School-Live! and Creating Dramatic Tension

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In another series, Kurumi Ebisuzawa may have had her wish fulfilled. Joining the track team to pursue a relationship with her senior – as much as one can pursue a romantic relationship by staring from a distance – Kurumi scores a chance to make her romantic dreams come true when that same senior meets up with her on the school rooftop.

The scene is perfectly crafted. As the two look over the railing at the sun setting over their town, the atmosphere is ripe for a confession.

Instead, in School-Live!, that senior tries to eat her.

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There are two primary ways that filmmakers, television series, and cartoons currently approach zombies. The first is to treat the subject matter as seriously as possible, which requires a deft touch and knowledge of how to create dramatic tension. The second, and far more popular approach, is to employ a campy style, playing up popular tropes within the genre while reveling in them.

Much of this has to do with how much time has passed between George Romero’s original 1968 Night of the Living Dead, which influenced the entire horror genre along with giving modern-day zombies many of their characteristics. Subsequent remakes of Night of the Living Dead and its brethren increasingly become campier homages of the originals as we, the audience, become more familiar with the tropes. Admittedly, Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead was wildly successful for these reasons. Far less acerbic than the original, it was still empty-headed fun, especially for those familiar with the zombie oeuvre.

An anime analogue stuck between the two options is the much-maligned High School of the Dead, which spends most of its time on kitschy fun. Unfortunately, it also tries to shoehorn in meaningful tidbits and ends up failing spectacularly, neither fun nor incisive at series end.

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With the necessary deft touch a rare thing to come by, School-Live!‘s anime debut is all the more interesting. Eschewing campy flair of zombies, School-Live! plops slice of life moé antics – which in a way are equally rote as zombies – into a post-zombie apocalypse.

What makes School-Live! work isn’t the fact that it mashes two tired ideas together, but the manner in which pink-haired senior Yuki Takeya is portrayed. Broken by events prior to the series timeframe, Yuki sees the school as it was before the zombie outbreak. Fellow classmates Kurumi Ebisuzawa, Yuri Wakasa, Miki Naoki, and teacher Megumi Sakura are not only tasked with keeping themselves alive, but protecting Yuki’s shattered mind.

School-Live!‘s premiere plays with audience expectations, presenting the world as a standard cutesy schoolgirl comedy – albeit with small hints at something amiss – before panning out to reveal the landscape as it actually is: a ruined wasteland where the five are sole survivors, living inside their school.

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With it’s cover blown, School-Live! purposefully chooses the serious route. Instead of reveling in zombie camp, it uses Yuki’s fractured mental state to create dramatic tension that permeates the series. Suddenly a trip to restock supplies from the school store is complicated not only by the existence of zombified former classmates, but Yuki’s obliviousness. The girls pass it off as a test of courage, but their excursion has a heaviness to it simply because of Yuki’s presence.

What will happen if Yuki meets a zombie? Will her mind simply break, placing all of them in further danger?

Suddenly, the weight of standard zombie tropes – like Kurumi’s aforementioned romantic-turned-tragic encounter with her senior – are all the heavier through the framework of Yuki’s refusal to accept reality. The hoops that teacher Megumi and the other girls of the School Living Club have to jump through in order to keep Yuki’s mental state intact create the necessary tension to elevate School-Live! above others of its ilk.

13 comments

  1. Yup, I totally agree here. The psychological context of Yuki’s condition provides a really tense (what I might even describe as uncomfortable) lens through which the rest of the show gets filtered—and it benefits a whole heck of a lot just simply because Yuki’s presence forces the audience to consider the show as more than either a zombie flick or a moe slice of life show.

    1. Yeah. I’d hesitate to label it a psychological thriller, but that’s a bit what it reminds me of more than anything else. The focal point of the series’ tension and horror lies in Yuki’s fractured mind which is almost like a ticking time bomb. The true test for Gakkou Gurashi will be following the first time Yuki snaps, and how the series subsequently deals with the effect/aftermath.

  2. One of my fonder memories of 4chan’s anime board was a thread that conceptualized k-on headcannon, where the OP described watching the show through the lens of this exact show, in which all four girls are living a rose-coloured high school life with the light music club in spite of the reality of a zombie apocalypse – fascinating and amusing discussion was had.

    It was through this novel genre blend that I could see the show working. However, for me it all greatly hinges on how well it blends the reality of the zombie apocalypse with Yuki’s delusion. The problem for me is that the necessity of the show to switch back and forth between Yuki’s perspective and the other girls somewhat dulls the effect. By playing their cards as early as the show did, it no longer became less zombie flick and more slice of life with zombies. The horror tension is gone for me, but the emotional weight (i.e, kurumi’s crush) is still there, but painted in a different light.

    If anything, with the shock factor gone, this show feels a lot closer to Sora no Woto than any other horror piece. SRNWT took a slice of life + wartime drama approach and paced the show with this structure in mind. We the audience knew the imment approach of the war and the inevitable call to battle that the four girls had to respond to; but the moe elements and initial ill-preparedness in the cast contrasted really well with the backdrop, forcing the girls to grow up faster than normal SoL shows would. The arrival of war is fast and hard, and the dramatic payoff that SoL provides through dabblings with the ephemeral makes the final arc all the more effective. If gakkou gurashi made itself known but with more subtle hints (i.e., waited until later for the girls to confront the reality of zombie apocalypse), the contrast would have been much more powerful for me.

    1. For me, the tension is present in every scene that Yuki is in, due to the fact that she could become lucid at any moment and we don’t know what would happen, so we’ll have to agree to disagree there.

      I like the Sora no Woto comparison since a large source of the series’ melancholy (not tension but legitimate sadness) comes from panning out to juxtapose Yuki’s cheerful banter with a ruined classroom, broken window, etc. There’s still the slice-of-life everyday stuff, but the setting combined with what we know of Yuki’s mental state permeates the series with sadness. I don’t mind that Gakkou Gurashi has dropped us in the middle of it, since we still can’t be assured of what is real and what is not. A few things like the dog, or certain occurrences within the series only remind us of Yuki’s shattered mind and cast doubt over her surroundings, which makes the series really interesting for me.

      As an aside, that K-ON! thread sounds fascinating. ^ ^

  3. My favourite thing about Gakkou Gurashi has to be its use of the unseen, horror’s greatest weapon. Any average show can show gratuitous blood and gore, but having Kurumi clean off the remains of the slaughter we didn’t completely see gives power to the grotesque nature of their world. It adds to the show’s status as psychological horror, forgoing cheap shocks for deeper and more pertinent earthquakes of plot.

    There’s also great tension in how all the foreshadowing we got in Yuki’s world shows how reality is creeping into her paradise. I’m scared for her mental survival far more than I am for her physical well-being, which is both refreshing and highly uncomfortable.

    Great article for a great show.🙂

    1. Thank you. ^ ^;

      The scene where Kurumi was cleaning off her shovel was great. It was such a subtle routine thing that was still meaningful because of the series’ context. Another thing I liked about that sequence was where it cut. Kurumi was clearly remembering that the zombie she was about to kill had been a regular student – aided by the cellphone picture – and this made it very obvious that she still feels the weight of killing, which is something you sometimes don’t see in zombie films, especially after some time has passed in a post-zombie world. This was left open-ended before cutting to Yuki and Megu-nee, while Megu-nee’s face slowly falls as Yuki happily describes what she wants to do for summer vacation. The camera pans out to show that they are the only two people in a ruined classroom, and then cuts to the shovel. It’s really nuanced and well done.

      I too am more scared for Yuki’s mental survival. I’m also terrified of what will happen to her should someone get bitten in front of her/something happen to a friend of hers. There are a lot of different avenues that Gakkou Gurashi can explore with Yuki and I’m definitely curious to see how the series develops from here on out.

  4. It’s interesting for the writing to take a more serious stance on the subject matter, considering most writers would play up the cute factor or turn it into a (figurative) gut-busting comedy.

    Also, I liked your posts on the new season of Gatchaman Crowds Insight. Judging from the detail you discussed the themes, you must have been really looking forward to it

    What other animes are you watching this season? What were your impressions of them? I’ve heard good things about “The Red-Haired Snow White” for shoujo lovers; very Disney-esque in the romance department, plus the lead’s no helpless damsel in distress.
    There’s also “Rokka no Yuusha/The Heroes of the 6 Flowers”, noted for its Aztec-era setting and the upcoming whodunit mystery aspects.

    1. I was really looking forward to Crowds insight. ^ ^ It’s my favorite series of the season.

      I’m also watching “Red-Haired Snow White.” It’s not a serious that does anything particularly fresh with the genre, but it’s really well executed and the characters (especially Zen and Shirayuki) seem like actual people, which really helps.

      Rokka’s first episode bored me a bit. Fantasy isn’t really my thing (it’s a wonder that I’ve taken to Shirayukihime like I did) so maybe I’ll return to it but doubtful. I’m also watching Laplace and Classroom Crisis.

  5. I should like to expand upon your comments regarding Yuki’s state of mind, if I may.

    As you’ve mentioned, Yuki appears to see the world as it used to be. Something broke, for want of a better word, and her mind is trying to compensate. This, one might argue, leads to a certain degree of dependence on Kurumi, Yuri, and Miki. They need to protect her from herself, one might say.

    Now, it can probably safely be said that this disconnect – i.e. between the world as Yuki sees it, and the post-apocalyptic world – is a key theme in the work/series as a whole. Indeed, this is what they emphasise, apparently more so in the anime too. First we see this emphasis on a first chapter/episode from Yuki’s perspective with carefully dropped hints, of things that don’t quite make sense. Of course, and as you mentioned, this also adds to the shock factor.

    What Gakkou Gurashi seems to be saying/aiming for with this theme of dual-worlds, as it were, is asking (and potentially answering) the question: okay, we’ve survived the immediate outbreak of zombies, and have secured necessities, now what?

    What is the psychological impact of surviving after so many have fallen, and indeed, still pose a risk?

    Now, whilst Yuki might present a risk to the others’ safety, she might also be seen as a means to ground them, to help them survive. There are hints also, that her mind hasn’t completely blanked everything out. Yuki is not completely oblivious to her surroundings. Whether or not this is conscious is another matter, but there’s the possibility that, where she is picking up on the harsh reality of the world beyond her bubble, which might lead one to wonder what else she is picking up on. Could she be (un)consciously helping the others get through what is likely a decently traumatic experience? An orbital resonance of personalities, perhaps.

    Without revealing too much, one might wish to pay attention to Miki’s story when it comes.

    This is also why I would (gently) disagree with the opinion that they should have waited on the reveal a little longer. I see Gakkou Gurashi, and to return to your point about taking the zombie scenario seriously, as not necessarily focussing on the immediate physical survival aspects of zombie horror series or the reveal of its setting, but rather how to survive it mentally, and where to proceed once you’ve settled in to the new routine. Then again, perhaps I’m giving it too much credit.

    In any case, I look forward to seeing how the adaptation proceeds from here.

    1. “What Gakkou Gurashi seems to be saying/aiming for with this theme of dual-worlds, as it were, is asking (and potentially answering) the question: okay, we’ve survived the immediate outbreak of zombies, and have secured necessities, now what?

      What is the psychological impact of surviving after so many have fallen, and indeed, still pose a risk?”

      This is exactly why I love this show thus far, and why I’ll likely give it credit, even if it fails in this endeavor. As I mentioned before, there’s a reason why series don’t usually tend to focus more on the serious mental side of things and that’s because it’s far more difficult. Camp is easy. Genuine psychological trauma is not.

      Honestly, I had a very similar reaction to yours initially. Following the first episode, I wondered if Gakkou Gurashi had completely revealed its hand too early rather than allowing things to stew for a bit longer. However, the second episode convinced me that the series is not only focused on the juxtaposition between moé slice-of-life and zombies, but the actual psychological adjustments that these girls have had to make (or refused to make) in order to survive.

      If it fails in portraying this later, it at least tried the more difficult route and succeeded for a bit. ^ ^

      I’ll be sure to pay attention to Miki now that you made a point to bring it up, hehe.

  6. I think the issue with this series is that it relies on its premise a bit too much– yes, it is a novel way of building tension and depicting the terror of a zombie apocalypse, but, at the same time, it tries to serve some serious emotional sequences, such as the shovel-girl’s crush, with characters who I hardly know. Yuki is definitely the main character, so I do get a sense of who she is a bit more, but these other people are all single-trait characters with no weight attached to them. I get the sense that the tragedy was made in an attempt to give them personalities, but it only really impacts the world around them.

    I guess I might have just preferred if it was the campy series the first episode promised. The big reveal that there was an apocalypse going on looked totally ridiculous to me, especially after seeing a sub-par moe series for 20 minutes beforehand. I think if it just embraced the stupidity I would be able to swallow this a lot more, but I guess it’s still watchable.

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