I live by a facility that handles biological and chemical materials. Not that I’m worried, but I fear one day the zombie outbreak is going to start from that facility.
The mixing and matching of genres is not an uncommon practice in literature and film. In fact, it’s difficult to not expect certain genres to be matched with each other. For example, the action genre meshes well with genres such as science fiction or even just regular fiction. However, there are times when authors or directors will match very different genres. Joss Whedon’s 2002 TV series Firefly is a great example of this as it fused the science fiction, Western, and a few other genres together into a wonderful short series. Anime and manga are no stranger to the mixing and matching of genres as well and while a fair portion of the series are combinations of genres one would expect, the 2015 anime series School-Live! (がっこうぐらし Gakkō Gurashi) had a remarkable mishmash of genres. Those genres would be the zombie apocalypse subgenre of horror and the all-so-popular school life genre. Truthfully, I’m not a fan of the school life genre, but there are times when authors and production companies can take advantage of an interesting idea. In the case of this series, it was placing the survivors of a zombie apocalypse in a school. It’s vastly different from other settings for the zombie apocalypse subgenre and while odd at first, it turned out to be a fine fit for this series. This was because the series played with the concept of normal Japanese school activities, but placed them in an offbeat situation. Added on top of this were the interesting characters and the different emotional stresses they were dealing with.
One of the reasons I’m not a fan of the school life genre in anime and manga is I haven’t been in an academic setting for nearly ten years. Yes, I have fond memories of my years in high school and college, but as an adult I’m not bound by the rules and social order of an academic setting. I don’t have a prescribed group of friends, engage in activities sanctioned by a board of education, follow a strict daily routine, or do other things that are common to student life. Thus, reading or watching anime and manga series that deal with school life no longer hold my attention. True, there are some series that I take notice of, but it’s a very small subset of series. However, those that manage to captivate me have something uniquely remarkable about them. It takes no more than an interesting idea for a school life series to grab my attention and School-Live certainly had one.
To be blunt, it was the fusion of the zombie apocalypse subgenre of horror into the narrative that grasped my attention. Like the school life genre, I don’t believe the zombie genre is all that unique in today’s market—actor Wil Wheaton summed it up best during the introduction of Table Top: Dead of Winter—but, when used in conjunction with a genre one wouldn’t expect, the zombie apocalypse subgenre offers a great deal of potential. For example, the parody film Shaun of the Dead captured the comedy of a zombie outbreak through the eyes of regular people and the anime series Panty & Stocking with Garter-belt poked fun at The Dead franchise by having two amorous women lead a ragtag group of survivors. As such, there is still potential inherent within the zombie apocalypse subgenre when one is placed in the right state of mind.
This was how School-Live captured the attention of audiences, by placing viewers in the right state of mind. We need to examine the series in three different parts to understand this, but one doesn’t need to fret too much as they are the first episode, the second to ninth episodes, and the final three episodes. Though it seems easiest to begin with the first episode, it’s actually better to focus on the middle episodes first. This is because the production team was able to incorporate the threat of a zombie apocalypse into the routines of Japanese school life and activities.
Though I say school life and activities, I should note more emphasis was placed on the latter rather than the former. Thus, like any good school life series a handful of the episodes centered on activities students participate in during the school year. Yet, what made these far more interesting was the ever-present threat of zombies. The fourth through sixth episodes of the series illustrated this quite well as three characters, Yuki Takeya, Kurumi Ebisuzawa, and Yūri Wakasa, went on a “field trip” to a local shopping center and met the fourth character and a dog, Miki Naoki and Tarōmaru, there. Though I wouldn’t say a trip to a shopping center constitutes a school activity, it isn’t uncommon for students to partake in these sorts of events. However, what made this far more engaging than a by-the-books school life series was how the characters navigated the zombie hoard. Not to go into too much detail as it could ruin the suspense, there were a few times throughout this set of episodes where it was truly frightening watching Kurumi and Miki survive the hoard. Yet, after these tense moments, the production team knew enough to lighten the mood by showing the girls in a relaxed state. This was when far more recognizable school activities were presented. In this case I am of course speaking about the sports festival many Japanese schools hold. By juxtaposing the two events, the zombie survival and sports festival, what viewers received were the thrill of a horror series and the comedy inherent in a school life series.
What’s more, this juxtaposition also occurred between the first episode and final three episodes of School-Live. Consider the series in this light: the first episode strictly followed the tropes of a school life comedy, the middle episodes were a transition between school life and pure survival horror, and the final three episodes were survival horror. Examining how the first episode and the final three worked against each other while still providing a wonderful and cohesive narrative in the process is rather fascinating. This had to do with one major factor: how the first episode, as I said, followed the routines of a school life series. That is, in the first episode we saw Yuki engaging her classmates and teachers, but there was an odd sense to the entire experience. For example, Yuki opened the series with a soliloquy about why she was living in the school. On top of this, when she should have been attending her classes, she spent the day roaming the school building looking for Tarōmaru. It wasn’t until the final moments of the episode that we’re given the scope of what happened. However, until that moment the events played out as if this was a daily routine for Yuki. I should note, I had very little faith in this episode at first. However, the final few minutes showed me there was much more to the series.
This was where the final three episodes played a crucial role in the narrative. While the transitional episodes flirted with the idea of the zombie hoard and survival horror, the last three episodes brought the best aspects of a zombie apocalypse to life. I am of course referring to the zombies overrunning the compound. These episodes were far darker in tone than the rest of the series as it focused on how the four characters were going to survive being attacked. Thus, where a fair portion of the series had a comic bent to it, these episodes examined the length each character was willing to go to survive, both physically and mentally, physically for the obvious reason of staying alive, but mentally because there was a moment when one of the characters had to sacrifice her humanity in order to stay alive. Again, going into great detail will spoil the nature of the dilemma, but it’s also a trope within the zombie apocalypse genre: whether or not to sacrifice a companion for one’s own safety. Hence, when placed against the first episode of School-Live or even the rest of the series, what appeared to be a sweet series quickly turned out to be far different than one might expect.
One of the ways the tension in the series was achieved was based on the trauma each character faced and how they dealt with it during the series. While I felt a great deal of their response was one of guilt, especially for Kurumi and Miki, the idea Yuki would suppress her memories of the initial zombie attack and some of the events that occurred afterwards was fascinating. However, like a great deal of different series that have a mystery, Yuki’s experience is rather difficult to discuss without revealing large swaths of information in regards to the suspense of the series. Suffice it to say, though, how the other three characters interacted with and made accommodations for her was interesting. That’s not to say the psychological trauma the other characters were dealing with wasn’t appealing, but rather it’s just that Yuki’s took center stage. But, to quickly run through them, Kurumi was constantly faced with the realization that she was assaulting and killing her former classmates, Yūri was plagued with protecting the safety of and supplies for the characters, and Miki suffered from the trauma of possibly losing a close friend.
While Yūri, Kurumi, and Miki’s respective traumas and concerns played out in the background to Yuki’s psychological stress, they all played key roles in the development and presentation of the characters. For example, considering these characters were younger than eighteen, the fact Kurumi was the character actively fighting the zombies must have had a damaging effect on her psyche. It’s similar to how soldiers treat killing enemy combatants: difficult at first but much easier as time goes on. Though we don’t actively see the dehumanizing effect on Kurumi, this idea was evident one or two times throughout School-Live. While on the surface each of the characters was portraying the ideals of a character in a school life series, we saw how they also represented characters living in a post-apocalyptic world through the difficult decisions they constantly had to make.
As I stated, I’m not a huge fan of the school life genre or the zombie survival-horror genre. However, when these two genres are used in unique and interesting ways I can’t help but watch what they have to offer. Such was the case with School-Live! as it played with the sensibilities of both genres. It was an exceptional fusion of the comedy seen in school life series, but with enough horror to keep viewers anticipating the fate of each character. This fusion was created through the transition between the tropes of the former in the first episode to the tropes of the latter by the final few episodes. Of course, the characters were all interesting and by only having four major characters we got a wonderful sense of what kept each character functioning in a world torn apart by a zombie apocalypse. There were also some memorable moments between the characters and as much as delving into the details would be fun, it would ultimately upset the narrative for those not familiar with the series. I feel there are very few anime series that truly make it difficult to discuss events in the series with those who haven’t watched it and School-Live! is certainly one such case. While some may be put off by the cute character designs, this should not dissuade you because the series is thematically interesting and surprisingly well thought out. As for me, I’m going to make sure all the doors and windows are secured in the event there is a zombie outbreak.