Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 13th 2010
Highschool of the Dead
episodes 1-6 streaming
It was just an ordinary day at high school for Takashi, with ongoing concerns about how his childhood friend/would-be girlfriend Rei has hooked up with his best friend Hisashi, when one of Them arrived at the gate. Within minutes a zombie plague had begun to spread through the school, throwing everyone into a desperate panic as students got eaten by other students and then turned into zombies themselves. With Hisashi an early casualty, baseball bat-wielding Takashi and spear fighting specialist Rei battle through the zombies for their own survival, eventually hooking up with kendo master Saeko, gun otaku Kohta, self-proclaimed genius Saya, and busty nurse Shizuka. They break out of the school only to discover that the calamity which has befallen them is happening everywhere. As survivors desperately stream out of the city, the overwhelmed police struggle to cope with the situation, and other survivors resort to violence even against the living, Takashi and crew search for a safe place in a world descending into zombie-induced chaos.
Although the Zombie Apocalypse subgenre of sci fi and horror movies has been part of public consciousness since the low-budget 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead set the standard for the genre, it has seen an upsurge in popularity in the past few years, including the Resident Evil franchise, 28 Days Later, I Am Legend (itself an adaptation of the book credited with establishing the genre), and parody versions like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (Yes, it really does take the Jane Austen classic and revamp it to include zombie-fighting.) Thus it is somewhat surprising that it took this long for a dedicated anime version to pop up. When this highly-anticipated adaptation of Daisuke Sato's popular manga did hit the schedule, though, Sentai Filmworks wasted no time in snapping it up and simulcasting it on their online Anime Network in both Standard and High Def formats, with the first two episodes available for free and later ones requiring a monthly subscription to the site. Sentai recognized quickly that the blending of action, intensive graphic violence, and fan service found in it is practically tailor-made for the American fan base, and there is little reason to doubt that their initiative will pay off; for what it is, the series has been surprisingly well-made so far.
Whether or not a viewer likes this mix of horror and high school romantic comedy/drama clichés will largely depend on how jaded (or not) the viewer is about the Zombie Apocalypse subgenre, as the execution so far has been a classic exercise in carrying out genre conventions. The standard story progression has remained intact so far: a wave of zombification spreads so fast, and so without precedent, from an unknown source that authorities are quickly overwhelmed and society gradually collapses into barbarism. Pockets of survivors unite for mutual well-being, displaying character behaviors and associations that they normally would not, as they struggle to fight through the zombie menace. The threat isn't always from the zombies, either, as other humans can sometimes pose an equal danger. The only difference here is that the story mostly focuses on a group of teenagers who have to, at first, fight their way out of their high school – a twist to the story concept that has not been used previously, as such movies typically focus on adult characters.
To rate the series based on that is to trivialize what the series does accomplish, however. When dealing with retread ideas, execution matters more than anything else, and that is where this series succeeds wonderfully. Scenes where individual students must rally themselves to beat down the zombie threat – even if it means bashing in the head of a former friend – still carry a charge, leading to bloody, dynamic combat scenes awash in carnage and spectacular fighting moves. The character dynamics are also interesting to watch, especially the chubby otaku who proves to be a remarkably stalwart warrior when the chips are down and the smart girl who otherwise wouldn't give him the time of day but seems to begrudgingly start accepting him (even getting jealous of attention briefly directed towards him by another girl) as he proves his merit. Takashi and Rei have a solid give-and-take going on concerning their relationships with each other and dead friend/boyfriend Hisashi, including subtext about Rei's yet-to-be-revealed motives and the cause of her having failed a grade, which the series has subtly hinted may have had something to do with a certain flamboyant, cult leader-like teacher. Swordswoman Saeko Busujima continues to surprise by being vastly gentler and friendlier of temperament than one would expect, while Shizuka continues to disappoint as the busty airhead. Granted, the level of development beyond Takashi and Rei is thin so far, but at least it is there.
And then there is, of course, the fan service component. Producer Madhouse rarely misses an opportunity to flash some panties or emphasize Shizuka's bouncing bosom (complete with sound effects!), certain scenes get rather sexy, and episode 6 does find an excuse to let all the primary-cast ladies show off their stuff in a playful bath scene. The opening visuals also go out of their way to depict the girls/ladies in provocative dress and poses.
Madhouse is also near the top of their game in other production aspects. The character designs may be a little too sharp-edged and stylistically distinct to actually be called pretty, but only rarely are they not rendered well, and the zombies get full loving artistic attention, too. Nicely-drawn backgrounds and underappreciated use of lighting effects also speak well for Madhouse's efforts, as do the sometimes-gimmicky splatter effects. (On a couple of occasions the screen shows splatters of blood, as if the camera was too close to the action in the scene.) The action scenes do, of course, get the feature treatment, including 3D effects and creative perspective shifts which, combined with generally fully-animated fight scenes, produces one of the best recent examples of series action animation; even if the whole zombie thing does not work for you, scenes like the fight where the split groups reunite near the end of episode 5 might still drag you in for sheer production excellence.
The rock-tinged soundtrack, while still respectable and effective, is less impressive overall. Still, the like-named opening rock number sets a good audio standard for the series and a rotation of gentler, similarly-toned songs by Maon Kurosaki close out each episode with a more melancholy mood well-suited to a world which is steadily falling apart.
The series is, of course, not without flaws. It uses all of the subtlety of a sledgehammer in emphasizing some of its points, such as the girl who suddenly abandons her BFF in a moment of trouble in episode 1, and sometimes goes too far out of its way to emphasize the fan service aspect. Madhouse has also taken heat from Korean fans for prominent use of a zombified version of a popular Korean drama star in episode 5. Matched against that, though, are beautifully-executed scenes, like the gas station scene which rounds out episode 4, and the occasional little homages to previous zombie flicks scattered throughout which aficionados of the genre might catch if they watch closely. There is also one cast member featured prominently in the opener which has yet to be introduced, suggesting that the core cast is not completely fleshed out yet. For now, though, the show is a lot of fun to watch and shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Spectacular action scenes, mindless fan service, surprisingly strong writing.
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