Zombie Land Saga
by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 9 of
Zombie Land Saga ?
After last week's episode turned me into a diehard Lily defender in less than half an hour, I couldn't wait to see what Zombie Land Saga would do with this Saki-focused episode. Saki has consistently remained one of my favorite characters, due largely to the incongruity between her amped-up biker delinquent personality and the more docile portrait of your stereotypical idol. That incongruity makes her the perfect poster child for Franchouchou. True to form, her episode also strays far from standard idol fare with its emphasis on gang warfare and cycles of violence, while also wrapping things up in predictably unpredictable Zombie Land Saga fashion. It doesn't quite reach the emotional highs of Lily's episode, but it's still a strange and often hilarious dive into Saga's underworld of teen girl scooter squads.
Consistent with the other character episodes, we get a look at both Saki's pre-zombie life and the circumstances of her death, both of which don't disappoint. Saki used to own the streets of late '90s Saga as the number 2 girl to Dorami gang boss Reiko. With dyed hair and a decked-out scooter, she dished out beatdowns to their rival gang Korosuke in between taking care of her Tamagotchi. One tragic game of chicken (against a magnificently coiffed girl) led to her fiery yet undeniably badass death. Reiko, however, was torn apart by losing her best friend, and she fully committed herself to building the kind of normal life she never had growing up. Fast forward to the present day, and Reiko is a normal mother with a normal household. However, her daughter Maria has entered that rebellious age and taken up the reins of Reiko and Saki's old gang, threatening to careen into the same inferno that claimed our zombie idol leader.
It's a familiar story—just not one you'd expect from an idol show! Zombie Land Saga recognizes and leans into this absurdity by playing things straight, adding music and aesthetic flourishes ripped right out of a yakuza film. The result is an episode full of cute girls doing biker gang things, and it's pretty great. Maria and her cronies' introduction provides one of the best examples of this as they slowly walk towards Franchouchou with sneers and stink eyes plastered on their faces. The mood is heightened by the unusually fluid animation and the chunky electric guitars in the soundtrack. Then the mood completely fizzles once the girls' façades crack upon learning Lily is still a grade schooler. It quickly becomes obvious that these are far from the hardened road warriors of Saki's heyday, and the only thing keeping the gang together is Maria's stubbornness. Saki, however, recognizes Maria as her friend's daughter, and she's torn between staying true to the idol life or getting involved in her gang's affairs again.
Well, she's not torn right away. She leaps and tumbles out of a moving van to Maria's aid when her red-coated trio is surrounded by their old rivals. I guffawed when one of the Korosuke members casually whipped out an entire chainsaw, and somewhere between the dramatic zooms and Saki's twisted neck, Zombie Land Saga finds the over-the-top sweet spot. Fan-favorite character The Only Cop In Saga shows up and manages to make the girls disperse, but Kotaro pulls Saki aside later for another surprisingly serious discussion. Zombie Land Saga once again reminds us of the perils of being an idol in the public sphere, where any association with violence, no matter how nobly intentioned, could spell the end for Franchouchou. My fear going into this episode was that it would ultimately be about some “necessary” sanding down of Saki's rough edges in order to fit her more properly into the idol mold, and this dialogue seemed to reinforce that. Thankfully, this zombie show continues to surprise me, and the episode's resolution is more complicated than that.
Saki embraces a loose definition of “idol stuff” and runs out to help Maria in her big confrontation with the rival gang, which of course turns out to be the same game of chicken that claimed her life about two decades ago. Reiko's pain comes through both as a mother and as someone who still grieves for her friend, and I'm shocked by how much pathos this wacky zombie comedy can bring to its stories. It's heartbreaking to see Reiko have to relive such a traumatic moment, and it's doubly heartbreaking that Saki can't tell her the truth. Thankfully, Saki climbs out of the wreckage unscathed (because they're zombies!). While it's an awe-inspiring sight for the girls, the events that follow are what give the episode its weight. Reiko slugs Saki, grabs her by her collar, and says what she's wanted to say for nearly 20 years: Saki was a big dumbass, and her life was more important than anything else. Saki repurposes the tragedy of her death as a lesson for Maria, repairing her relationship with her mom by showing her the fortitude she still possesses. Reiko didn't lose any of the strength she had by growing up and becoming a mother, and while Saki still doesn't understand what “normal” means, I'm sure she's glad to see that her old friend is doing well. Meanwhile, Saki blatantly tells the other girls not to idolize her for the admittedly amazing feat she just pulled off. Rather than let them perpetuate their violent power struggle, Saki uses her platform to sow the seeds of peace the best way she knows how: through the power of song.
It's another cheesy ending, as Kotaro once again breaks the fourth wall to cue the music when the scene shifts to Franchouchou onstage. Saving the day with music is an idol show staple, and the song at least is rock-heavy in an appropriately Saki-like fashion, but what makes Zombie Land Saga stand out is the way it acknowledges and embraces its audience. Those precious death metal boys are back in the crowd, and they comment on how there are even more weirdos present now thanks to Saki's new fans. It's not a disparaging comment, but a welcoming one that speaks to Franchouchou's central appeal. They're the idols for the weirdos and the misfits, as an unlikely and motley crew themselves. One of them shuns most modern idol conventions. One of them is trans. One of them used to be a delinquent gang member. And so on. Saki's story isn't about neutralizing what made her unique in order to make her a more palatable idol. It's about accepting and learning from her past failures, then using her experience to help others. Saki doesn't need a scooter and a death wish to reach out to girls like Maria. She can speak to them from her heart on the stage and be the kind of voice she'd want to have heard when she was alive. She's never going to be "normal," and that's okay. Reaching out to people from all walks of life is the real saga.
Zombie Land Saga is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Steve is an anime-reviewing zombie who can be found making bad posts about anime on Twitter.
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