For better or worse, school is a very important part of a young person’s life. Unfortunately, a lot of students struggle with formal education, and if they refuse to conform, or if they fail to meet pre-established, often arbitrary expectations, they can fall through the cracks. Matsui Yūsei’s Assassination Classroom is a manga that at first appears to be solely an absurd comedy with a science fiction premise, but it is also the story of those forgotten students.
Kunugigaoka Junior High School refuses to accept failure. Delinquents, underachievers and assorted outcasts are sent to the End Class, situated in a building separate from the main school. When a strange, octopoid creature destroys part of the moon and threatens to destroy the Earth in a year’s time, these students are deemed the perfect candidates for the government’s assassination programme. Unfortunately, their target is also their new homeroom teacher.
The series’ success hinges on its villain, and Koro Sensei is great. We quickly realise that he has a lot of respect for the children in his care; he wants them to succeed, and he will stop at nothing to help and inspire them. Additionally, he refuses to harm them, which creates an interesting conflict. How are these children expected to kill him, when he is the only teacher (and in many cases, the only adult) to ever show them any compassion? I was immediately enamoured of this character, and although his backstory remains hidden until volume 16, it is definitely worth the wait.
An iconic character needs an iconic design, and Matsui has created an instantly recognisable mascot. The simple design of a yellow circle with a crescent moon smile is infinitely adaptable, as seen when Koro Sensei’s emotions change: green and yellow stripes when he feels superior; a light pink when he feels content; or jet black when his anger boils over. On top of this, the students’ designs are all different, and each one’s clothing, body language, and facial expressions suit them perfectly. While the artwork may not be the series’ strongest element, there are a few inspired details, such as millipedes crawling from an antagonist’s mouth to represent their villainous speech. These visuals were always entertaining and often impressive.
The manga strikes an interesting balance between the students’ assassination training and their normal Junior High School lives. One day sees them practising combat, while the next has them frantically revising for exams, or planning their contribution to the school’s cultural festival. Crucially, the students learn more from these relatively normal days than any other, and it becomes clear that this is Koro Sensei’s plan; he wants them to learn the skills necessary to make great lives for themselves, if of course they are able to assassinate him. These fun interludes were the perfect antidote to the high-stakes premise.
The End Class consists of around 30 students, but our protagonist is Shiota Nagisa. He is a quiet, androgynous boy who spends much of the earlier volumes taking notes on Koro Sensei’s weaknesses. Nagisa makes a huge impact in volume one thanks to a near-suicidal assassination attempt, but it takes a while for him to establish himself as the series’ focal point. Nagisa is a truly inspired character; not only does he stand out from the slew of generic shōnen protagonists, but he also challenges stereotypes in a way that Matsui is not fully equipped to write. For example, his friends forcing him to cross-dress for certain missions seems at first to be a misjudged piece of comedy, but it becomes clear through Nagisa’s backstory that Matsui is attempting to criticise this manga mainstay. While the writing is not quite strong enough to achieve everything that Matsui sets out to accomplish, the themes explored through Nagisa – anxiety, identity, familial expectations – are universal and timeless. He was a joy to follow.
Nagisa’s closest friends are Akabane Karma and Kayano Kaede. The former is a red-haired delinquent with a knack for academics but a great mistrust of authority figures. He was previously betrayed by the only teacher he ever trusted, so he finds it difficult to let his guard down, especially considering his new teacher is also a literal monster. His character development is one of the more rewarding aspects of the series. Kaede is a sweet, quiet girl, whose role remains unclear for the majority of the series. Other than giving Koro Sensei his name (it is a pun on ‘korosenai’, cannot be killed), she seems to serve no purpose. As with Koro Sensei himself, Kaede’s backstory takes a long time to be revealed, but those chapters were some of the best in the entire series.
Other than the students, we have the End Class’ teachers. My favourite character by far was Karasuma, a government official sent in to train the students. He tries hard to maintain his tough exterior, but the children quickly win him over, and he becomes just as attached to and protective of them as Koro Sensei. Their other teacher is the Russian assassin, Irina. Despite a promising backstory and some great moments, she is far too often reduced to pointless fanservice, from tentacle groping courtesy of Koro Sensei, to being leered at by the boys in her care. One of the skills she employs is French kissing, and this proves indispensable in two of the series’ most dramatic arcs. Otherwise, the fanservice serves no purpose beyond reducing Irina to the butt of a sexist joke.
Another failing is the lack of any real tension. Other than the premise – we know that either Koro Sensei will be assassinated or the world will end, and Matsui does not disappoint on this front – there is a marked absence of danger. On multiple occasions, characters are put in deadly situations, and Matsui saves them at the last second. I should have felt relieved that my favourite characters had survived, but instead it was frustrating to be cheated out of a shocking twist, or a dramatic death scene. In addition, the series’ final volume was almost entirely pointless; the first chapter concluded the story, while the rest was comprised of an inane side-story and an unrelated one-shot. After the brilliance of the penultimate volume, this was a huge disappointment.
Unfortunately, Assassination Classroom’s uncomfortable fanservice and tentative exploration of certain themes prevent it from becoming a truly great manga. However, Matsui’s pointed criticism of the education system, as well as his understating of the impact a great teacher can have on students’ lives, is certainly worth praise. The series will not appeal to everyone, but I am so glad that I chose to spend over three years of my life with the End Class.