the native cast. There is the suggestion of a love affair between Taggart and the young Ms. Midori, which is never made explicit. After an incomprehensible monologue, he walks into the desert, and out of the film.

While the characters in the film are undeniably flat and obscure, the world that surrounds them is convincingly mysterious and coldly beautiful, with cinematography by Yoshiyuki Shima (IMDb lists this film as his sole credit). Complementing the visual integrity of the film is the lovely, dream-like score, composed by Joe Hisaishi, who is known primarily for his association with Hayao Miyazaki, and for composing scores for anime classics such as Robot Carnival and The Venus Wars. There is even a wonderfully reflexive moment in the film where Ms. Midori plays the film’s theme on the school’s piano, to pacify the rampaging gang of cockroach-monsters.

Moments such as this, where the score, visuals, effects and performances work in concert, are rare in The Drifting Classroom, but rewarding when they appear. While there are evocative moments and concepts present—such as the sympathetic pairing of two surviving twin boys, one American, and one Japanese, each mourning a lost brother—these moments are limited, and often subverted by dumb jokes and painful dialog. While these elements work as unintentional comedy, and as isolated moments of disarming weirdness, they do so in defiance of any standard of quality. That said, the final act of the film, without giving away the closing sequence of events, is genuinely poetic and moving, although perhaps achieved primarily through style and ultimately unearned (although style is substance, and often the most satisfying kind, a fact observed by Obayashi both here and in Hausu).

It is interesting how an Obayashi/Umezu team-up should be exciting to Western audiences only now, after the slow building of the popularity of both masters. When The Drifting Classroom was originally released, neither had seen exposure internationally. While long a cultural icon in Japan known for his beloved gag-manga “Makoto-Chan” and for his flamboyant personality, only in the last half-decade has Umezu’s work been translated and recognized outside of Asia. Umezu (or “UMEZZ” as he is sometimes called) is known for his distinctive red-and-white pajamas and youthful attitude, and may be familiar to viewers of Japanese cinema for his small role as “The Prince” in Tokyo Zombie (another live-action manga adaptation). And with Hausu growing in reputation with each screening, it’s likely that more of Obayashi’s back-catalog will finally emerge with English subtitles.

The Drifting Classroom, despite its obvious flaws, is a unique cinematic mutation: it stands as a counter-intuitive adaptation of a beloved manga, shot with an international cast, in English, yet with distinctly Japanese stylistic strategies, and never released in the U.S., and even relatively obscure even in Japan, where it still lacks a DVD release. While the film is undeniably lopsided, there is an endearing quality to its singular risk and subsequent failure, and while it may not serve the source material, it stands as an impossibly weird and intriguing riff on the story, and truly is never dull or predictable.

While its failings are many, The Drifting Classroom cultivates raw and clumsy cinematic power and exists as an original and compelling work of genre filmmaking. In many ways it is a film without a country, trapped in cinematic limbo between cultures and audience expectation, transported much as its namesake, perhaps ultimately palatable only to the most adventurous and patient cinephiles on either side of the Pacific.

Review by Greg of Wax Mask.  This review was selected as the winner of the 2010 VCinema Listener Review Contest.