Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 18th 2012
episodes 1-12 streaming
Chihiro Furuya is a zombie fanboy of the first order. He watches every zombie movie he can, has all manner of zombie paraphernalia scattered about his room, and even dreams of having a cute zombie girlfriend; that his buxom cousin Ranko is practically throwing herself at him doesn't even register against such obsession. Thus when his beloved cat Babu dies, Chihiro attempts to zombify him using a vague formula in a suspicious, stained old journal. His ultimate success comes with an unexpected consequence: Rea Sanka, the very pretty but also desperately troubled girl he has recently met, also winds up as a zombie after (unbeknownst to Chihiro) drinking some of his very poisonous resurrection potion in a failed suicide attempt and then later dying from a grievous injury. Now that Chihiro has exactly what he thought he wanted – a zombie cat and a sexy zombie girl to look after – he struggles to stay on top of the situation while Rea revels in a freedom that she has not previously known, even if that does mean that she cannot quite live a normal life. Her very possessive father is not content to let things remain as is, however, and that spells trouble for Chihiro.
In a Spring 2012 season which featured a comedy about a male zombie protagonist and romantic comedies or comedy/dramas involving girlfriends (or wannabe-girlfriends) who are a Cthulhu deity, a ghost, and have quasi-magical saliva, a series involving a zombie girlfriend does not seem so unusual. This manga-based comedy/drama quickly separated itself from its kindred, though, and through its first six episodes was the best of the lot. It does so not through out-gimmicking its brethren (which would be very hard against gimmick-laden competition like Nyarko-san: Another Crawling Chaos and Is This A Zombie? Of The Dead) or superior technical merits, but through something much more basic: a surprisingly high level of quality writing. Sadly, the series was not able to maintain that advantage through a much shakier second half.
Some of that quality can be seen in the balance that the series strikes amongst is dramatic, comedic, and fan service elements. The presence of fan service in the series is subtle at first, mostly involving the curious camera angles focused on the voluptuous Ranko or more slender Rea, and later escalates into more blatant sexiness, but it always remains a sidelight - an enhancement, for some - to the story rather than its emphasis; even in some of its seediest fan service moments details directly relevant to the main story can be found. (For instance, one scene where Rea very provocatively licks Ranko actually happens for logical, non-sexual reasons, and those reasons are a clue to what's necessary for Rea's long-term well-being.) The same can be said of the comedy elements, although their impact is more uneven. The senile, shrunken grandfather's shtick gets old fast, but some of Chihiro's zombie paraphernalia is amusingly inspired (watch for the zombie arm reaching out from under the bed) and Chihiro's younger sister Mero is a delight as an unflappable, faultlessly even-tempered girl who can contemplate her brother's emerging sexuality, deal with a zombie cat, or wear an apron bloody from butchering meat with equal nonchalance. A side story episode which focuses on her shows that she has some amusing friends, too.
The greatest quality shines through in its dramatic elements, however, which take a concept ripe with possibilities for absurdity and silliness and dare to treat it seriously. Rea may be the obligatory pretty girl, and her connecting with Chihiro could be looked at as just more otaku wish fulfillment (and scenes in late episodes which involve her in a bunny suit and nurse's outfit certainly fit that bill), but doing so ignores how interacting with Chihiro is both an escape for Rea and a subtle plea for help; the mere fact that she inquires about Chihiro turning her into a zombie if she dies should send up all kinds of warning flags, and the impressively well-done episode 2, which switches from Chihiro's to Rea's point of view, shows that her stunning venting in episode 1 was no joke. The sense of entrapment and hopelessness it portrays in the way her cold-blooded, very disturbingly possessive father Dan'ichiro systematically isolates and exploits her (no, there's nothing acceptable at all about taking naked pictures of your daughter every year on her birthday to “chart her physical development”) is a palpable thing. With her mother more hostile than helpful - she seems to regard Rea as drawing Dan'ichiro's attention away from her, and a late flashback episode shows why she's not just being petty about it - the sense of helplessness which leads to Rea's suicide attempt is easy to understand. Once she does become a zombie - and the scene in which she dies and rises again is so magnificently well-executed that it's shocking even when you know that it has to be coming - and starts staying with Chihiro, the sense of liberation she feels is also easy to understand, since she can now live a more normal life as a dead girl than she could as a living one.
But the series does not shirk for a second on the consequences of her being a zombie. This quickly becomes a “be careful what you wish for” scenario as Chihiro must muddle through things like Rea's bout of rigor mortis or figuring out what must be done to maintain Rea's body; this is the rare instance in anime where a boy's vow to “take care of” a girl's body doesn't come off as sexual, although the double-entendre still inherent in that phrase was doubtlessly intentional. The mechanics here are more interesting to watch and discover than one might expect, such as how the stability of Rea's mental state is dependent on a certain diet, how and why she becomes freakishly strong, and what she cannot and/or need not do anymore. The series doesn't let Chihiro off easy on having to justify Rea to Ranko and his family, either, and always the element of tragedy is allowed to faintly underlay Rea's situation, as it is a circumstance which ultimately cannot end well even though she currently regards the situation as a positive. It is an impressively thoughtful approach to what could have been something very trashy.
The second half of the series spoils the delicate balance that the first half set up by throwing off the pacing. While seeing Ranko's backstory in episode 7 does partially explain why she's hooked on Chihiro (and, amusingly, shows that Chihiro hasn't changed much over the years), it comes off as bland filler. Episode 9, which focuses on Mero and her friends, is a little better because it does bring up a significant plot point about Chihiro and Mero's late mother, and Mero is a more interesting character than Ranko, but ultimately it, too, is mostly a side story, and one that comes on the heels of dramatic occurrences in episode 8. Episode 10 provides even more backstory, but Dan'ichiro's story has such a direct bearing on current events that few will begrudge the series for showing it. Even so, that's three of four episodes in one run of a 12-episode series which do little to further the main storyline, and for many series that would be fatal. This one looks like it is salvaging the situation with its climax and denouement in episodes 11 and 12, but the lack of resolving much for the long-term and an infuriating cliffhanger ending give the series another body-blow.
Studio DEEN's artistic effort impresses less than the writing, although it does have its moments. Chihiro sports a weird hairdo which makes him look like he has demonic horns, and Ranko is a standard sexy country girl, but Rea is the epitome of a delicate beauty; given how fragile her situation is, that seems symbolic, and it certainly starkly contrasts with the physical power she later shows as a zombie. One of the series' most visually impressive scenes, which comes in episode 1 and again in the closer, shows her in a striking red dress, although she and Ranko offer a nice diversity of fan service options, too. Rendering quality and animation are both decidedly average, but the series does make a (rather graphically bloody) impact when it needs to, such as in the death scene, in the disturbing redness in Rea's eyes when she becomes a zombie, and in Rea's varied expressions. Background detail impresses a little more consistently, but many recent series still do better.
The series' musical score does its job well, hitting exactly the right tone on the more serious and poignant scenes and even going appropriately silent at a critical moment to let the events on the screen carry the full weight. Opener “Esoragato” is a catchy pop-rock number somewhat reminiscent of some of Taylor Swift's work, while closer “Above Your Hand” is a gentler and more sympathetic member. Both contribute to an overall solid soundtrack.
Sankarea was on track to be one of the year's best series before it let its story get bogged down in its second half. An OVA episode which is not yet available in streaming form adds in some insightful background on Chihiro and his family, but what the series really needs is another season to finish out the story threads it has established and elaborate on the shocking turn of events in the series' final minute. As is, it is merely a good series which missed on the potential to be a great one.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : C+
Music : B+
+ Thoughtful approach to subject matter, good character development, good balance of drama, comedy, and fan service.
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