The Fall 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Zombie Land Saga
How would you rate episode 1 of
Zombie Land Saga ?
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How was the first episode?
Given that Halloween is swiftly approaching, I was very glad to find that Zombie Land Saga was such a delightful and entertaining undead romp. Opening with our heroine Haru's sudden and terribly timed death-by-random-truck, appropriately scored with death metal blast beats, was the perfect way to set the stage for ZLS's brand of whimsical macabre. I loved the extended sequence of Haru waking up ten years later to discover that she isn't just being hunted by zombies – she is one. It's just creepy enough to satisfy my inner horror movie nerd, but it keeps Haru's weird journey moving along with enough brisk humor, too.
I'm really just a huge fan of the core premise of the show – Kotaro the music producer is what would happen if you took the Hououin Kyouma character from Steins;Gate and mixed him with a genuinely demented mad scientist, the kind of man who hand waves Haru's legitimate questions about how exactly this whole “zombie idol group” came about, while also making sure to give his other as-of-yet-to-awaken zombie girls a properly flash introduction. Plus, he has a cute zombie dog, which automatically makes most any show better.
While we don't get to see much of the other zombies' personalities this week, I dig how they all represent different eras of Japanese history and different types of “idols” – Saki was apparently the leader of a biker gang, hilariously enough, and Lily is a courtesan from the Meiji era. My hope is that all of these girls will add their own charms and personality quirks to the cast, while also still retaining the undead flair that sets their idol group apart from the rest.
If there's any aspect of the episode I could nitpick, it would be the inaugural performance of Death Musume (Name Pending). The jokes about broken-necked head-banging and zombie screams were all pretty funny, to be sure, and I'm all about metal-infused idol music in general. But I wasn't quite sold on the actual musical act itself, since it seemed to rely more on humor than providing a satisfying show. While I understand that the group's failure is the whole joke (what did Kotaro expect?), I'm also hoping that the group's rise to musical prominence balances the humor with more exciting stagecraft in the future.
Do any of these minor criticisms take away from the infectious fun of Zombie Girl Saga's premiere? Absolutely not! Fall is the perfect time for a cute show about zombie idols, and if ZLS can maintain the quality of this premiere going forward, I'll be more than happy to stick with it for the rest of the season.
The idol group genre has traditionally been very staid, with even efforts to do something different not usually straying too far from basic genre formula. However, every so often something wildly different does come along, and Zombie Land Saga could be the newest example. It's basically the answer to the question of what you'd get if you crossed an idol show with a zombie apocalypse and added in a healthy dash of Detroit Metal City. And it's every bit as weird in execution as it sounds, but definitely not in an off-putting way.
The first big gimmick is that the idols are secretly zombies, with the heroine merely being the first of the lot to “awaken” – in other words, to regain her human mind. The others just wander around being typical zombies until they awaken at the end of the episode, which should make the next episode quite “lively” indeed! Their manager uses Hollywood makeup techniques to pass them off as living, which makes their zombie-like behavior even more unusual. The second big gimmick is that they're performing at a metal venue, which they can get away with because they can head-bang with the best of them and their zombie screams are passable as heavy metal singing. Combining idols with heavy metal actually isn't so much of a stretch (see Babymetal), but I don't think it's been done quite like this before.
The episode certainly gets off to a jolt by killing the protagonist in the first couple minutes, with her slowly flying through the air from the truck impact while the opening credits roll in a rather cool scene. As to why she and the others are being reanimated as zombies many years after their deaths, that has yet to be explained. So does how their bodies are still so intact when this is happening (in some cases) many decades after their deaths, but in the grand scheme of things, that's a trivial detail.
There are all sorts of other interesting problems and situations that could arise from this scenario, but I'm not expecting anything too heavy. Once Sakura's status as a zombie is revealed, the episode gives every indication that it's not going to take itself too seriously. That's absolutely the right move, as this screwball concept looks like it could be a lot of fun.
If you had asked me a day ago to name two genres that desperately needed to be combined, I guarantee I wouldn't have come up with zombie horror and idol comedy. I guess my past self was a fool, because the first episode of Zombie Land Saga is absolutely delightful. It's initially baffling and inherently twisted, but it's also the most entertaining premiere I've seen so far this season.
Admittedly, this episode's first few scenes are all over the map, making it difficult to figure out exactly what kind of series Zombie Land Saga is going to be. Having the main character get hit by a truck right off the bat certainly works for getting the audience's attention, though part of me wonders if it might be so much of a shock that it puts some people off immediately. Sakura's reawakening in the midst of a dark building full of zombies only reinforces the notion that this is going to be some kind of bloodthirsty horror show, but then we hit the big revelation that Sakura herself is one of the undead. This is enough of a table flip to completely upend the story's momentum, which opens the door for the real narrative to take over.
Sakura's initial interaction with band manager Kotaro serves as a decent transition into comedic territory, but it's in the band's first group meeting that Zombie Land Saga really hits its stride. The image of Kotaro energetically making his idol pitch to a room full of zombies, all but one of whom are completely braindead, is one of the more inherently funny situations I've seen in a while. That built-in humor is enhanced by the excellent chemistry between Sakura and Kotaro, with Sakura serving as the perfect comedic straight man while Kotaro steamrolls through all of the obvious questions about how we ended up at this particular point in the story. Timing and delivery are crucial here, and that sharp execution allows the show to acknowledge its own absurdity while doubling down on its commitment to making this premise work.
And boy, does it work. The girls' first performance is an inspired riff on more straight-laced idol stories, and the escalating chaos of Kotaro and Sakura trying to shepherd the rest of the group around is a great replacement for the usual round of stage fright. Once the girls get up on stage, we're treated to some clever interactions between them and the death metal crowd, who are eventually won over by the zombies' aptitude for head-banging (at least until the girls' hunger for human flesh takes over and they attack the audience). This is all presented with a level of visual polish that I wouldn't necessarily expect out of a mid-tier idol series, let alone a genre parody. I'm not sure how Zombie Land Saga will evolve as the rest of the characters start to regain their old personalities, but for now I'm having too much fun to care. If you have a taste for dark humor, it's worth sitting through the tonal whiplash of this episode's early scenes to get to the strong comedy of the second half.
I was initially pretty concerned Zombie Land Saga was going to be another of those self-serious “what if a lighthearted situation got dark” dramas, a genre I couldn't really harbor less love for. We open with a classic hyper-upbeat bait and switches, as we're introduced to Sakura Minamoto, learn she's got Big Dreams, and then swiftly watch her get hit by a truck. Fortunately, Minamoto's death doesn't signal the end of her story, and Zombie Land Saga manages to keep things light and funny even after she starts to decompose. Given the ultimate twists and turns of this episode, Zombie Land Saga is actually looking to be a pretty excellent fall comedy.
Zombie Land Saga's fundamental concept is the absurd “what if a bunch of former idols were revived as zombies to make a regional idol supergroup.” The show takes its time getting around to this premise, though, and much of the first act serves more as a demonstration of Saga's commendable aesthetic chops. Sakura herself is a highly expressive and engaging lead, and the animation throughout her first zombie adventure is crisp and lively. Saga clearly understands the language of horror films, and the faux-horror of this first act is pulled off with strong direction and a generally cohesive sense of tone.
Once the show actually reveals its hand, those sharp aesthetics are met by a snappy and surprisingly warm sense of humor. Though I found zombie manager Kotaro Katsumi a little shrill both in his affectation and his brand of jokes, there were also great incidental gags throughout this episode, like the plain absurdity of Kotaro passionately addressing a room of brains-obsessed zombies. Sakura also demonstrates she's got more than enough fire to counter Kotaro's ridiculousness, and her mix of understandable panic and deadpan “this girl's bitten me thirteen times today” acceptance made her one of this episode's greatest strengths. Her efforts to make her unit partners even slightly presentable were as funny as they were hopeless, and the visual comedy of watching a manager and one panicked girl attempt to herd zombies onto a stage was handled just as gracefully as that first horror segment.
All in all, Zombie Land Saga is so far making terrific use of a charmingly absurd premise, elevating the base comedy of its concept through excellent character animation, generally strong direction, and consistently snappy jokes. I also appreciate how the show's premise feels almost like an inherent dig at the predatory performance industry, with our leads not being able to escape performing for the crowd even as reanimated corpses. But whether or not Zombie Land Saga is ultimately trying to provide any sort of social commentary, this episode was funny and well-executed and weirdly endearing. Zombie Land Saga gets a recommendation from me.
While no zombie show is likely to supplant School-Live as my favorite, Zombie Land Saga is definitely trying its hardest to do something new and fun with the genre. The fact that it's also lampooning girl idol shows certainly helps, but even without that, this episode stands on its own as a piece of entertainingly bizarre fun, leaving with you with the feeling that you've just watched the unholy spawn of School-Live, Detroit Metal City, and Locodol. Part of the reason this combination works is because of the opening sequence – perky high school second year Sakura is watching a DVD on her clunky pink 2008 laptop and getting ready to snail mail an application when that most vicious of all anime serial killers, Truck-kun, speeds out of nowhere and slams into her. At this point the cutesy music abruptly shifts to death metal, and the entire opening theme is just different shots of Sakura flying through the air (essentially dying) until she hits the ground. It's disturbing and ghoulish, yes, but it does work to get your attention.
The show then makes another quick shift, to light coming back into Sakura's eyes on the floor of a dark mansion one rainy night. We have no idea how long she's been out, but her sudden realization that she's somehow gotten trapped in the Mansion of Dead Schoolgirls is just scary enough that it feels as if the first perky minute was just to lull us into a false sense of security for what's going to be a horror story. That persists as Sakura flees the mansion only to get shot by a police officer and realize that she, too, is undead. At this point there's even more visual whiplash as she meets the man who brought her back, Kotaro, a dapper fellow with a zombie pup named Romero who has been controlling the girls with dried squid and plans to make them into some kind of weird local idol unit. Or death metal band. He seems undecided.
Even though Zombie Land Saga can't quite settle on a tone in this episode, that works to help us both understand how confused poor Sakura is (finding out she was just like the other girls for ten years is a rude shock) and that this is going to be a bizarre show. That weirdness is very deliberate, which we can see by the details that we do get – from the different scars on the dead girls (Meiji-era courtesan clearly was beheaded while 90s biker gang girl doesn't appear to have any visible death wounds) to the fact that Kotaro was a Hollywood make-up artist, this episode looks like it does have a firm base to stand on. Other details, like Saki the gang girl picking up a megaphone when she sees one or the impressive head-banging of girls with broken necks, also contribute to the feeling that this is quite well thought out.
That said, parts of this really are off-putting and very morbid. The whole opening sequence actually disturbs me more the longer I think about it, and if you're sound or light sensitive, this is going to be a harder episode to get through, as it has lots of flashing lights and screaming. But if you're a fan of zombies and/or idols, this is worth checking out. It doesn't work across the board, but it really isn't afraid to try something new.
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