If, Then, Or: Highschool of the Deadby Gia Manry,
Title: Highschool of the Dead
Season: Summer 2010
Summary: A group of high schoolers join forces to escape their school grounds as a zombie invasion takes hold of Japan. The presence of the undead stretches everyone to their physical, mental, and emotional limits: protagonits Takashi is forced to kill his best friend, who is also his childhood friend/crush's boyfriend, to save him from becoming a zombie himself. Long-time loser Hirano (named after Hellsing creator Kohta Hirano) becomes a precious commodity thanks to his familiarity with weapons as bespectacled Saya Takagi realizes that her brains and wealth may not be enough to save her life.
At first glance, Highschool of the Dead looks like little more than a fanservice-laden horror series with a bit of high school drama thrown in, and that's exactly what the show's creators seemed to want viewers to think, given the short schoolgirl skirts, huge breasts, and blood splashed across all of its promotional images and teasers. And don't take that statement the wrong way: the show delivers on those advertisements.
Where it surprises some is in its characters, who are derived from the usual archetypes (strong leader/fighter, mildly annoying childhood friend/crush, tsundere smartypants, loser-turned-weapons expert, and strong but kind less-tomboyish-than-she-looks swordswoman) but still manage to engage, entertain, and have relationships to one another outside of the obvious pairings (and one triangle). The show may even pass the Bechdel test, if you count bathtub boob-talk and group discussions about how to deal with the zombie threat.
While the show may not innovate on its genre, it can be a relief to have something of a throwback to zombies being bad guys in a sea of sexy undead, be it Twilight or Vampire Knight, Kore wa Zombie or Angel Beats! (hey, don't forget, that whole school is an afterlife). Whether you're interested in how the teens maintain (or destroy) their relationships in the face of the zombie threat or you're just in it for some guns and tits, you could do worse than to spend five hours watching the 13-episode series.
Title: Deadman Wonderland
Season: Spring 2011
Summary: Ganta Igarashi is wrongfully convicted of slaughtering his entire middle school class and sent to Deadman Wonderland, a combination prison-amusement park where the prisoners work or entertain the park's visitors in order to earn funds to purchase the things they need to stay alive. In prison he meets a strange young woman named Shiro, an albino woman with mysterious powers. She helps him get by in prison, where to get the funds to survive he must participate in gladiator-style battles, each more gruesome than the last. But then Ganta discovers that he, too, has a mysterious power.
If blood is what you're looking for, it's pretty much guaranteed that Deadman Wonderland will out-do just about any other show for sheer volume: blood is a primary weapon throughout the series. Fans of Highschool of the Dead's strongly-animated fight scenes will likely appreciate Deadman Wonderland's battles— like in most shounen series, each is more outlandish than the last as the characters improve and gain new abilities —provided that they aren't strictly interested in animated gun violence.
What sets Deadman Wonderland apart is its fusion of the shounen "level-up" battle style with an impressively complex plot. It becomes increasingly clear that Ganta's conviction and placement in Deadman Wonderland was no accident, and mysteries about his abilities, his relationship with Shiro, and the secrets of the prison abound. Ganta winds up embroiled in a battle for more than just his life and freedom.
Also like Highschool of the Dead, the Deadman Wonderland cast is colorful and engaging, if not strictly original. Viewers might get a little too much "Ed Elric" feeling out of Ganta, even if they don't notice that they share a voice actor (the excellent but familiar-sounding Romi Park), but the cutely oblivious Shiro and friend-slash-spy Yoh make for some entertaining relationships. The show's first antagonist, Assistant Warden Tamaki, views the prisoners as his playthings and is particularly fascinated by Ganta. A creepy fanatic with toys in his office, Tamaki successfully creeps the audience out when he swears to help Ganta defend his innocence in the first episode of the series. However, a second antagonist, Chief Guard Makina, is at odds with both Ganta and occasionally Tamaki: the former because he causes trouble in the prison, and the latter because he keeps secrets from her.
With all its conspiracies and mysteries, Deadman Wonderland can be a bit more involved than the simplicity of Highschool of the Dead, but ultimately the investment may be worth it for action fans.
Season: Summer 2010
Summary: Disaster strikes a rural Japanese village during the 1990s as a series of mysterious deaths take place, starting with an elderly woman and a teenage girl named Megumi. The victims seem to suffer from a strange form of anemia. As the death numbers rise, the strange circumstances take a toll on the villagers, including the doctor Toshio, who investigates the deaths, and teenager Natsuno, who begins to sense that Megumi is not as dead as everyone thinks.
The villagers of Sotoba, a rural town far from Japan's glittering cities, are everything you would expect from such a place: a tight-knit community which prizes conformity and local gossip. But the most interesting part of Shiki is watching them dissolve into fear, anger, hatred, and the rest of the dark side tropes. As with Highschool of the Dead's teenagers, parents, and teachers, Shiki focuses heavily on the interactions between those not struck dead (or undead) by the show's titular predators.
Where Shiki builds on HSotD is in the monsters themselves. You won't find any brainless, ugly zombies to be mowed down by the score, or (even worse) the sexy, seductive vampires that have littered supernatural dramas from Interview with a Vampire through Twilight and beyond. Instead, Shiki's vampire-like creatures are as much human as monster, with opinions, desires, and interactions that go far beyond fiction's traditional view of a vampiric society (a council of elders, rule by seniority, and so on).
Or, to put all that in short form: both Highschool of the Dead and Shiki show that humans can be monsters. Shiki takes the extra step of showing that monsters can be human, as depicted by the relationship between Sunako, one of the mysterious Kirishiki clan members whose appearance predated the rash of deaths in Sotoba, and Seishin Muroi, a priest and author who specializes in fiction about the supernatural.
Another excellent, if less charming, example is the character of Megumi, who starts out as a human desperate to abandon her small-town heritage and move to the big city where people can appreciate her wild sense of fashion. Without spoiling too much, Megumi retains her desires (and disdain for her countrymen) even as a member of the undead.
All told, Shiki is both creepy and, in the end, human.
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