Highschool of the Dead Episode 1 – Reanime
In the U.S., the last couple of years have been very good to zombies. A rash of zombie-related books, games and movies have flooded the market, to the point where the whole thing was beginning to seem a bit ridiculous.
Of course, zombies are pretty inherently ridiculous to begin with. Part of the reason for the latest outbreak of the zombie fad is a self-aware realization of this ridiculousness in zombie media. Even when creators engaged the concept seriously, which was rare enough, they were careful to differentiate themselves from the standard formula, to make zombies seem frightening.
28 Days Later, for example, made its zombie horde fast and strong, to differentiate themselves from the slowly shambling masses of parody. And 28 Days Later was arguably a precursor to the current fad: more recent examples have had to up the ante further.
That’s why Highschool of the Dead is so interesting. Apparently the proliferation of zombie media from the West hasn’t oversaturated the otaku market the way it has geek culture here. Shaun of the Dead must not have as much penetration there, or 28 Days Later or Planet Terror or Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil. Well, I’m pretty sure Resident Evil does.
Anyway, rather than attempt to deviate from what has become the standard, archetypal zombie formula, or use it for self-parody, the show plays it completely and utterly straight.
The zombies here fit are pretty much straight from the standard zombie mold. They’re slow, blind, brainless creatures that eat the flesh of the living and, in the process, turn the living into creatures like them. They’re attracted to loud noises, supernaturally strong, and can only be killed by destroying their head.
And the situation the main characters find themselves in could come from any number of similar films. Civilization is slowly breaking down, as the population is rapidly being zombified. With everyone else potentially hungering for their flesh, they can only turn to each other.
While this episode only really introduces Takashi Komuro and his childhood friend/unrequited love, Rei Miyamoto, you can bet that future episodes will introduce a wider band of survivors who will have to stick together to last and, potentially, get picked off one by one. There are a few glimpses of them in this episode: Saya Takagi, who shows an unusual interest in Takashi, stoic-looking swordswoman Saeko Busujima, military otaku Kouta Hirano and implausibly large-breasted nurse Shizuka Marikawa.
You see, zombie films, given their b-movie heritage, tend to be lurid and graphic in more than just the flesh-eating, blood splattering horde. They can be a little sexually risque, as well, and Highschool of the Dead takes that opportunity and runs with it.
It probably doesn’t help that the original manga was the first professional work from artist Shouji Satou that wasn’t pornographic. Satou’s professional experience is very evident from the manga—especially the female character designs—and most of the attributes that made them notable have carried over to the anime, as well. Highschool of the Dead should give many an amateur animator the chance to hone his breast jiggle.
If it was just the character designs, that wouldn’t be so bad, but director Araki Tetsurou seems intent on putting his cast’s assets on display. I counted no fewer than 13 conspicuous (and completely unnecessary) panty shots throughout the course of the episode, as well as plenty of gratuitous cleavage and jiggle. And that’s with Nurse Marikawa only getting one scene this episode. Things are sure to get worse as the rest of the female cast gets more screen time.
This episode is focused on Takashi and his relationship with Rei and her new boyfriend, Hisashi, who also happens to be Takashi’s best friend. See, Rei made a childhood promise to marry Takashi, but after he became colder to her as they grew up, her feelings drifted to A-student Hisashi, who seems to be awesome at everything he does. “Listen to Hisashi,” a beaming Rei says when he suggests they get weapons before making their escape, “he’s always right.”
But Hisashi gets bitten early on in the episode so, after they conveniently reach the roof and barricade themselves in, he starts coughing up blood. He begs Takashi not to let him turn into a zombie. The soundtrack starts building to a post-rock crescendo. After laying still for several seconds, Hisashi gets up. Takashi raises his bat. Rei begs him not to touch Hisashi, but he pulls her aside. As the music reaches its peak, Takashi lungs at him and swings the bat…
The story might not be original, but Highschool of the Dead isn’t some cookie-cutter anime production. The direction and animation are excellent, full of the kinds of over the top gestures and gonzo flourishes you’d expect from a b-movie.
Before the show aired, I read what I could find of the manga on the Internet, and I was worried that the anime would be able to capture the original work’s finely honed melodramatic climaxes. If the rest of the series matches the quality of the first episode, this could well be the superior version.
The only problem visually are the character designs. Not only do they make the whole show seem like something that should be hidden behind a curtain in the back of the video store, but their traditional anime styling is completely at odds with the gorgeously realistically-rendered backgrounds.
I was hoping for something more stylistic, to be honest, or at least with a more muted color palette to match the rest of the art. They go off-model on one or two occasions, too, which is disturbing for a first episode. Save that for later episodes, when you’re on a tighter deadline.
The biggest issue going forward is this episode’s distinct lack of crowd shots. The one scene that involves large numbers of people uses still frames and camera moves to create a sense of motion, but it’s very unconvincing. Large hordes are, of course, a staple of anything involving zombies, so fully-animated crowd shots are obviously going to be crucial to capture the atmosphere of a zombie invasion. I’m worried the animation isn’t up to the task.
Really, though, I think Highschool of the Dead has the potential to be a pretty enjoyable show. The manga is a pretty well-written piece of zombie fiction, even if it doesn’t do anything original, and the anime staff seems more than capable of handling the adaptation.
After so many painfully self-aware takes on the zombie concept, it’s refreshing to see someone being honest about making zombie fiction. But on the other hand, you begin to understand why deviations from the formula are so necessary. If you’ve seen anything remotely resembling a zombie movie (even close cousins like I Am Legend and From Dusk ’til Dawn), you have already seen this all this before, albeit probably not in the long-form take of a television series.
Given the recent glut of things with zombies in them, that might make Highschool of the Dead pretty unappealing. If, however, you can’t get enough of this stuff, Highschool of the Dead is an unabashed, full-on zombie anime. With all that entails from each.