Wed
Aug 24 2011 5:28pm

Science Fiction and Fantasy Anime: Highschool of the Dead

As I mentioned last time, the last few years have been tough if you’re a science fiction, fantasy or horror anime fan. The medium has been dominated by slice-of-life comedies and dramas, created to appeal to a certain breed of very specialist fan that are far more interested characters than plots or ideas. But anime — like all entertainment — is driven by trends and cycles, and the last year has seen the rise again of more genre orientated shows. And also — like all entertainment — originality is generally scarce, and risks are avoided in favor of tried and tested formulas. Alien invasions. Sexy teenage vampires. Post apocalyptic dystopias. Rebellious robots. All that dwarves and elves stuff. And this week... zombies.

Highschool of the Dead (2010)

You all know how it starts. The actual cause is never really important, but one day the dead start to rise and walk again. The next thing you know the zombies are everywhere, infecting everybody and eating their brains. One minute you’re leading your usual mundane life, and the next you’re learning the only way to stop a zombie is to separate it’s brain from it’s spinal column with the first comically inappropriate household object you can lay your hands on. Civilization as you know it is collapsing around you, and you’re forced to band together with a group of strangers you think you can trust and friends you’re not sure you can in order to survive. And all this while you’re still trying to get over the emotional trauma caused by just having used a blunt object to splatter the brains of your lover/best friend/mother/dog all over the sidewalk. Hey, man-up and deal with it. Everyone knows it was the right and only thing to do.

Highschool of the Dead is no different. As you can accurately guess from the title, the show takes the usual zombie tropes and places them in the familiar anime-setting of a Japanese highschool, making it’s cast of protagonists almost exclusively teenage kids. They are a group of two-dimensional archetypes that are instantly familiar not just to anime fans, but pretty much anyone that has every watched a mainstream Hollywood horror movie. There’s the strong-but-silent leader. The beautiful but bitchy girl. The geeky, socially inadequate nerd that comes into his own under pressure. The strong, loner girl. The sexy but dumb blonde, and the creepy teacher.

Nothing original at all, and its not just the cast. HOTD is truly little more than the usual zombie movie tropes in the form of twelve 25 minute anime episodes. In itself there is nothing at all wrong with that, and in fact it may be exactly what you fancy when you’ve got just over five hours to kill. But before we can work out whether that is the case, I have a couple of very important questions to ask you.

Do you really, really like zombies?

I’m serious, do you?

I grew up with zombie movies, and more specifically the greatest zombie movies ever made — George A Romero’s original Dead trilogy. As a gore-obsessed teenager in the 1980s his low-budget zombie thrillers had instant appeal when I first discovered them, but I was always aware there was something else going on. Romero used those flicks to do something else than just excite and shock; for him they were vehicles of social commentary and satire — an at the time unique way of exploring themes of race, consumerism, power and social conformity. They were always more than just mere gore-fests — they made you laugh and they made you think, even if as a rebellious teenager it was about little more than how exciting it would be to watch society collapse around you.

Fast forward nearly thirty years, and I must confess my love for zombies is starting to wane. Romero’s more recent returns to the genre have been lackluster to say the least, and it doesn’t seem like there’s anything more to say — or perhaps more accurately no one is interested in saying it. Recent big budget outings like Zombieland and The Walking Dead seem for more interested in the blood, gore — and increasingly — with the soap-opera drama that plays out between the lead characters. HOTD is no different — in fact, if anything it seems to be the ultimate distillation of this trend. When it is at its best HOTD is stringing together tropes and set pieces that are immediately familiar to anyone that has seen more than a couple of zombie movies from the last 30 years. And it does this pretty well. The violence and gore is exciting, even shocking on occasion — but there’s absolutely nothing here you’ve not seen before. The same goes for the relationship drama — apart from an extra dose of the usual anime highschool awkwardness — there’s little you’ve not seen before in a typical Hollywood teen-slasher flick.

Which leads us back my question — do you really like zombies? Because if the answer is yes, then none of this will be an issue for you at all. If you love zombie movies — in the rawest sense — then HOTD is a perfect way to spend those 5 hours. Just don’t expect to get anything more than zombie fanservice.

Which leads me to my second question.

Do you really, really like boobies?

Obviously your response to that may vary due to a number of different factors, such as gender or sexuality. So let me rephrase it — how good are you at ignoring boobies? Because HOTD has a lot of boobies. Bouncing boobies. Heaving boobies. Sweaty boobies. Boobies hidden behind tight fitting school uniforms. Boobies right out there in the open for everyone to see. Boobies everywhere. Oh, and panties. HOTD has lots of panties, too. The show spends easily as much time on depicting the nether-regions of its female characters as it does depicting zombie-splatter. It’s one of the most fanservice-heavy anime shows I’ve watched in recent years.

The debate over sexual fanservice in anime is an eternal one. Some people actively seek it out, while others are offended by it. Personally it bores me — and HOTD is a perfect example of why — because it adds little or nothing to the plot or drama of the show, and feels like it was added purely for cynical, marketing reasons. Make no mistake — HOTD is hugely juvenile in its approach to sexuality; again in ways that are little different to the trashier end of the modern Hollywood teen-horror flick. The secret is whether — if it doesn’t excite you — you can manage to ignore it. Largely I could, with the odd roll of the eyes, the same way I would if I was watching the hyper-sexuality of the average TV ad break.

And then there were times when I couldn’t ignore it. Unfortunately, about halfway through the series, there’s a point where HOTD seems to cross the line from pointless boobies and panty-shots into something more akin to straight out misogyny. There are scenes where the female characters are portrayed nothing more than as sex objects — a 14 year-old schoolboy’s fantasy of what these mysterious creatures must think and do — and it’s especially frustrating after we’ve just been watching the very same characters kick asses and decapitate skulls in the most headstrong of ways. For this viewer it left a nasty taste in the mouth, but again it comes down to whether you can manage to just ignore it, or laugh it off.

Which pretty much sums HOTD up. It’s little more than exploitative, trashy fun that depends on you being able to ignore or ironically enjoy its faults. If you love zombies you’ll probably love HOTD, and it might even give you as much entertainment as the next zombie-shooter you spend a weekend playing. Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking — but perhaps that’s partly because there’s no new zombie-infected ground to break?

Highschool of the Dead is out now from Sentai Filmworks in the US, and from Manga UK in the UK from September. A review copy was provided by the publisher.


Tim Maughan lives in Bristol in the U.K. and has been writing about anime and manga for nearly four years, and consuming both for over twenty. He also writes science fiction, and his debut book Paintwork, a cyberpunk-tinged collection of near-future short stories, is out now in print and for Kindle and all other eReaders. He also tweets way too much.

10 comments
David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
I'm actually rather fond of Highschool of the Dead, despite its faults . . . some of which I think you've rather overstated. While it's true that a zombie apocalypse isn't exactly an orginial idea at this point, the author does do an excellent job of portraying that concept on the page. The brief glances we get of the larger picture show some great drama, and one of the rarest aspects of this genre, a competent military. there are ancillary whispers and glimpses of the JSDF having evacuated citizens to their ships, and maintaining an active presence to pick up straggling survivors with quick and decisive strikes via helicopter. What's more, the survival elements are interesting and believable, and the author really seems to know his stuff where firearms are concerned in particular. This has to be the only thing I've ever read that made me feel sorrow, like that of losing a character, when a character had to leave a gun behind to trade up to something better. That on its own is something unique enough to earn it a few points in my book.

What's more, it's doing so in a long-form storyline that frees it from the constraints of having a predictably ambiguous or bloody ending, something that I've always found be the biggest weakness of the zombie film genre. While the characters certainly start as normal stereotypes, as things progress they do begin to show signs of development . . . and while the trope of becoming something close to psycophathic while doing what must be done to survive is a trope in itself, it's really fun to see it play out over a long term storyline. While I wouldn't call the cast as complicated an ensemble as, say, The Walking Dead, each character does have their charm and will surprise at times. One character's bout with post tramatic stress after killing a loved one who had been bitten in particular was one of the high points to date, and marked a huge change for the character.

It does have its faults though. Like you, I feel the rampant boobs and nudity do nothing for the story, and after a certain number of chapters I found myself ignoring and glancing over it . . . and having to do that to anything in a story is a weakness. Once character in particular also pretty much exemplifies every problem you've had with the series; the ditzy nurse adds very little to the story outside her friendship with a special forces soldier, and only has had maybe one important scene in the story to date.

Overall, Highschool of the Dead is a flawed experience . . . but it's still presenting something that's in very short supply, if you can look past the breasts long enough to see it. I do recommend it, unless you find the fanservice particularly offensive, to anyone who's been looking for a prolonged take into the zombie genre between chapters of The Walking Dead.
Tim Maughan
2. TimMaughan
You mention 'on the page'...? Are you talking about the manga? Sadly I've not had a chance to check that out yet, I've only seen the anime - so this is just a review of that.

Have you seen the anime? How do they compare?
SlappytheClown
3. SlappytheClown
Having read both the manga (up through the current chapter 29) and the anime, I find I prefer the manga. The story points and set pieces are the same, but less time is spent on the "action" and more on the character interactions. In particular, the narrative voice (a retrospective view from the main character as if from some point in the future) helps add depth missing in the narrator-less animated version.

As far as the "fan-service", it is admittedly off-putting though, again in the manga, it's played more for over-the-top laughs then titilation.

My primary complaint about the anime is the season ended before a lot of the character development took place i.e. the previously mentioned killing of a soon-to-be infected (surrounded by enemies with no hope of rescue) loved one. Hopefully a second season will be released soon to continue the story.
David Thomson
4. ZetaStriker
The anime has a little more fanservice . . . but only a little. The manga's author was originally a hentai artist, and it kind of shows. I think he's even done actual hentai doujin of his own work, although thankfully that isn't included as part of the actual manga. For the most part, the anime follows the original story fairly closely, so you shouldn't expect any wild changes, but it does move along at a quicker pace. Takeshi's narration is also a huge benefit, as it builds a foreboding mood quite nicely. You can probably safely skip ahead to the chapter the anime adaption left off from if you decide to check it out though.
Ashe Armstrong
5. AsheSaoirse
Well now I'm definitely not bothering to check this out. I'm hard pressed to watch anime anymore anyways because of the issues you described. That being said, Deadman Wonderland was like crack.
SlappytheClown
6. ghfk7ud8saf
Well now I'm definitely not bothering to check this out. I'm hard
pressed to watch anime anymore anyways because of the issues you
described. That being said, Deadman Wonderland was like crack.
Thomas Jeffries
7. thomstel
I spotted this on Hulu a few months ago and saw it had an entire season of episodes up, so I took a break from some other long-running series I was watching and watched it straight through in the evenings for a week.

Why? Easy: I hate live-action zombie films. I don't care if they're campy, or gritty, or socially-relevant, or anything. No one does them right. The closest was (of course) Night of the Living Dead, but that was almost more about the dynamic of the personalities in the house as it was about zombies.

So since my diet of undead shamblers has been primarily vidya-game-based, I thought: hey, here in an anime they can literally do anything they want with a zombie tale. Anything.

So they did a normal harem-y, high school-y, fanservice-y anime that involves getting from A to B and surviving the zombie hordes. Sigh. Throw in a few other characters beyond the core group with (rather bizarre) MOs, stir, and watch the drama unfold and the panties drop.

I would watch the second season (which involves, of all original ideas on the planet, zombies at the MALL!), but not because it's a respectable, well-done anime. In the first season I saw a few moments of genuine storytelling and some ideas drifting around that, while not completely original, elevated it somewhat. The scene with the child that's turning, and the mother asking for help before being bitten while she cradles it in her arms: yeah, been done before, but was not expecting the visceral churn in my gut when it happened. Especially since the scene before was likely a buxom blonde vainly trying to push her chest out of the way enough to properly drive a van down the street.

And speaking of the rampant sexualization of the female cast members...eh. I've seen it enough that I think I've passed the point that I care. When I watch anime (of any slant) I fully expect there to be fanservice elements thrown in, and have learned to roll with the punches. I do agree that the episode you mentioned was RATHER gratuitous, but partway through I got the vibe that it was intended to be the "hot springs" episode, since there wasn't likely to be a legitimate chance for a real one. The point that was so blatant as to make me cringe was Saeko's horny berserker mode. To that point, she was the level-headed reliable counterpart to Takashi, and you knew if those two were back to back with zombies piling in, you were in for a good time. All that was upturned with some of the reveals about her character, and while perhaps that was the point, it was just a really off-putting way to introduce character "development".
SlappytheClown
8. Megaduck
I've watched both the anime and read the manga and I thought this was a story that lost a lot in the change to anime. For one, the rampent fanservice is easier to ignore in the Manga and the joke fanservice (A couple zombie pantyshots, about as horrible as you might think) were ignored in the anime. I also think the Manga has a more somber dramatic feel in places such as when they show the wreakage of Air Force One and the water gently lapping against the presidential seal.

I do like the fact that the zombies are expected to fall apart in a month or two which gives a definate time window.
SlappytheClown
9. Ariel_A
I've watched the anime too, it was... ok, and I may read the manga some day. But if it's Sci-Fi what I'm looking after, I would go with Steins Gate.
Jack Flynn
10. JackofMidworld
I read this review shortly before HOTD became available streaming on Netflix. I love zombie flicks and enjoyed watching this series. I'll admit that the "boing!!" noises got a old very VERY fast and it may not have been as engaging as, say, Last Exile or Moribito, but I'd watch another season & I plan on at least checking out the manga.

Zenescope comics seems to do the same type of thing, only western versus manga. If all you do is flip through some of the comics it looks like nothing more than T&A with speech bubbles, but some of the stories are a lot weightier than they appear, you just have to give it enough attention to get past the fanservice (unless that's the only reason you're reading/watching - not that there's anything wrong with that :)

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