Reviewby Theron Martin,
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
Hat-wearing Yuki, stocking-sporting Miki, shovel-wielding Kurumi, and sweater-clad Yuri, along with the dog Toramaru, compose the members of Megurigaoka Private High's School Living Club. Under advisor Ms. Sakura (aka Megu-nee) they strive to foster a spirit of independence and responsibility by actually living at school and never going home. For childish third-year student Yuki, every day is a lot of fun, and her energy helps bolster the spirits of the others. That's important because Yuki is blissfully oblivious to the much grimmer reality that the girls actually face every day.
The first episode of this series is one of the biggest cases of misdirection in anime history, as both the opening theme and first twenty minutes suggest that this is going to be a high-spirited slice-of-life series about schoolgirls. Sure, the whole School Life Club thing and having a dog in school is more than a little weird, but such incongruities fall well within the kinds of craziness that can happen in high school anime. As the episode progresses though, unsettling details start to pile up. Why did one of the other girls flash a worried look when Yuki offhandedly mentions that she almost went home for the evening? Why does Kurumi carry around a shovel? Why does Yuki seem to be the only girl actually attending class and why is Miki mindless of what's going on in the classrooms? Why is there a cross planted in the rooftop garden? And was the glass broken in one hall window? Many of these details would be innocuous by themselves, like a barricade of desks in one hall that could be ominous but just as easily could be used to temporarily block off an unused part of the building. Only at the very end of episode one do we finally get to see what's dreadfully wrong about all this: the bliss of high school life is all in Yuki's head, and the girls are actually the isolated survivors of a zombie apocalypse holed up in their school building.
This is far from the last time that the series engages in subtle misdirection. The full truth of the girls' circumstances doesn't come out for several episodes to come, although there are vague hints disguised as normal anime shenanigans if you watch carefully for them. Other mysteries also crop up over time, such as how the school building seems suspiciously well-prepared for exactly this kind of scenario, how the apocalypse got started, what happened to Miki's friend who survived the initial wave of zombifications, and whether or not there are other survivors outside the school. The series is adapted from a manga but changes a fair amount of details and the order of events, perpetually remains coy about a lot of the specifics, revealing details only as necessary and implying rather than outright revealing a lot of things.
The brilliance of this series extends far beyond its clever construction. A chirpy slice-of-life tale and a zombie apocalypse scenario may seem utterly incompatible with each other, and yet director Masaomi Ando (who later directed the emotionally intricate Scum's Wish) and series writer Norimitsu Kaiho succeed far beyond expectations at smoothly integrating the two genres without diminishing either side. In fact, both aspects end up complementing each other, with the serious parts tempering the lighter ones from going overboard through touches of irony and melancholy and the lighter parts providing a release from the potential crushing grimness of the situation, all while giving the serious parts every bit of the weight that they deserve. Whether it's the distorted way that Kurumi looks at zombies or the tense encounters that the characters sometimes have with them – especially the harrowing rescue of Miki from a zombie-infested shopping mall or climactic scenes where things start to go all to hell – the appropriate sense of danger is always there. Even the slow-moving nature of the zombies doesn't complicate things, since all it takes is one injury, one bit of carelessness, to seal a survivor's fate. Keeping the cast limited to young girls who have no special training or weaponry also helps keep the threat level real; Kurumi can only effectively kill zombies because she's an athlete, and even then there's great risk involved.
Filtered across the breadth of the series are interesting little details about this particular brand of zombies, which suggest that they may not actually be dead, just so irreparably damaged in mind and body by a disease that they might as well be dead. Mortal injuries kill them just like any normal person, they seem to mindlessly conform to ingrained procedures like coming to school during the day and going home in the evening, and we get a zombie's-eye-view on two occasions. One particular zombie who appears late in the series even seems to have retained some limited cognitive function past the point where the zombification began.
The other most intriguing factor is Yuki's situation. Flashbacks show that she didn't start out refusing to accept reality; one particular incident broke her, which only comes to light in the middle of the series. In an ironic way, her delusions of normality actually make the situation work for the other girls, since playing along with Yuki's lack of awareness may be helping them keep their own sanity in their dire circumstances. Exactly how delusional Yuki actually is can also be called into question, since despite her childishness she shows an uncanny knack for pushing the group to do things that they actually need to do at crucial times, and her delusion is just sophisticated enough to have built-in protections against real threats. Her gradual movement towards accepting certain aspects of reality also generates some poignant moments.
Yuki's free-wheeling nature can grate on the nerves a little, but it's still an essential part of the well-balanced cast. Yuri (who is almost exclusively referred to as “Ri-san”) is a motherly figure with a running joke about being intimidating when she wants to be, but she also has a serious and contemplative side. Kurumi is the take-action individual whose obsession with her shovel becomes the butt of jokes, but her serious side shows through in cases where she has to struggle to maintain her perception of the zombies as life-threatening monsters and no longer people. Miki, meanwhile, is serious-minded by default but also keenly values maintaining connections with others, especially Yuki; Taromaru's standoffishness toward her is one of the series' most consistent running jokes. As the only adult, Megumi provides the girls with strength, although she also has the running joke of so lacking a presence that she easily gets ignored – a joke that ultimately proves ironic.
Although the series is by no means a technical masterpiece, the visuals do the job plenty well enough, with both subtle and not-so-subtle visual cues and uses of symbolism scattered throughout. The delicate character designs seem purposely tailored to enhance the girls' vulnerability to the zombie threat, though they are varied enough to give each girl her own distinct look and build. Variations in clothing designs suitably complement each girl's personality; for instance, more straight-laced Miki is the only one who clearly wears her suspenders properly, while the more active Kurumi wears hers down and adds knee pads. It's never explained why Yuki's uniform is different from the other girls, especially since she's supposed to be in the same grade as two of them, though it serves the purpose of further distinguishing her from the other girls. Zombie designs, which are commonly left obscured by shadows or the CG-driven distortions of Kurumi's view of them, are nonetheless fittingly unnerving. Background art shows great attention to the damage left behind by the apocalypse, though in some cases it goes unrealistically overboard given a time frame probably not longer than a couple of months. Also watch for a couple of references to other post-apocalyptic tales, including Stephen King's The Stand and the movie I Am Legend. The animation effort is smooth by TV series standards, with the CG used for the staggering zombies in background shots being less obtrusive than usual.
On the graphic content front, the most intense violence happens off-screen but the series isn't above engaging in some fanservice. Most of it is tasteful, including one episode where the girls clean and later frolic in a rooftop water tank while wearing bikinis, but Miki also gets a handful of more lurid shots. This isn't a regular element of the series, but it's also hard to completely ignore and frankly unnecessary for a story like this. There's plenty to watch the series for beyond sex appeal, which distracts from the intended tone at times.
The musical score is mostly a strong effort, hindered only slightly by some mediocre synthesizer pieces used in more tense scenes. It's at its best when using poignant or melancholy piano and guitar-based numbers or in a soulful lounge-style insert song, but it also works just fine in more lighthearted moments too. Opener “Friend Shitai” is an infectiously perky number that stands in stark contrast to the girls' situation while also speaking to the spirit of their quest for survival. Its visuals update several times – and sometimes in very subtle ways, such as how the lighting in one shot gradually darkens towards twilight – but past the first episode it consistently use the neat trick of showing an outline of Yuki with her delusional view on the inside of the outline contrasting against the actual conditions on the outside. (I also have to recommend this wonderful live-action version made by a group of male fans.) Over the course of 12 episodes, the series uses two regular and two one-shot closers, with periodic visual updates to the second regular closer also being significant.
Sentai Filmworks is releasing the series in separate Blu-Ray and DVD versions as well as a Limited Edition combo pack which also includes an audio CD and various physical extras; that version was not available for review, however. The only on-disc extras are clean versions of all theme song variations. The English dub is a satisfying effort, with Brittney Karbowski ably anchoring the cast as Yuki and the other four main voice actresses all hitting the right notes as their respective characters. While the most crucial on-screen text is subtitled, there are a few other places of lesser importance where translation of on-screen text might have been appreciated.
School-Live! was my pick for the top anime series of 2015, and my rewatch to experience the English dub only confirmed that decision. The story it tells goes farther in the manga, and the final scene of the series is a horrible tease on that front, but the parts that got animated form a complete arc whose ending beautifully rounds out all of the important themes, especially the notion of what graduation means for the girls given their circumstances. Give this series a chance and it may surprise you, as it's definitely stronger than its first impression.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Smoothly combines wildly different genres, well-balanced cast, good use of symbolism and misdirection, more story depth than is initially apparent
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