Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
You hear that quiet sobbing sound? That’s my inner-feminist over in the corner, lamenting the fact that I just admitted to liking High School of the Dead, the 2010 anime based on the ongoing manga that’s all about two things: zombies and fan-service.
Anyone who has watched a lot of anime can tell you that fan-service is a part of the culture: it’s a marketing ploy to get hardcore otaku to buy into a franchise regardless of the strength of its storylines or characters. Even the best shows fall prey to it, but they rarely rely on it the way High School of the Dead does. (I dare you to google this show with safe-search turned off, but only if you’re 18 years of age and up.)
Now, the show never degenerates into downright porn, but it comes pretty close in some places, specifically the communal bath scene that seems to have replaced the requisite anime hot springs episode. The entire episode is about a bunch of girls stripping down and having a relaxing soak while the zombie infestation continues to rage outside. Did I mention that they also play with one another’s breasts, the naughty bits carefully camouflaged by steam? Because they do. A lot.
Add in some completely unrealistic breast physics in the action scenes, and I have no idea how young Japanese men don’t come out of adolescence completely scarred by these shows. Take the infamous bullet dodging sequence carried out by dark-haired Saeko up there. In the heat of battle, Saeko’s breasts somehow develop a sentience of their own and move in opposite directions from one another as a bullet fired from a high-powered sniper rifle passes harmlessly between them. All while cartwheeling around in a miniskirt. You can watch the scene [here] if you don’t believe me.
It’s a bit excessive, is what I’m saying, and it outwardly supports the notion of woman as sex object. In fact, many people aren’t going to be able to get past the absolutely overbearing pandering to the otaku demographic. Which is a real shame, because the show actually has a lot going for it underneath its sticky, unsavory exterior.
Depth of character, for one.
Seriously, these characters have well fleshed-out personalities and histories that rival and expand beyond their well fleshed-out, well, flesh. We’ll start with Saeko again, because despite all the aforementioned evidence against her, she’s kind of my favorite.
A year older than the other high-schoolers in her party, she’s set up as the stoic badass of the bunch, able to deal out death to the undead with extreme prejudice. She’s calm and collected under pressure, and she’s almost a second-leader under main character Takashi.
What’s raging under the surface, however, is massive guilt over the fact that she likes causing other people pain. She used to beat the hell out of her kendo classmates simply because she could, and she’s having trouble adjusting to a world in which those desires to cause pain are not only acceptable, they’re coveted. She’s afraid of completely losing control, of losing herself in a blood frenzy.
She needs the support of someone who will hold her accountable. Enter Takashi, who is also learning the emotional cost of surviving in a world gone to hell. Then there’s Rei, Takashi’s childhood friend whose boyfriend was an early casualty of the outbreak; Saya, a girl whose pride gets in the way of admitting her fear; and Kohta, the bullied otaku who turns out to be a mean shot with a modified nail gun.
Every single one of these characters has an emotional journey that is similar to Saeko’s – some trauma, some guilt, some fear that they have to overcome in order to work together as a team and survive. There’s pettiness, there’s jealousy, and there’s evil standing in the way of their end goal, and the strength of the characters is in how they overcome, keep calm, and carry on.
The show’s narrative complements this complexity of character nicely. This isn’t a show that’s only about the body-count, though it’s easy to lose sight of that. The students originally set out in order to find and save their families, some of whom are members of the police or the government. In other words, the story is just as much about the failure of adults as it is the triumph and perseverance of the young.
To avoid getting too serious, though, I’d like to point out that the animation in this show is downright gorgeous. Colors are vibrant, lighting is dramatic, and the action scenes are gloriously over the top. Disregarding sentient breasts, the fight scenes are all about guns being fired, limbs being severed, and zombie heads exploding in increasingly creative ways. It’s exactly what a zombie show should be: visceral and intense, without harping too much on the philosophical, scientific whys and hows of an outbreak.
On a side note, I consider myself a sort of connoisseur of anime openings, since I believe that you can tell a lot about a show based on that minute and a half at the beginning of every episode. The opening of High School of the Dead is a hard rock, pop art, take no prisoners introduction. And yes, the fan-service is right there in the opening, so you can’t say there’s no truth in advertising. This opening is easily one of my favorites, and I highly suggest you watch it [here].
Unfortunately, the show ends on a cliffhanger that isn’t likely to get resolved in a second season. A twenty minute OVA has been released, but the violence and sexuality of the series has all but ensured a mainstream western televised release won’t happen. Anyone who wants to experience the rest of the story is going to have to do it in manga-form.
Finally, I like this show because it isn’t pretending to be anything other than what it is: a fun, perverted romp through the zombie phenomenon. It’s the Zombieland of anime, and it’s one hell of a good time. So my inner-feminist can just stuff it – I’m going to have my guilty pleasure, and watch it too.