SCHOOL-LIVE!: MY REVIEW
Okay, let’s address the elephant in the room first: if any of you reading this care the slightest bit about spoilers, stop reading right now.
If you’re still with me, I’m taking that as a tacit acknowledgement that you’ve seen School-Live!/Gakkou Gurashi and know what it’s really about…
Because this show is NOT what it looks like at first.
It’s completely deceitful about its true nature, in fact. Everything from the show’s character design, to its marketing, to the timeslot, to its opening theme is part of the deception… think of what suckered you into watching Madoka Magica, and amplify that by a factor of about a dozen. Madoka at least had the courtesy to hint strongly from the start that things were way more ominous than they first appeared to be.
School-Live! doesn’t do that. School-Live! outright lies to its audience, to draw them in and deliver the horrible, devastating, fuck-mothering bombshell of a plot twist in the final minute-plus of its first episode.
You could argue that it’s cruel. But if it is, it’s also damned effective, and I love the show for it.
I’m speaking, of course, of the zombies.
What initially appears to be just another cute, moe-fied schoolgirl slice-of-life comedy is turned on its head when the audience realizes that main character Yuki Takeya, member of a club that loves their school so much that they live there, is in a state of PTSD-induced denial, and that the happy, idyllic school life she enjoys every day is just a figment of her imagination. In reality, a zombie apocalypse has overtaken their entire city… The other students and teachers are long dead or infected, and Yuki, her friends Kurumi, Miki, and Yuuri, and her dog Taroumaru, are the only confirmed survivors. They’ve barricaded themselves in the ruins of their school, and formed a “School Living Club” as a sad, desperate attempt to hold onto their optimism and what’s left of Yuki’s sanity. Almost everything we see in the first episode is part of Yuki’s delusion.
That extends to their teacher, Megumi “Megu-nee” Sakura. Initially seeming to be the fifth survivor, after six episodes of being strangely ignored and talked over by the other girls and inexplicably appearing and disappearing from shots when the camera isn’t looking, Megu-nee is revealed to have died several months ago, offering herself as bait so that her students would survive. Her death was the catalyst for Yuki losing her mind, and the “Megu-nee” we’ve seen for half the series is just another hallucination.
I may be completely failing to do justice to this series. Let me explain: I normally can take or leave zombie stuff. I’ve never gotten caught up in the craze, and outside of a few exceptions like 28 Days Later, I’ve never thought zombies were particularly scary. My main problems are that the zombies get boring quickly, and that the human survivors of zombie movies are generally little better than the zombies themselves. Usually, it’s only a matter of time before they inevitably snap and one person betrays the others. It’s a nihilistic, cynical setup that makes it hard to care when one of those jerks gets bitten and doesn’t tell anyone about it.
School-Live! subverts the “survivors are assholes” cliche by not only making the survivors cute and likable… it spends the vast majority of its first episode letting us get to know them, so that the gut punch at the end hits even harder. The first shot of Yuki talking to herself in a ruined, bloodstained classroom is chilling… the shot of her standing in front of a row of broken windows and commenting that “someone left this one open” before sliding it closed and smiling cheerfully is both terrifying and horrifically sad at the same time. That shot is a beautiful example of “show not tell”: if you’ve been paying attention, you know instantly that this silly, cheerful girl is not well, and what you’ve seen thus far has been an elaborate fantasy. There’s no need to have a narrator barge in and tell us “Yuki is insane”, and no need for more elaboration until it’s necessary for the story.
I almost think that the first episode would work by itself as a stand-alone thing… giving us that twist and leaving us wondering would be incredibly sadistic, yes, but as a writer myself, I find the idea of doing such a thing has a certain appeal. What’s admirable is that the show keeps going even after that, and piles on more twists as it goes along. What’s more, it doesn’t entirely abandon the cutesy art style and moe facade, so that you never expect when the plot’s going to turn dark. When it does, the cognitive dissonance hits hard and you can almost feel the mood whiplash as a physical thing, and that’s exactly what it’s meant to do.
It all has the effect of making the zombie scenes immeasurably scarier than they would be otherwise. It helps that the series wisely keeps the zombies shrouded in shadows and strange fog, or obscured by blurry, violent swings of the camera, with their faces darkened and indistinct and only their eyes visible as eerie, glowing white lights. This is a show where the Japanese censorship laws concerning violence and gore work in its favor: never getting a clear shot of what the zombies’ faces look like or what they’re doing to their victims makes them ten times as frightening as showing the viewer what’s going on. They could show more, of course, but that would desensitize the viewer to the horror over time. By showing an admirable level of restraint, the show keeps the zombies from ever growing boring.
And this show is a lot of things, but “boring” is not one of them. I was told there was a twist in advance of watching the first episode, I was watching out for it, and it still floored me… I knew from the second I saw that bloody classroom that this was going to be a series to remember. School-Live! plays the viewer like a fiddle, making them paranoid even during the cute, funny scenes by reminding them that this whole charade could come crashing down at any moment.
And boy howdy, does it crash down. After an episode of fanservicey hijinks in the school’s water tank, we get some of the most emotionally grueling 22 minutes I’ve seen in years, as the situation goes from bad to fucking dire. Here, again, School-Live! plays the audience: anyone who looked into the manga would notice that the dog, Taroumaru, has a significantly expanded role in the anime. In the manga, he was a one-shot character: a puppy that Yuki found wandering around that had already been bitten, and was abandoned by necessity after he turned. Sad, yes, but not as sad as it could be, as the reader didn’t have time to get attached.
In the anime, Taroumaru is a character in his own right, present from the beginning, providing comic relief from the bleakness of the girls’ situation. For nine episodes, we see him romping around with the girls, protecting them from danger, and we’re fooled into thinking that he’s safe. Surely, surely the series wouldn’t be so cruel as to let something happen to him after that much time, right?
Wroooooong. In the end of episode 9, Taroumaru slips from his collar and wanders down to the school’s basement, where he catches sight of the zombie that used to be Megu-nee. In the next episode, after the girls wonder where he’s gone, he’s very obviously missing from the title sequence, which changes to reflect the story as the series goes on. I let out an audible “Oh, shit” when it got to the part of the opening where he normally catches the little cartoon bone as it bounces off Miki… and he wasn’t there.
The next ten minutes are excruciating. I actually felt physically ill as the show drew out the suspense until it was ready to snap… the scene of Kurumi going down the basement stairs alone in near-silence, following those little paw prints, gets my vote as one of the scariest scenes of any anime in recent memory. It teases you, daring you to hope that things aren’t as they seem, that Taroumaru somehow got away… and then you hear him growl at Kurumi, and see his teeth baring…
It gets worse from there. Kurumi learns that it was Megu-nee who bit Taroumaru, and swings her shovel to put the poor creature out of her misery… and freezes. There’s an entirely too detailed shot of Megu-nee’s rotting mouth opening, and the screen cuts to the eyecatch as we hear the bite.
From there, everything goes to hell. The zombies swarm the school en masse, trying to get out of the rain. Kurumi’s infection spreads rapidly. Yuuri starts to break down from stress, remembering that she promised Kurumi that if she ever got infected, “don’t hesitate for a second”. Miki dissolves into tears when she sees the teeth marks Taroumaru left on Kurumi’s shovel. The zombies storm the barricades the girls have set up. And Yuki stands by the broken windows, in a chilling replay of the end of the first episode, and realizes that she can feel the rain on her face…
Episode 10 gets my vote as the best single anime episode of the year. Not since Madoka have I seen a better example of a series raising the stakes in such a short time. I’ve seen a lot of TV, readers, and it takes a lot to get me emotionally invested… but the number of series that can inspire the level of dread that episode 10 of School-Live! did, I can count on one hand. It’s a superb demonstration that the writers paid attention to Hitchcock’s classic quote: “A bomb explodes under a table… that’s action. A bomb doesn’t explode under a table… that’s suspense.”
There are hundreds of things that I think make School-Live! a work of twisted genius: the lengths the first episode goes to for its deception, the skillful use of subtle horror and unsettling ambiance rather than cheap jump scares, the manipulations of the audience’s emotions, the willingness to make the viewer question what they’re seeing, the fact that despite all the horrible things happening to the cast, that it’s still somewhat idealistic. Maybe that last one is the most remarkable… this is a sad, tragic, frequently horrifying gut-wrencher of an anime, but it’s not hopeless. Yuki may seem like she’s nothing but a burden to the others, an anxiety that she addresses from time to time. But as “Megu-nee” points out, she fulfills an essential function: she gives the others hope. She keeps them going. And as long as there’s that tiny little speck of light at the end of the tunnel, they can keep going, together. It’s the same sort of idealism in the face of crushing despair that made the ending of the Madoka anime so very meaningful to me: You are not alone. As the song goes: “For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies / Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise...” That makes all the difference in the world between School-Live! and the thousands of other zombie shows, movies, books, video games, and what have you. That makes School-Live! my anime series of the year.
I have very little to say about this modern piece of moeshit, other than calling it cute girls doing cute things with some zombies in the background. If you look around, you will of course find many who consider it amazing, a subversion of moe turning into a zombie apocalypse, or even an allegory to the anxiety students feel during high school years. Those themes are there, but they are not used much. You are mostly watching cute girls doing cute things with close to no action survival or psychological horror. This does not change as the show progresses, it doesn’t take itself more seriously by reducing the moe factor and increasing the psychological horror.
The setting and most of its elements are irreverent. You can take out the school part and it won’t make a difference. Just like it happens in most anime, it’s just there so the script writer can be lazy as fuck without having to excuse it. A lazy-ass excuse for making up a club with a whatever name in a whatever school for a whatever plot, like all low effort anime do.
You can take out the zombies and it will still not make a difference, since they don’t pose a threat if they can be beaten by a simple girl with a shovel. The sight of corpses would be more than enough to have the same psychological effect. You can even remove the post apocalyptic setting entirely, and you will still have a generic moeblob show that may not stand out from all the rest, but still stands on its own because the post apocalyptic setting is an afterthought.
Despite pretending to be more than just escapism through cute girls, it almost entirely remains as such. The main theme is about being in denial of the reality around you, which so happens to be exactly what moe is made for. A bunch of defenseless sick waifu you want to protect UGYUU!
I mean, damn, Yuki is so autistic to the point she makes up friends instead of trusting the ones she already has. The other girls are supposed to serve a different role in maintaining their sanity and increasing their chances of survival but feel closer to excuses for flavoring a moe harem. They are not any less autistic than Yuki, since they show no interest to find out anyone else that might be alive out there, including their families and friends. Even if they know they are all dead, or believe they are the sole survivors in the whole planet, they do not show the horror of said realization and keep acting like it’s all going to be ok.
This is why Lord of the Flies does right everything Gakkou Gurashi failed completely to present. No schools, no moeblobs, no imaginary friends, no zombies that get beaten with a shovel, and a heavy emphasis on showing the psychological effect isolation and lack of proper guidance has on the minds of young people. Fuck you modern anime, and hurray for retro books.
Where to start?
Maybe at the beginning, Einstein! If I have to...
So, first episode. I dont think I will create much of a spoiler if I tell you, to expect a twist in the end of it. Most people already know about it. But I may surprize some if I say that the first episode was horrible. It was probably the worst anime episode I have seen since I have been methodically chosing what to watch. The animation is cheap, the humor is very bad, the characters are annoying as hell. I managed to watch the first episode in 2 hours. And the worst part is that I was actually prepared for a bad episode. It barely manages to create any kind of atmosphere and its only a set-up for the endig. The biggest problem is that in Madoka Magica, the whole dark theme feels, well, natural, but here it didnt. They deliberately made the first episode overly cute, to get a bigger contrast in the end.
So the first episode is weak.
Buts its worth watching the whole thing. The first 4 episodes are nothing special. The tone gets somewhat darker, but its still a pretty basic slice of life where you feel that all the main characters are untouchable and nothing can go wrong.
But then the second plot-twist comes into place. And holy shit, the anime picks up place. Suddenly the whole girly part becomes really dark and sinister, we feel that noone is safe anymore. In this world things can actually go wrong and maybe they will. The tone gets gradually darker and culminates by episode 11 and by this time,the episodes are on par with Madoka Magica.
The ending is kind of a letdown, they ripped off Angel beats, also its predictable. Some aspects I actually felt compeltely unnecessay, for example when Taroumaru turns back just to die shortly after. I understand that it would have been dark to end Taroumarus life by leaving him as a zombie, but it would have been better and way better fitting to the last few episodes tone.
Story: weak start where they artificially create a higher effect that feels unnatural, first 4 episodes are kind of lackluster and mediocre, but the anime gradually picks up speed and by episode 11, you really grow to like the story. The ending is kind of cowardly from the creators. Initially I thought they dont have the balls to go dark, then they proved they do, but by the end, they kind of disproved it again. After the great twists from episode 5 and up, I expected something big for the end, it didnt turn out that way. 7/10
Animation: The animation is pretty weak at the beginning. The character animation is the type I dont like at all. Some aspects are very good: the zombie effects and the backgrounds. But it is somewhat thoughtless. For example: I understand the bloodstains everywhere, but there is no explanation for the cracks in the walls. The school was infected just a few months ago and nothing that happens then or after that could have resulted in the walls cracking like the building was abandoned for years. I cant say it looks bad, but if you think about it, you get a problem. 6.5/10
Sound: It doesnt have a theme that gets burned into your brain, but the music complements the action and horror scenes pretty well. 7/10
Characters: I like the characters. All of them have some kind of a background, I felt that some of them didnt get the attention they deserved, but for example the Yuki character is well written and even the character evolution is remarcable. What I miss is the bonds with their family. None of them even think about finding out what happened to their parents/siblings. I feel this is a major plot-hole and a hit and miss in the characterization of our heroines. 7.5/10
Overall: The big question: Did I like Gakkou Gurashi?
Yes, yes I did. I also think it will be one of the most memorable animes of the year. Could have used a lot of improvement, like thinking it through better(parents, the state of the building), also the animation is somewhat cheap(huge improvement to the horribly looking first episode), but its still an easily above average show. I strongly suggest it to fans of Madoka Magica, or fans who want to experience something special compared to the usual slice of life animes. I also suggest it to zombie horror fans everywhere(Dawn of the dead would be the closest one to this).
If the ending was better, the overall score would be 7.5, but instead Im giving it a 7.
School-Live! is one of the biggest cases of misleading in recent memory. The first episode completely blew my mind with the very well-executed and shocking revelation. However, at that point I was worried this might turn into something Corpse Party where the cute characters are just there for the sake of killing them in gruesome ways without giving us any chance at liking them. After watching this anime through, I am glad to say it exceeds even my highest expectations.
The story is pretty standard for a zombie fiction. It feels a bit derivative at some points, reminding me of The Walking Dead, Left 4 Dead and Dawn of the Dead. What makes it stand out is the fact that survival is the main focus. If you are looking for an action anime with zombies, you are not going to get it. Sure, there are action scenes in this anime, but they only come to show that the zombies are no mean threat and it takes a lot of effort just to dispatch one of them, let alone so many at the same time.
The characters are also very interesting. Sure all of them are archetypes we have seen countless times, but by putting them in a completely unique scenario, we get to see character development like we never saw before. All I have to say is that by the end of the anime, I root for every single one of our characters.
Animation is fantastic. I love the details of the background, from the rundown state of the building to items littering around to pools of blood. The soundtrack really moves me, and that is saying a lot. It tunes in with the mood perfectly, from horror to nostalgia, from light-hearted comedy to utter despair.
Bonus point for the changes in the opening and ending. They get darker and darker by episodes.
School-Live is one hell of an anime and I would recommend buying it on DVD and Blue-rays for the fullest experience.
This is my first review and the anime I´ll be reviewing has only 1 episode so I´ll try to make something quick.
I came around this show without knowing anytihng about it so by the first 15,16 minutes i tough it was just one more standard moe with cute girls doing cute things in a school enviroment; but there is where it surprised me introducing us that our cute main character was psychotic and she was living in an alternate reality where everyting was fine and everyone was alive.
The reality was much diffrent, the school was sorounded by zombies and they (the group of girls who were probably the only survivors had to survive pretending aswell that everyting was fine because of they´re psychotic friend.
The setup that was created at the end of the episode relly surprised and hyped me for the future episodes.
Overall this was my favourite 1st episode of the season and this is the anime I´m looking foward the most.
If you are indecided about this series or drpped it after watching the first minutes just gite it a try if you like horror themes because thus will most likely turn into a deep psychological anime(at least I hope so).