Being a fan of many geeky and/or nerdy things, I take great pleasure when engaging in said geeky activities, whether it's DnD, Magic: The Gathering, video games, sci-fi, fantasy, medieval longsword fighting, you get the picture. However, the amount of fun I have increases that much more when two or more of my geeky passions can be combined and today's review is about a wonderful example of such a thing, a great blend of anime and zombies – two of the things I like most – in the shape of the 12 episode series: Highschool of the Dead (HOTD).
At its core the series is about a bunch of survivors of a zombie apocalypse, during the first few days of the event, but with a typical Japanese flavor seeing as how the protagonists are all high-school students mainly because adults in anime tend to suck or not exist at all.
The first episode plunges us directly into the action thus setting the tone for pretty much the entire series, it's very earnest, the protagonists have to keep constantly on the move in order to survive during the start of this cataclysm, and they'll get very few chances to actually rest during the series.
The cause of the dead coming back to life is not clearly given, there's a reference to it probably being some type of biological weapon but that doesn't come into play for our protagonists, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is the fact that the rules by which the undead operate are very clearly illustrated almost from the beginning and this is important to any zombie-centric plotline.
The 'zombie rules' in HOTD come right from the observations of the protagonists, especially those of one of the girls in the group who is in her words 'a genius', and her knowledge and logic come into play throughout the series.
The protagonists are great because they act very realistically, meaning that they don't live in a world where horror movies don't exists, the entire series is very self-referential, there are several references to movies, manga, anime and MMOs, so these are some of the most real zombie apocalypse survivor characters I've seen.
They are however characters, and as such they fall very neatly into certain archetypes, which some might find to be a bit stale but I consider them to be pretty realistic: there's the reluctant leader, the outcast gun-nut, the quiet and disciplined but very effective fighter, there's even a ditsy blonde. The great thing is that they bounce off of each other very well, there's a lot of 'chemistry' – it's weird to use that word when talking about animated characters but there's no better one to describe it – between these characters and this is the reason why they make such a good team.
Our protagonists also benefit from a bit of character development, usually via flashback, so that we can understand who they were before and why it is that they are acting like they are in such an extreme situation. The great thing is that they don't over-use the flashbacks, and they are usually short and sweet, transmitting what they have to so that we get the message and then returning us to the current-day.
One other strong point of Highschool of the Dead lies in its strong female protagonists. Despite the large amount of totally gratuitous upskirt shots and the exaggerated fluidity of the boob movements – more on that later – the main female characters play an important part in the story; actually the strongest and most skilled fighter of the group is a female student, a kendo champion who bashes a large number of heads in with her bokken, and as mentioned earlier, the most knowledgeable person in the group is also a girl.
Thankfully the series doesn't waste time with useless romantic subplots, partly due to the configuration of the survivors, partly due to the fact that they are more concerned with surviving and surely partly due to the length of the series. There are is some romance to be had in HOTD, of course, this is an anime about high-school students after all, but those never take the main stage, it's all about survival and keeping each other safe.
Now returning to the subject of the upskirt shots and very exaggerated boob movement I mentioned earlier, I have mixed feeling about these. On the one hand as a person who grew up accustomed with Western culture, I can see how these could be seen as taking away from the seriousness of the action at hand because there are some scenes where they're rather blatant about it; on the other hand as an anime fan, and one who likes Japanese culture as a whole, I do understand that these are part of how they do things in contemporary anime. At the end of the day it's all up to each viewer's perspective as to how they'll digest these parts of the series.
Now it can't all be realistic protagonists and bouncy boobs, the series does have a few weaker points spread throughout its runtime.
Despite the realism that the protagonists show – for the most part – there are a couple of things which happen in the world around them which are very unrealistic and very uncharacteristic.
When it comes to the unrealistic part, there are two things that come to mind, an annoying character and an event. The character in question simply has nothing to do with the story or the world that it is taking place in, he's used more or less for padding except for offering some back-story for two of our protagonists but let me make it very clear, the series wouldn't have suffered one bit if this particular fucker would've been cut completely from the story, as evidenced by the very anti-climactic way in which he is dispatched.
The event that I'm talking about comes towards the end of the series, and from a real-world point of view it has no place in the present-day, it would've been much more plausible if the action took place during the Cold War but not in our days; again, the series wouldn't have suffered if this part would've been nixed.
Now getting to the uncharacteristic part of the story, and this is where some might find me getting too serious when talking about an animated series, but especially when it comes to anime, the fact that it is animated has nothing to do with how serious it can be, this isn't Pokemon we're talking about.
Now with that being said, I'm not that well versed in Japanese culture and society, but what I do know is that myself, alongside the entire planet stood witness to the aftermath of the Tokoku earthquake and its subsequent tsunami, and more-so watched in complete awe how orderly and disciplined the Japanese people reacted to the disaster, suffice to say this real-world reaction to a catastrophe clashes with what happens in certain parts of HOTD. It's true that the series came out in 2010 and the Tokoku earthquake didn't happen till this year – 2011 – so the creators could only speculate on the reaction of the masses, but let's just say that some of the things that you'll see just seem out of place. I'm not saying that at least some people wouldn't lose their shit when faced with the idea of walking dead but the reaction of some of the members of society seemed to be very un-Japanese – of course I could only have an idealized idea of what Japanese culture is so what they showed in HOTD could be a possibility, but the reality of what happened in the aftermath of the tsunami tells me otherwise.
This next point isn't a weakness, more an observation, I think – and I'm only guessing here – that there were a couple of scenes here and there that were left on the cutting room floor, because sometimes the behavior of the characters doesn't make a lot of sense in a certain context however, this might be related to the fact that I'm sure a lot of dialogue and nuance is lost during the translation process. So I'm not sure if these are editing problems, what is clear is that I need to learn Japanese.
Highschool of the Dead clearly has many more strong points than weak ones, and even the weaker ones, as you will see if you watch it, are more like iffy points, I'm just overanalyzing due to a deep love for zombie apocalypse scenarios.
The conclusion is pretty simple to deduce, if you like anime and/or zombies, but ideally if you like both, fucking watch this series, it's awesome.