By Cass Pineda
Every era has its monster. During the reign of England’s Queen Victoria, fear of a generation’s rising sexuality popularized the charismatic, blood-sucking vampire. During the Cold War, communists became grey-faced, saucer-flying aliens bent on dissecting red-blooded American capitalists. Today, our technology-obsessed and mindless consumerist society makes us the perfect targets for the latest and possibly most terrifying monster of all: zombies.
From Dawn of the Dead to Shaun of the Dead, zombies have become popular in Western movies in recent decades, but undead hordes with boners for human brains are known the world over. They embody everything people fear about death and also cause us to question about what it means to be human, themes that the high-octane anime High School of the Dead (based on the manga series by Daisuke Sato) addresses with class. Combined with almost nonstop brain-splattering action and a cast of attractive, well-endowed young women, HotD has quickly become one of my most favorite animes of all time.
However, many would be inclined to disagree. It appears to be one of those shows where, as a watcher, you will either love it or hate it. A lot of it probably has to do with how you feel about panty shots and oscillating boobs. Those aside, however, it is a powerful story, driven by a cast of passionate characters determined to survive during a zombie pandemic and subsequent nuclear holocaust.
The main protagonist, Takashi Komuro, is an average second-year student at Fujimi High School, dealing with ordinary problems (like his girlfriend dumping him and dating his best friend) when he witnesses a horrific attack on a group of teachers. As things begin to escalate, he gathers up his friends in order to escape: ex-girlfriend Rei Miyamoto is a skilled spear handler, and best friend Hisashi Igo is a black belt in karate. They are joined by Takashi’s childhood friend and self-proclaimed genius Saya Takagi, pudgy gun otaku Kohta Hirano, and level-headed kendo aficionado Saeko Busujima. Eventually with the help of ditzy school nurse, Shizuka Marikawa, they escape the school grounds on board a bus, with plenty of zombie-smashing along the way.
Violent zombie annihilation became popular with recent movies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland—in fact, it became almost an art. In HotD, the students are just as creative in fighting for their survival, but it is not always as easy as decapitating undead foes for twelve wonderful episodes. They also face human adversaries, such as the sinister pedagogue Koichi Shido and other desperate survivors in a world gone mad. In the first episode, Takashi is even forced to kill his best friend, a traumatic experience that comes back to haunt him later in the show. These interactions are handled artfully, and in some ways are more frightening than the conflicts with the obvious zombie enemies.
Zombies themselves vary in representation throughout mainstream media: in the popular game series Left 4 Dead, they are mutated “rage” zombies, undead who have physically morphed to become stronger, faster, and decidedly more ugly than living humans. In Zombieland, they still looked like people, but are driven only by hunger. The zombies in HotD are more akin to the shuffling, unthinking masses first brought to us by George A. Romero, and more recently, Shaun of the Dead. This consistency in characteristics is important in creating a realistic scenario and world for the story to play out in as Takashi and his friends learn more about the zombies’ strengths and weaknesses. In fact, zombie movies and culture exist in Takashi’s world, but the characters, in some effort to keep themselves separated from the bizarre circumstances around them, do not call them zombies; instead, they refer to these creatures cryptically as “Them.”
While the manga was first released in Japan in 2007, the anime adaptation did not arrive until 2010. It is visually brilliant, with smooth (yet bouncy!) animation and fantastic, mood-setting music. The opening theme is exciting yet haunting, and the ending theme is different for each episode. There is no laziness from the studio when it comes to action shots or even mundane scenes, and it is beautifully cinematic. As I mentioned before, they also seize upon plenty of opportunities for panty shots and sideboob, and while in any other show this would be tasteless or even offensive, these comedy elements are needed to break the intensity, and are done within the reasonable realms of their situation.
As with any show that exercises elements of a “harem” style anime, the main group’s characters fall into familiar tropes and behaviors (like tsundere Takagi and kudere Busujima) but this is actually beneficial to their interactions, lending some spice to their relationships rather than making them obnoxious and repetitive. Nor are they two-dimensional and predictable, and over the course of the series, reveal surprising aspects of themselves and their pasts.
The anime series itself ends on a boggling cliffhanger, but the seven-volume manga (distributed by Yen Press) was made available in the States in the beginning of this year, and the hardcover omnibus of the full color version is due in November. The anime series is available (subbed and dubbed) on Zune Marketplace, iTunes, Netflix, as well as DVD and Bluray. The phenomenal soundtrack was released by Geneon last year.
High School of the Dead thrilled me because it is different, and contains everything I love about action shows and zombie horror, with the right amount of comedy mixed in. It is a must for zombie flick and action-anime fans, but be careful with who (and where) you watch it. The sexual themes are obvious and while appreciated by some, might get you in trouble with others. The strong voice actors in both Japanese and English keep pace with their on-screen counterparts to create a likeable cast that kick so much undead ass that you’ll hope they’ll be on your side when the zombie apocalypse eventually comes.
(And it will.)