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Zombie Land Saga: Idol Anime For Non-Idol Fans

by Mercedez Clewis,
Zombie Land Saga shambled onto the scene during the Fall 2018 anime season. It emerged among the ranks of Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, Bloom Into You, and Golden Kamuy's 2nd season, to name a few notable series coming out at that time. Zombie Land Saga was not even the only idol anime airing that season; other autumnal idol shows included Aikatsu Friends!, Kiratto Pri☆Chan, a BanG Dream! spinoff, and a three-minute promo-slash-recap for an upcoming Love Live! movie.

I've been a fan of idols since I was thirteen years old in the far flung year of 2005 when I first discovered hit sensation Perfume. Now, at twenty-eight, I've seen the highs and lows of the genre overall. I'm often critical of the genre in my reviews, in large part because I feel so passionate about idols and generally want the industry, by and large, to do better by the entertainers who work within it.

Yet I'm also that idol fan that, if given five minutes, will gush about how I feel about μ's (muse) "START:DASH!!" eight years later. I'll fill your ears with facts about Perfume and their discography. At karaoke, I'm that person belting out Hatsune Miku or Megpoid songs. And if you catch me these days, I'm that person who's all about Winter 2021's Idoly Pride.

So when MAPPA, who has also produced another personal favorite, Yuri!!! on Ice, promised a “new, unique zombie anime” that crossed generations and identities, I was… incredibly wary of such a weighty promise. I've seen enough idol anime PVs—and enough idol anime in general—to pretty much guesstimate if a show's going to be my jam or not. I had guessed, shockingly, that I wouldn't like it.

Then I actually watched episode 1 and was sold on the horror-comedy idol show that featured zombified idols and a manager that was just this side of completely popping off. Still, that wasn't quite enough to make me fully invested in another idol franchise when I already had heaps of idol groups and units and subunits to like and love. In a sea of idol anime, there's only so much rent-free room in my head per season. Zombie Land Saga didn't seem like it would be worth the investment.

Then “DEAD or RAP!!!” happened in episode 2, and I promptly swan dived into Zombie Land Saga and did my best to play catch up so I was current that season. And here I am, nearly three years later considering the following question: “Why did so many people love this show? Specifically, why did so many non-idol fans like this show?”

Let me offer you an answer. Well, maybe a few answers.

At first glance, it's easy to assume that Zombie Land Saga will be like most idol anime tend to be: cutesy and fairly charming with a “go get 'em” plot that introduces viewers to the wider world of the franchise. Even once you've watched the PV, you still might think, “Oh, that's just to get me to watch.” There's some truth to this. After all, Zombie Land Saga is, at its core, an idol anime operating in the same contrived genre. It's got to play to some strengths and expectations while still putting its own twist on things. All seven of the idols—Sakura, Saki, Lily, Junko, Tae, Ai, and Yugiri—fit into some sort of trope that sets them apart from one another. Naturally, those traits are the cohesive “glue” that keeps them together through the first season.

Yet the titular zombie element in Zombie Land Saga is a genuine game-changer, even if some might still see it as a gimmick. It adds a new layer of storytelling to the typical idol plot, turning what could have been a rather routine cour into a mystery packed with a lot of heart… for lack of any actual hearts that aren't mummified or dust by this point. But that's not why I think non-idol fans were attracted to this series. In fact, I'd say that none of the above was specifically appealing to fans coming into the genre. It worked for fans who already like idols and all the tropes that come with idol anime, but it wasn't necessarily groundbreaking.

Rather, I think non-idol fans continue to like Zombie Land Saga because it's critical about its industry and the genre. That's what makes it different and a large part of why Zombie Land Saga has inter-fan appeal, whether or not you like idols on any level.

Arguably, you could say that Zombie Land Saga's more realistic outlook on becoming an idol—fantasy element or not—is built-in. While this is a production that MAPPA never imagined getting this popular, it is still a production nonetheless. Nothing that happens in the show was unapproved: someone's Hanko stamped every cut and decision along the way. There's thought that goes into each sequence and every scene. That realism is baked into the plot and the characters who convey it.

Yet that opinion is a little cynical in and of itself. I'd rather say that MAPPA intentionally created an idol anime that was in conversation with the criticism inside and outside of Japan about the idol industry. More so, I'd rather say that MAPPA intentionally wanted to continue conversations that are already being had right now. Conversations that franchises like Love Live! never seem to have.

Love Live!—idol anime's mega franchise—is a good parallel to Zombie Land Saga, especially when it comes to the idol industry. In fact, Love Live! really loves the industry. There's never a point where Honoka (Love Live!) or Ayumu (Love Live! Nijigasaki) break the fourth wall or look at the camera and say, “Hey, this industry doesn't treat its female-presenting workers well, huh? That's really not great. Well, back to the show!” If they did, maybe this article would be about Love Live! instead.

However, we never have to worry about the dark side of the industry when it comes to Love Live!. Instead, there's just an abundance of joy, even in the most emotional moments of the anime. That joy comes from the music, the friendship, and the overwhelmingly emotional catharsis that comes from the lightning in a bottle that is watching a group of girls find success and belting out beautiful pop tunes.

It's good stuff for sure, and it's a major reason why Love Live! is the global phenomenon it is. It's a major reason why I sobbed my way through the first series and most of Fall 2020's Love Live! Nijigasaki High School Idol Club.

Yet Zombie Land Saga is also a show that genuinely loves idol culture and idols themselves. It's a show that unabashedly revels in the power of how encouraging and emotional idol music and idols themselves can be. But unlike so much of the genre, Zombie Land Saga isn't afraid to talk about how much it sucks to be an idol sometimes, about how hard it is to deal with failures and the feeling of trying to get any level of recognition.

Those moments are just as heartfelt as the high highs of the show, yet are all the more powerful for pulling back the curtain on idols. Episodes like episode 6 openly talk about what constitutes a real idol, a conversation which naturally hits a snag when you've got idols from different eras of the industry. Then there's episode 7, which highlights the dangers of overwork in the industry. That's just the tip of the idol iceberg, at least as far as Zombie Land Saga goes.

I think for non-idol fans, this has to be refreshing to some degree. There's no fawning over purity or being chaste. All of the girls in the anime have been through it, and to me, that's really great. If anything, Zombie Land Saga really pushes back against “good idol girls” only. But you kind of have to when half of your cast is a gang girl, a former Oiran, a Showa era idol who came up in the very beginnings of the industry, and a previously misanthropic lead. While it's mostly affectionate and at times satirical, the impact isn't diminished. That is starkly different from your stereotypical cutesy idol anime, which I think is why so many non-idol fans jumped on board and found themselves watching week to week in 2018.

That all said, Zombie Land Saga isn't completely heartless when it comes to the idol industry. In fact, it's clear that the writers of the show deeply acknowledge the power of idols and the parasocial good that idols can do. While it readily critiques the industry and the simple fact that idols are human commodities, Zombie Land Saga also stars a trans idol, and is very unambiguous in the fact that Lily is canonically trans, without question or comment by her fellow idols or the script. There's a lot of meat on the bone here, and like I said: I'm just scratching the surface.

In fact, there's a lot of small moments where the girls demonstrate how helpful parasocial relationships can be, and how their actions and music have tangible effects. The one moment that's remained with me all these years is when a little girl dances to the group's first public performance, which is executed with all the finesse of a bunch of amateur idols dancing in front of a rural train station.

If that's not impactful, then... what is?

While writing this article, I found myself reflecting on Winter 2021's Idoly Pride, which is another gem of an idol anime. For those who didn't watch Idoly Pride last season—which was everyone but myself—the series focused a lot on legacy and what it means to become an idol with aspirations of surpassing legacy. And while neither show ever gets into the genuinely horrific side of idols and idol sub-culture, I still hold fast to the fact that Zombie Land Saga doesn't pretty up what it means to be an idol.

Fans who already like idols know what we want—at least I do. I know when I come into a show, I have certain bullet points and criteria that I'm looking for. If I don't usually find them before episode 3, I tap out and move on to another show. But anime fans who aren't into idols need inspirational shows too, which is the power of Zombie Land Saga. It's an idol show for viewers who aren't into the genre, for anime fans who swore they'd never watch an idol show.

And honestly, the fact that MAPPA pulled it off and made Zombie Land Saga a major hit feels wonderful.

In many ways, Zombie Land Saga is a beautiful love letter both to an industry that has a lot of problems as well as a genre of music that's done an enormous amount of good. It's a series that's not afraid to speak up and speak out while still understanding that for many fans, idols represent a lot of positive emotions. There's something deeply cathartic about having the girls of Franchouchou back in the middle of ongoing global strife. There's something so deeply joyful seeing a bunch of undead idols struggle through… let me check, surviving and possibly thriving? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Take away the wacky zombie plot, and you're still left with a bunch of girls tasked with reviving a prefecture that most of them aren't even from. Despite being a bunch of undead girls un-living in Saga, the cast of Zombie Land Saga are still struggling with very human problems like attempting to cobble together their idol life in spite of everything in their way. And at the end of the day, that relatability, likability, and earnestness are big reasons why I hope we'll be witnessing another wave of Zombie Land Saga fever now that the sequel has returned for the packed Spring 2021 season. Already, that same compelling energy feels present in the premiere. Here's to another bombastic season with Franchouchou and everyone's favorite zombie girls.

Mercedez is a localization editor & QA, pop culture critic, and a writer who also writes & reviews at Anime Feminist and But Why Tho?. There, she gushes about idols anytime someone lets her, which is… not often enough. Today, someone let her gush about idols. Isn't that great? When she's not writing, you can find her on her Twitter, where she's always up to something.

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