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.
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.
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.
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.