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High School of the Dead – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Takashi Komuro is a normal high school boy, until an infection breaks out that turns people into zombie-like creatures. Along with his friends and the school nurse, they fight their way out of their school and continue their journey to find out what exactly has happened to the world around them. As they try to survive this horrific apocalypse, they must also face the additional threats of societal collapse, in the form of dangerous fellow survivors, and the possible decay of their own moral codes in order to survive.

Based on the popular manga series by Daisuke Sato, High school of the Dead presents an extravagant culmination of all that encompasses what is known as the zombie genre within horror. Opening rather subtly through a poignant soliloquy regarding the end of the world offered up by main protagonist Takashi, the series is quite the difficult one to gauge considering its diverse range of topics coupled with its puzzling execution. Both fantastically consumed by its usage of fan service as it is with showcasing the destructive collapse of society if the proper elements are in place, it’s an approach that paints the series unique at best. But it’s through this approach that positions the series within a very strenuous dichotomy, a contrast that could equally alienate viewers as well as garner their appreciation. Do fans of horror appreciate the strides the series makes in producing a well-constructed and honest narrative on the break down of society, or does it stumble in its attempt to do so given the mockery it makes pertaining to its female cast? It’s this conflicted approach that makes High school of the Dead a very compelling series to say the least.

Beginning like so many other forms of entertainment dealing with the likes of a zombie apocalypse, High school of the Dead is both horrific in its portrayal of a dystopian environment and as a look into the psychological deterioration of the individual stemming from such circumstances. While this premise is certainly not original, it allows the series to continually raise many issues concerning the collapse of the social structuring of civilization—particularly that from the perspective of a teenager. This remains the series strongest point in that it focuses extensively on the young adults who are left behind to fend for themselves as the world they once knew slowly collapses around them, with the important role of adults within society loudly extinguished. We as viewers begin to see what these characters took for granted within their daily lives as this normality steadily vanishes, and what they have to learn in its place—such as shooting a gun at both humans and zombies alike—in order to survive. This is where the numerous inner monologues by Takashi provide great insight into the devastation and carnage surrounding him and his peers. They offer up a perspective of a world slipping into chaos and the helplessness of not being able to influence that outcome. The inclusion of such monologues with the series broadens our sympathy for the outcome of his plight, specifically his reoccurring acknowledgement of a past world—and life—in which he will never have the opportunity to return to again.

This notion of young adults surviving in a world where there is no law further extends to the remainder of the cast as well. Whether this is seen through Rei Miyamoto’s questionable relationship with fellow classmate Takashi after he unwillingly has to kill her boyfriend—who is also Takashi’s best friend—after he becomes infected, to Saya Takagi questioning the role of her own parents given their supposed abandonment of her when everything started to go awry, it’s a narrative exploring the emotional corruption and supplanting of moral values in place of Darwinistic principles of survival. It’s in this turbulent landscape where the series thrives as an example of horror with substance, a rarity that is often omitted in many modern exercises of the genre. The narrative—when seriously addressed—is where one can find High school of the Dead at its most elaborate and thoughtful exploration on the human need to survive.

One element of the series that also remains strong is the animation, done here by Studio Madhouse. For a television series, High school of the Dead offers excellent visuals throughout, whether this stems from its zombie-ravaged scenes of metropolitan chaos, to scenes of tranquility as cherry blossoms slowly fall to the ground amidst a schoolyard, Madhouse definitely pulled no stops in realizing the world of series. The technical prowess also extends to the rambunctious nature of the action sequences found throughout the series as well. Done with considerable aplomb, the actions sequences within the series are distinct, well choreographed, and brutal—all elements that culminate in creating memorable scenes in literally every episode. Similar to how the series doesn’t hold back in terms of fan service, in the same vein we find the segments of action as examples of utter savageness as heads are grotesquely bashed in, limbs are quickly detached, and vicious stab wounds are the order of the day. Besides the obvious outlandish female character designs—which one should note that High school of the Dead was main illustrator Shojo Sato’s first non-hentai title, which certainly doesn’t alleviate his influence from within that genre from being viewed here as well—the characters are also given discrete appearances. Madhouse did a fantastic job with this aspect of the series, and really complemented the look the manga series from a visual standpoint.

But for every element exploring the decay of society explored throughout the series, there is an equal amount of fan service put forth, an aspect of the show that may hinder it from reaching its true potential for many viewers. High school of the Dead is one series that doesn’t shy away from showcasing exuberant amounts of the female anatomy, often times in the most ridiculous manner possible. This approach towards the females within the show doesn’t correlate well with the rather somber nature of the plot, but one can certainly see the satirical elements it injects into it. In one episode of the series, this notion is brought forth quite clearly after one of the female characters is asked why she is so ditzy, in which she replies, “Because the author wrote me this way.” Its moments like this one that truly harp on the playful yet raunchy nature concerning the female cast within the show, a cast that are often delegated to increasingly excessive sexual behavior for the sake of appeasing a certain demographical audience. This is where the series may lose some viewers not accustomed—or wanting—to view as it simply becomes too overbearing as the series progresses. There is even an entire episode seemingly dedicated to fully exploiting the female cast in the most absurd way, and while one can understand the humor behind such an episode, it simply obscures an otherwise interesting narrative. Perhaps if less focus were paid upon the grandiosity of a woman’s chest size, then High school of the Dead could’ve spent more time on successfully carrying out its already solid plot.

So how does one view High school of the Dead? One can argue that it provides a look into the social decay of a civilization sadly gone askew. Maybe it’s also just a common horror series with an abundant amount of satire and fan service layered throughout? Or perhaps, in a most unconventional way, it combines both in order to create something experimental but also familiar in nature? While the series does display an appreciable commentary on societal collapse, it’s also marred by its excessive—but often times extremely sarcastic—use of its female cast as they are utilized to specifically appease a male audience. It’s this contrast that can either lead to the discouragement or satisfaction of some viewers, which presents a polarizing view on a series with an otherwise action-packed and interesting story outside its heavy use of fan service. While the usage of fan service does get incredibly repetitive as the series progresses, it has to be taken as is that this is a part of the series, no matter how incidental it may seem given the weighty subject material at hand. Besides these elements of the show, High school of the Dead is still a highly enjoyable and boisterous tale of young adults attempting to survive amidst a relentless assault from undead, all the while dealing with many of the issues that encompass youth—love, friendship, jealously, just to name a few—which makes it one of the finer, yet odder anime horror series to come around in quite some time.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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