Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Drifting Classroom (Japan, 1987)

Keith over at Teleport City has expressed a similar sentiment in the past, and while I don't mean to bite his style, it's one that I clearly share: I get no joy out of disliking movies. True, I've employed the lash with more than a few deserving turkeys in my day, but I've also found within many of those same films enough hidden virtues -- accidental or otherwise -- to make the time spent watching them seem worthwhile. You see, I think of myself as bringing to every movie I watch a predisposition toward liking it, and the tortuous internal bargaining that I sometimes have to go through in order to reach that goal is for me one of the pleasures of the movie watching experience. In the end, it's always about enjoyment. I'm not one to seek out a movie that I know is going to suck just so that I can get some hollow form of satisfaction out of feeling superior to the people who made it. That, to quote Porter, is my idea of nothing to do.

That said, I had an even larger than usual investment in wanting to like Nobuhiko Obayashi's 1987 film The Drifting Classroom. I really love Obayashi's debut film, Hausu -- so much so that I referred to it as a "masterpiece" in one of my posts and, in a corresponding Teleport City review, praised Obayashi for his daring vision. Having stuck my neck out in such a manner, I naturally would like to have Obayashi's subsequent films validate my assessment of him as being some kind of transgressive visionary. So far, though, no luck. The Little Girl Who Conquered Time was too stultifying to even bother writing about, and The Drifting Classroom is, in fact, so dismal that it tempts me to reconsider my judgment of Hausu altogether.

This is in part because Classroom actually shares many elements of Hausu: The oppressively kitschy sentimentality, broadly stereotyped characters, and naive special effects among them. But here Obayashi doesn't contrast those saccharine elements -- as he did in the earlier film -- with others that are disturbing in equal measure, but instead actually softens significantly the horrific elements of his source material. This leads me to suspect that the director, with Hausu, might not have been using those elements quite as sardonically and self consciously as I had originally thought. Instead, it may just be that Obayashi is just a crazy guy with really awful taste, and that Hausu is only so awesome due to a confluence of happy accidents.

The Drifting Classroom is based on the highly regarded horror manga of the same name by Kazuo Umezu, a source that could have provided Obayashi with plenty of instances of visceral horror to choose from had he chosen to go in that direction. The story involves an entire elementary school that is, for reasons unexplained, suddenly transported into a harsh, post-apocalyptic wasteland in the distant future. In the comic, what then transpires is a brutal power struggle involving adults and children alike in which some elements strain to achieve a semblance of civilized order while others surrender to savagery, paranoia and panic.

This is depicted in shocking detail in the manga's frames, with not even the youngest children being spared from either perpetrating or being on the receiving end of acts of violent cruelty (in this sense the Manga both follows in the footsteps of Lord of the Flies and prefigures Battle Royal). Obayashi, however, shies away from this aspect of the story (which also might be described as being, at least in part, the actual point of the story) and completely omits or tones down most of those incidents, instead seemingly trying to steer the narrative toward being more of a lightweight kids' adventure story along the lines of The Goonies.

But the decision that most hampers the film version of The Drifting Classroom was the baffling choice to change the setting from a typical Japanese elementary school to an international school where the students, regardless of nationality, all speak in English. This is not a crippling blow in itself, but when you factor in that most of this English dialog is being spoken by children who are obviously not professional actors -- and who, in many cases, are non-English speakers who appear to be reciting their lines phonetically -- you get some sense of how much of a liability this becomes. You also have to consider that all of this English dialog is crushingly terrible -- even when spoken by a pro like 1960s Hollywood heartthrob Troy Donahue, who plays one of the teachers:

HE: Penny for your thought? (pause) That means, if you tell me what you're thinking, I'll give you a penny.

SHE: What a nice expression!

I have often watched foreign films and wished that I could speak the spoken language, but The Drifting Classroom is the first film to make me wish I couldn't understand English. And this may be as it was meant to be, because I can't imagine that this dialog, as spoken, was meant to be understood by the film's intended audience. The film includes onscreen subtitles for all of it, after all, which I'm assuming allowed Japanese viewers to treat it as just so much aural ambience without it necessarily presenting an impediment to enjoyment of the film. For an English speaker, though, it's a real deal breaker, and renders the film, if not virtually unwatchable, virtually unlistenable.

Add to this that I couldn't even enjoy those whimsical visual flourishes of Obayashi's that I'd enjoyed so much in Hausu -- thanks to them here being unmoored from any ironic counterpoint that might have mitigated their unalloyed cheesiness -- and The Drifting Classroom comes up pretty much a complete bust. All in all, it was exactly the type of dispiriting exercise that I studiously try to avoid, and I would rather have spent the time wandering naked through the streets begging for someone to shoot me in the face.

But you know what? Fuck it. I still really like Hausu.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I'm starting to dread the two Obayashi film that are on my to watch pile (School in the Crosshairs & Summer Among the Zombies). I start to hate Hausu for its greatness.
What irritated me even more about The Drifting Classroom was its sedate tempo, another thing it doesn't share with the manga that's more like a child with ADD in on really bad day (and therefore absolutely wonderful).

Todd said...

"Sedate" is exactly the word for it. The whole film feels like it's on Prozac -- right down to the mellow eighties soundtrack.

BTW, seeing as Germany seems to be the only place outside of Japan where Hausu is available as a legit DVD release, I get the impression that the film enjoys more of an "above ground" cult following there than elsewhere. Do you think that's the case?

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

No, it really doesn't. The label on which it is released is quite small and the releases in their little series of older Japanese films aren't selling very good as far as I know. What amounts to "the Mainstream" does just ignore the film.

Todd said...

That's too bad. Given the number of old Japanese genre films that are available here, I'm baffled by the fact that no one has done a U.S. release of it. (Seriously, I can get Rica, but not Hausu?) Since it's a horror film, I doubt that it's due to marketing considerations. In truth, all you'd need to do is print on the box "A girl gets eaten by a piano in this movie" and that would sell a few hundred right there.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

It's very strange. But the why and wherefor of releases are often puzzling. Why are there so few films by Hideo Gosha available anywhere? If you can sell Goyokin, you can sell Tenchu!, too.