Welcome back to the Gakkou Garashi recap!
Before we get started, for those that have been following along, I have changed the title of this from review to recap. At first, I wasn’t sure how long I’d be doing this, so I’d left it listed as a review. As of this week, I’m committed to recapping every episode.
Frankly, I’ll be shocked at this point if Studio Lerche drops the ball on this show. Five episodes in, and they have done an outstanding job, not just of presenting a psychological horror piece, but one of the single best zombie apocalypse stories I’ve ever seen.
I admit that I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead, and as much as my girlfriend enjoyed the holy hell out of High School of the Dead, I saw a lot of problems with it. What both do right, they do extremely right, but by the same token, what they do wrong, they do so horribly.
Likewise, I mentioned last week that I write zombie fiction, so it is a subject I know. My own work leans much more to toward survival horror, while still delving into the psychological aspects, so finding something that manages to inspire me is difficult. Most zombie fiction is just endless fights, jump scares, and angry people shouting at each other when they should really shut the hell up, what with zombies being drawn to sound and all.
So, when I say that Gakkou Garashi manages to perfectly nail the balance between the psychological aspects of horror, and the actually horrific, take that as some of the highest praise I can give. It is incredibly rare to see, but over at Studio Lerche, they are managing it with surprisingly adept skill.
What has me singing their praises so highly? This weeks episode, which managed to deliver the psychological, the genuine fear, a very surprising reveal, and a level of intensity that had me on the edge of my seat.
Let’s revisit where last week left off. In an episode long flashback, we learn that when the zombie outbreak happened, Miki was at the mall with her best friend and possible girlfriend Kei. The two ended up surviving by barricading themselves in a store room with Taroumaru the dog. Kei ultimately chose to leave in order to seek help or other survivors, but Miki was too scared to go with her. Taroumaru got out through the transom, possibly to go after Kei, leaving Miki completely alone.
Meanwhile, Yuki hits on the idea to have a school outing, leading to the girls securing Megumi’s car and heading into town to gather some supplies they can’t obtain at the school. While the Miki side of the story was a tense exploration of confinement, the Yuki side was an action packed zombie battle.
Now, however, the two stories are moving towards each other, so we pick up where “Outing” left off, with episode 5, “Meeting”.
We open on Miki’s alarm clock waking her, leading to her cleaning up in the bathroom, and trying to go about her day, isolated, alone, and clearly suffering from it. She leaves some food in a bowl by the transom in the hopes Taroumaru will return, and for a moment, it seem to work, as she hears something outside.
It turns out to be a zombie trying to get in. She braces the barricade as best she can by herself, but the window in the door is starting to crack, the glass suffering from repeated attempts by zombies to enter. Fortunately, the zombie wanders off, but Miki is nearing her breaking point.
The show then moves to the opening credits, which despite still sporting the same upbeat and chipper song as always, feels somehow more menacing and sinister. I can’t explain why, really, as it isn’t any different, but it feels like it is.
The girls from the school arrive at the mall, and after a bit of good natured poking at Yuki, she turns to her imaginary Megumi and the two dither. Yuri and Kurumi, on the other hand, note the lack of zombies in the area, pondering that because it’s a weekday, many are probably at their former places of work or school. They seem to think it possible that there is some measure of memory at work, moving the dead about in a semblance of their former lives, which is just plain unsettling.
Deciding to head on inside, the gang tries to find some way to convince Yuki to keep it down, with Yuri finding an old poster for a piano concert taking place inside the mall. Yuki accepts this as a reason to keep her voice down, so as not to disturb anyone.
Inside, the ground floor of the mall is crawling with zombies, forcing the gang to keep low, move fast, and stay quiet until they can get upstairs, where they duck inside a music store, pulling down the rolling barricade the store used when they were closed. Kurumi decides to head back downstairs to hit up the grocery store, and while Yuri obviously is uncomfortable with it all, she allows it.
Back in the store room, Miki is listening to the CD player Kei left, the same song, I think, that closed out last weeks episode. If I could give her state a name, I’d have to go with depressed, and why wouldn’t she be? There’s no real way of knowing how long she’s been on her own, and the solitude is taking a toll. She peruses a sticker book with pictures of her and Kei, but that only makes things worse.
Down in the store, Kurumi is trying to gather canned food, including some soy beef, which was at the center of last weeks breakfast scene with Yuki and gang, before they left for the mall. They had opened their last can, and Yuki wanted to share it, so it’s fitting that the moment Kurumi encounters Taroumaru, the two end up trying to steal a can of soy beef from each other.
Ultimately, Taroumaru makes off with it, but their barking and snapping has drawn more zombies, forcing Kurumi to abandon the mission and head back upstairs to rejoin the rest. Good thing, too, as Yuri is getting more than a little worried about her, with even Yuki commenting she’s been gone too long.
Kurumi returns safe and sound, with Taroumaru in tow. Yuki instantly falls for the pup, wanting to hug it up. Yuri and Kurumi stop her, and Yuri opens the canned soy beef, giving it to the dog so she can distract it long enough to check to make sure the little dog hasn’t been bitten or scratched. Finding him clean, Yuki is allowed to go nuts with hugging, finding Taroumaru’s name on his collar.
Sticking the dog in her backpack, the gang heads upstairs to gather some more things, with Yuri being practical and gathering a camping stove, some gas canisters, and a portable alarm. Basically, it’s a mugger alarm. If you’re attacked, you can pull the string, and it emits an incredibly loud sound. I’m not clear on how well known these things are in the States, but I do know they are common place in Japan.
Naturally, Yuki wants to play with it. Yuri dissuades her.
The girls head off next to a clothing store, where they have some actual fun playing dress up. The scene of Yuki trying to walk in high heels is adorable. In general, they just have some fun, which is not something they’ve gotten to do for a while, and it’s a nice mood lifter.
I’d call it fluff, but with this show, I never know what’s filler and what isn’t.
We do, however, get a scene where Yuki wants to give Megumi a gift, settling on a teddy bear that looks like the one on Megumi’s key chain. Megumi begs off, because she isn’t real and all, claiming she has one like it already, and asks Yuki to keep it so they have a matching pair.
Reaching the top floor, the girls pause for a bit as Taroumaru starts barking. Though they don’t know it, he’s calling out to Miki, who is just down the hall from where the gang is standing, holding herself, staring at the door. She’s seen the crack in the glass, and knows it’s only a matter of time until the zombies will be able to get in. Still, she’s too afraid to leave.
Worried his barking might draw zombies, Yuri gets him to hush. Miki hears it, though, and goes to the door, listening. As that’s happening, Megumi hears what sounds like a chair being knocked over, coming from the movie theater. Suspecting a survivor, the gang heads in to investigate.
Kurumi gets everyone to stay in the lobby while she goes to scout the screen rooms. Finding one that has been barricaded, she pulls some stuff out of the way to have a peek inside.
I do want to give props to the musical score here. Music is an extremely effective way of setting a tone for a scene, and the one they employee here is tense. I’m not sure who does the composition for the show, but they knocked it out of the park on this episode.
Naturally, the zombies in the screening room are all too happy to be let out, forcing Kurumi to run for it. With their presence discovered by the dead, she doesn’t bother with stealth, yelling at the rest to run, as the zombies pursue her into the lobby.
More importantly, this is the first time we get a solid look at the zombies, and damn, are they not pleasant. Yuki sees them coming around the corner, and her mind has no way to rationalize it. Back in the second episode, during the test of courage, she could write the zombie off as a ghost, but here, she can’t ignore what it really is.
What the writers do here is simply brilliant. I’ve seen some debate on other forums about why the other girls more or less support Yuki’s delusion, instead of trying to snap her out of it. In this moment, we learn why, not through clever dialogue, but by being shown what happens when something challenges Yuki’s delusion.
She shuts down. Practically catatonic, Yuri and Kurumi have to drag her away. She will walk, and even run, if guided to, but Yuki is not home at the moment. She literally cannot cope with the horrific nature of her reality. When it tries to crawl into her delusion, she simply stops functioning at all.
This is important to understand, too. Yuri and Kurumi are doing everything they can to keep Yuki alive. They obviously know what happens when her delusion is infringed on by reality. At least in her delusional state, she is responsive and reactive. Without it, however, she freezes up. As Yuri pointed out three episodes back, none of them are psychologists, and have no idea how to deal with Yuki’s delusion in the proper way. At least by supporting it, they can help her survive. Without it, Yuki will get herself killed, by being incapable of reacting to danger.
The girls flee, trying to escape the zombies. Back in the store room, Miki feels certain that the barking she heard earlier was her imagination and returns to her lonely vigil. That’s what it is, too. She knows she’s going to die, and is all but paralyzed to do anything but wait for it.
As they flee the zombies, Kurumi yells for everyone to keep running. Her voice echoes down the hall, to Miki, who realizes, she’s not alone. She isn’t the last survivor. She doesn’t have to wait to die. There are others, survivors. If she can reach them, she has a chance, not just to live, but to not be alone.
The others are trying to get back downstairs, but find their way down from the fourth floor blocked by more zombies, as even more close in from either side. Yuri throws some glow sticks down the escalator, distracting the zombies not just with the sound of them clattering, but the light they give off, giving Kurumi a chance to slide down and clear them a path.
This is my favorite scene of the week, right here. The glow sticks are an amazing bit of cleverness. They established back in the first couple episodes that the zombies were drawn to sound and light, and now, using both, they manage to escape, unknowingly leaving Miki behind.
As they flee for safety, Yuki is non responsive. In her mind, she is talking with her friends in class, all of them laughing and smiling, as they slowly turn into the dead, surrounding her.
She slowly comes out of it as the girls take momentary refuge in a daycare room, waiting for the zombies to forget about them, so they can get back outside with minimal fuss. They encourage Yuki to get some rest, while Kurumi tells Yuri that she saw a lot of kids in that screening room. Angering by how many people must have fled there for safety, only to have someone in their midst turn, killing parents and children alike, Kurumi makes Yuri promise her that, if she’s ever bitten, Yuri won’t hesitate to kill her. Reluctantly, Yuri agrees.
Yuki wakes up hungry, and they decide to call it a day and head back to the school, while Miki finds the glow sticks Yuri threw, confirming that it wasn’t her desperate imagination. There really are people. In that single moment, the writers convey that her isolation and loneliness was so severe, she left her safe place, knowing she might be hallucinating the voices.
She tries to head down, but the way is blocked, and Miki hesitates, trembling in fear. She remembers Kei asking if surviving alone was enough, and resolves herself to find the people she heard.
Meanwhile, the others have made it outside and are heading to leave, when Yuki claims to have heard a voice. Yuri and Kurumi suspect it to be part of her delusion, and even imaginary Megumi doesn’t seem to think staying is wise, but Yuki knows she heard a voice. Taroumaru heard it as well, and wiggles free, heading back in to find Miki, with Yuki hot on his heels, to the others panic.
Inside, Miki is trapped on an escalator, with zombies closing in from every corner. She jumps down, landing on a grand piano. Remember the poster from earlier in the episode? Yeah, that wasn’t irrelevant. Nothing in this show seems to be irrelevant.
This just leads her to a new trap, however, as zombies close in. Unlike Yuki and Kurumi, Miki has no coping skills. She sees the dead for what they are, and in a truly horrific scene, she begins to panic as several zombies try to climb up after her, banging on the piano keys as they go.
Miki screams for help, and hears Taroumaru bark, as Yuki calls out to the the others. Almost fearful to believe, she turns and sees the gang rush in. Despite her fear, she is relieved to know that there are other survivors. Even in her desperate situation, her joy at seeing other living people is overwhelming.
Yuki tries to go to her, with Yuri stopping her as Kurumi seeks some way to reach Miki. Yuki’s delusion is collapsing, the reality of the zombies impossible to ignore. But, still…
But, still… someone needs help.
Yuki shrugs out of her backpack, slipping free of Yuri, and runs into the thick of the zombies, desperate to reach Miki, as Miki herself is dragged off the piano by a zombie, and Kurumi realizes she’ll never reach her.
Hopeless as the situation is, Yuri acts, pulling out the alarm she got earlier and bellowing for everyone to cover their ears as she sets it off. The sound is piercing, and overwhelmed by it, the zombies freeze in their tracks.
This is my other favorite scene of the episode. As I mentioned a bit ago, the writers established that the dead are drawn by sound and light. Their ability to handle sensory input, however, would be limited, due to the ravages of being turned into zombies. The alarm, which is ear shatteringly loud, is more than they can handle, causing them to stop. They can’t process it, because it overwhelms their limited mental capability, especially when it echoes like mad, making it impossible to tell where it’s coming from. This is simply brilliant.
It gives Yuki time to grab Miki and pull her away as Kurumi clears a path, allowing them to escape. Miki is relieved Taroumaru is safe, and asks Yuri if they’ve seen Kei, which they haven’t. Together, they load up in the now absent Megumi’s car, and go home.
As they do, Miki thinks of Kei, silently letting her know that while she’s late, she’s leaving, too.
Everything this week is on point, and perfectly done. One of the first rules you learn as a writer is to show, not tell, and this episode could be held up as an example of how to do that. From Miki’s deepening sense of despair at her isolation and lack of contact with not only another person, but any living thing, to the reason the girls try to help prop up Yuki’s delusion. All of it is executed flawlessly.
Those two things are the heart of the episode, as well. Since Kei left and Taroumaru ran off, Miki has been going through the motions of living, but is beginning to crack under the mounting sense of dread, which is made all the worse by something so simple as a crack in the glass. She doesn’t just want a way out, she needs it, which is why, even knowing she may well be hallucinating the voices she heard, she grabs at the chance.
Then there’s Yuki, who we see shut down when confronted with a zombie she can’t rationalize away. Her effective paralysis is the worst possible thing to happen, and a solid reason why the other girls help prop up her delusion. There is no way they could care for her is she shut down completely, and the pressure they would have to deal with watching her slowly die from malnutrition and dehydration in that case would probably shatter what hope they have left. So, not just for Yuki, but for themselves, they go along with the delusion, because it is literally all they can do.
Yet, there is hope. When Yuki was faced with the mass of zombies surrounding Miki, her delusion shattered. Instead of going catatonic, however, she focused on Miki, on reaching her, saving her, or at the very least, not letting her die alone. When push comes to shove, for others, Yuki can cope, for brief periods, to save them. This is most telling in that, after she faces the zombies and rushes to Miki’s aid, we don’t see Megumi again for the rest of the episode. Yuki didn’t need her.
This scene also plays back to the first episode in a surprising way. Namely, the big reveal, where Miki finds Yuki rambling away to her friends in an empty classroom. In that scene, Miki looked like she was about to cry over Yuki’s inability to cope with reality, and at the time, it seemed the act of a friend, worried for someone they cared about. Now, however, we see it in a new light.
Yuki saved her life. Seeing her like that, it hurts Miki. Not because her hero is fractured, but because she doesn’t know how to help her in return.
I’d also like to take a moment to address, once again, how well the Moe inspired animation works combined with the ultra-gritty world around them. The balancing act is not an easy one, but the animators do an outstanding job, managing to make cutesy Moe style characters work seamlessly with the dilapidated and horrific world they live in.
With tense scenes, explorations of isolation, survivors guilt, and coping with mental illness is a positive way, this weeks episode set a high bar, enough so that I am on board for the rest of this ride, no matter where they take it. The writers and the show will have to fall far for me to not love it.
I’ll be back next week, with Episode Six, “Welcome” Have a great weekend!