Zombie Land Saga
by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Zombie Land Saga ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Zombie Land Saga ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Zombie Land Saga ?
I considered starting off this review by describing the show as another rote idol anime, before pulling the rug out at the end and revealing the zombie twist, but then I realized that this is literally how Zombie Land Saga introduces itself. Since it made the joke for me, I think that goes to show how much I'm already sharing a wavelength with this bizarre send-up of the idol machine.
The premise of Zombie Land Saga is straightforward enough: what if idols, but also zombies? Our protagonist Sakura is every bit the spunky, clumsy, and passionate idol fan we've seen headline countless shows in this genre. The only problem is she's a tad clumsier than your average heroine, enough to get bodied by a truck before the opening credits kick in. She wakes up in a spooky mansion filled with flesh-hungry zombies, only to discover that she too is one of those flesh-hungry zombies! In fact she's been dead for a decade. It's okay though, because this is all part of a master plan by a mysterious and perpetually-sunglassed producer who wants to mold this undead troupe into professional idols who can save the prefecture of Saga through the power of song. Makes sense, right?
After three episodes, that's still all we know about his plan, but that's okay. Zombie Land Saga's strength lies not merely in its wacky premise, but in its strong follow-through with snappy jokes, hammy performances, and a dogged commitment to its own macabre absurdity. Also there's a very cute zombie dog (named Romero, of course). The show is more of a horror-adjacent comedy than actual horror, so squeamish viewers shouldn't be too put-off by it. However, it still displays an understanding of the visual language of zombie films, especially in the first episode. The more gruesome implications of managing a team of undead idols are nevertheless solved in a relatively palatable way or side-stepped entirely with a knowing wink to the audience. Dried squid, for instance, turns out to be an acceptable dietary substitute for a zombie's natural cravings, and the only explanation given for Sakura and her companions' resurrection is “You've seen a zombie movie, right? There you go.” The girls have rotten skin and a tendency to lose track of their extremities, but for the most part the oddness of their zombie bodies is played up for exaggerated slapstick rather than body horror. Being the twisted horror fan I am, I'd actually love to see a zombie idol show that properly reckons with the wrongness of their situation, and the cynical part of me figures they kept the girls cute for marketability. But I can't begrudge the show too much when I'm still enjoying it a heck of a lot.
Another thing the zombie conceit has going for it is that it lets the show feature idols (and “idols”) from different generations, so we get more variety than your standard cast of archetypes. Sakura is very much the protagonist, but the unique circumstances of her situation gives her more range to work with than if she were just another idol trying her best. Ai is the contemporary idol she looked up to the most, but since they've all lost some memories, Sakura doesn't quite remember that yet. Junko is the other actual idol, but she's a generation removed, having been part of the early idol boom of the '80s. The other members weren't quite what you'd call “idols,” but they're also the members who have the most defined personalities. Lily is a sickeningly sweet child actress from an undetermined era, although given her very anime-ish mannerisms, it was probably pretty recent. Yugiri is straight-up a courtesan who acts like she's gotta be out of the Edo or Meiji periods. Saki is a delinquent biker boss who feels like she came out of the '70s, but she actually ruled the underground in the late '90s, keeping the sukeban tradition alive (although sadly, not her Tamagotchi). And Tae is a legend. An absolute legend. We're still in the anime's early stages, so we haven't dug too deep into anybody's history or motivations, but the girls are all likable, and their contrasting personalities bounce off each other well. Mostly I'm just tickled to have a unit with an actual gang member and an actual prostitute, rather than characters who are simply seasoned with delinquent-adjacent personality traits.
The girls are great, but the real MVP of Zombie Land Saga is our producer Kotaro, and by extension his seiyuu Mamoru Miyano. His talent as an actor should be no surprise to anyone, but he gives 110% to this role, and the result is both glorious and hilarious. His comedic timing, frequent wild shifts in his vocal register, and commitment to hamming up each and every line infuses his scenes with a magically manic energy. He just sounds like he's having a blast, and I'm pretty sure he also ad-libs a ton. Kotaro is fundamentally loud and buffoonish, but he's also the only lifeline the girls have. Although he might not know how to spell guerilla, he knows a surprising amount about training idols, and he's got some serious chops with a makeup brush. Whether he's an idol producer who dabbles in necromancy or a necromancer who felt like hopping on the idol train, he's a delight to spend time with.
Outside of Mamoru Miyano's beautiful screams, the strongest thing Zombie Land Saga has going for it is its willingness to be audacious. The climax of the first episode is a great example. The girls debut their newly-formed idol unit at a death metal show, and aside from Sakura, everyone else is still a mindless zombie grunting and shuffling along. The result is a performance where Tae attacks the audience, the girls headbang so hard that their necks break, and the only vocals are the collective guttural screams of the undead. And of course the audience loves it, mistaking Tae's attack as her initiating a mosh pit, and so on and so forth. Similarly, the second episode's big concert turns into a rap battle, punctuated by Tae's head getting tossed around like a basketball and an impeccably beautiful moment where Kotaro slinks out of the darkness and casually starts beatboxing. Sakura comments that neither of these concerts were very idol-like, but that's what makes the show good. It's not trying to be just another idol show, so it's willing to look outside the box and be outrageous or irreverent (thankfully without being tacky and offensive). I wouldn't quite call it a parody of idol shows, since it is fundamentally about cute girls working hard and forging friendships, so it engages with many of those tropes sincerely. However, it never takes itself too seriously, and there are definitely parts where it pokes fun at the conventions of its genre. The third episode is pretty straight-laced compared to the first two, but the bad CG in the final performance is so specifically bad that it has to be taking the piss out of other shows. I mean, I'm sure it's also bad because making CG look good is hard and time-consuming, but it works in this context.
Overall, Zombie Land Saga is off to an incredibly strong start as this season's only horror idol comedy. It marries a darn funny concept and script with excellent performances, and I love the way it balances its loud and outrageous moments with subtler jokes. It isn't nonstop gut-busting stuff, but things like Kotaro saying, “A zombie that doesn't dance is just a regular zombie,” with an entirely straight face, and Saki somehow making her dry-erase marker look like spray paint (because she's a delinquent get it?) are little touches I appreciate a lot. Hats off to Crunchyroll's translators too, because making their raps actually rhyme in episode two made that whole scene so much better. And I've been watching the OP nonstop since last week. I could go on, but Zombie Land Saga does a lot right, and I hope it can sustain its brand of counter-culture idol energy for weeks to come.
P.S. Tae is best zombie
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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