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.


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