Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Jan 23rd 2014
Sankarea: Undying Love
BD+DVD - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
Chihiro is obsessed with zombies. He loves everything about them, collects zombie films and memorabilia, and dreams of one day finding a cute zombie girl to call his own. Then one day his beloved pet cat Babu dies, and Chihiro has a new mission in life – to bring his cat back from the dead. While working on deciphering an old reanimation potion he found in a moldering book, Chihiro meets Rea, the abused daughter of the prestigious Sanka family. The two become friends, and Rea makes Chihiro promise that he will look after her if he ever perfects his potion and she becomes a zombie. Her words come all too true when circumstances find her becoming the walking dead. Is having a cute zombie girl all Chihiro dreamed of? And now that Rea is undead, can she finally start living?
Say what you will about zombies, they are an integral part of our pop culture landscape. Typically we see them as the rotting, lurching, brain-eating fiends of violent stories, but they can also be romantic leads (Warm Bodies) or slow moving but brilliant and fashionable (Monster High). So how about an emotionally tortured young lady who sees her death as a chance to start really living? That is the approach taken by Sankarea: Undying Love, a thirteen episode anime series from 2012. Based on roughly two volumes and a few scattered chapters of volumes three and four of the manga by Mitsuru Hattori, the story is the bittersweet tale of Rea, a recently deceased teen, and Chihiro, the boy who unwittingly reanimated her.
Chihiro is a zombie enthusiast, to put it mildly. His room is filled with collectibles, he loves zombie movies, and even his clock is a screaming zombie head. His prize possession is an old manuscript telling how to reanimate the dead, and when his pet cat Babu is killed by a car, Chihiro makes it his mission to decipher the text and bring Babu back. He sets up shop in an abandoned hotel's bowling alley, and while he's there working, he notices something strange – a girl comes every evening to scream into an old well. She turns out to be Rea Sanka (or Sanka Rea), the sexually and emotionally abused daughter of a wealthy local family. The two become friends, but Rea finds that she just can't deal with her life any more. She steals some of Chihiro's reanimation potion to try and kill herself. It doesn't work, but when she really does die while fleeing her father, the potion in her system revives her, and Chihiro finds himself with the cute zombie girl he's always wanted.
This is not just some corny wish-fulfillment story, however. Rea is running from a truly awful situation. Her father is unnaturally obsessed with her (a flashback later on implies he's always liked his women girls), and her mother is an emotionally distant alcoholic. Chihiro is the first person she's been able to open up to, and we see from her screaming scenes that she's not so much yelling as purging the emotions from her – the visuals are much more implicit of vomiting than screaming. She feels her life has never really been her own, and once she is (un)dead, Rea embraces the fact that she has, after a fashion, been reborn to live her own life.
Except that she hasn't been reborn. Sankarea goes to some trouble to show us that despite her cheeriness, Rea is in fact a walking corpse. Her fatal wounds don't heal, she begins to decompose if left in the heat or sunlight, and she goes through rigor mortis. Chihiro tries his best to preserve her body for as long as he can, but both he and Rea acknowledge that this cannot last forever. That knowledge makes this a very bittersweet story, if only because we know that there is no way that Rea and Chihiro's relationship is forever.
Fortunately Sankarea is not really a downer in general. The show balances humor, fanservice, creepiness, and drama, with some romance thrown in, very nicely. Rea's family life is horrific, with her father's obsession causing a physical recoil in the viewer, and some “Snow White” themes are very deftly worked in as the plot reaches its climax. In opposition to this is Chihiro's happy family, where his kindly priest father maintains a gentle household comprised of himself, Chihiro, little sister Mero, and senile grandpa. Mero and Grandpa both provide a fair amount of the humor, Mero's deadpanning being more subtle than Grandpa's more physical slapstick. Presumably Chihiro's friend Yasutaka is supposed to be funny as well, but he comes off as more annoying. Mero is one of the show's highlights, with the episode previews being especially good as she argues with the writers and objects to being cutesied up.
The fanservice is a bigger issue. When it is provided by Ranko, Chihiro's busty cousin, it is far easier to swallow than when Rea is the target. This is because one of Rea's chief problems was her father's insistence on taking naked pictures of her on her birthday every year. We know that this was a major facet of her abuse, and the show emphasizes it when her thoughts of home are accentuated by the sound of a camera shutter clicking. For the anime to then invite us to objectify and sexualize her in the same way then seems not just in poor taste, but to imply that we are not unlike her father. (Or that sexualization is perfectly fine without a blood relationship to the object of it.) This is a major detraction from the fanservice itself, but also seems to go directly against the story's message.
Art and animation are mostly good, although there are some inconsistencies to be found. Bodies are not as well drawn as in the source material, but the bigger issues are those of sloppy looking distance shots, stiff walking, and, for some viewers, the fact that Rea's dangling viscera are obviously censored. The dub track also has a few small glitches, like the preview for episode eight calling it episode seven and only romanji lyrics displaying on the second BD. Fortunately the voices are very good on both the English and the Japanese tracks. Felecia Angelle is an excellent Mero, and Monica Rial's Babu is virtually indistinguishable from Misato Fukuen's, which is a good thing in the case of the distinctively meowing zombie cat. Commentary for episode three reveals that Aaron Dismuke (Chihiro) was utterly thrilled to be in this show while Tia Ballard (Rea) had some reservations, which does make for an interesting discussion. Commentary for episode eleven, with David Wald (Rea's father), Joel McDonald, and Terri Doty is also included.
Sankarea's ending is a deliberate cliffhanger that seems to imply a second season that we never got. Luckily you can simply pick up the manga at volume three to find out what happens next, but it still makes for a very unsatisfying finale, with episode thirteen feeling very much like a recap, although to be fair it is actually a parody of the classic Japanese novel I Am a Cat. Before that point, however, is a show that mixes humor, romance, tragedy, and fanservice with an addictive opening theme that makes great use of zombie imagery. Sankarea takes the zombie story and plays with it to create a narrative that pulls you in as it tells you the story of a girl who will live after she is dead.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Makes you want to laugh and cry, interesting twist on the zombie tale. Lots of zombie/horror easter eggs for the knowledgeable viewer.
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