Last week, after recapping the finale episode, I mentioned I’d do a full series review, as well as take a brief look at the manga that inspired it. Turns out, I had more to say on both subjects than I thought, so I’ve ended up breaking them into two posts, to avoid having a really long one.
On the plus side, now you have a choice about whether or not you want to hear my thoughts on the manga. Trust me, if you’re a fan of it, this is a good thing, because as it turns out, I’m not.
Weird how that works, isn’t it? Usually, I prefer the source material to the adaptation. In this instance, not so much. That, though, is a conversation for another post. For now, let’s take a look back at the anime.
One of the things that really helped Gakkou Gurashi stand out, not just from the rest of the really awesome offerings of the summer season, but from other “cute girl” style shows and zombie fiction in general is the masterful direction of the series. The credit for this falls mainly on the shoulders of series director Masaomi Ando, and his clever use of lightening, camera angles, focus, and framing to really help sell the emotional aspect of the story.
This matters because it removes the need for the often clunky and long winded dialogue that goes with most emotionally charged scenes or stories. How the characters feel is explored through the film work, and this is what allows us to forge an intimate connection with them, because it prompts us to feel that same way.
It also frees up the writers to keep the dialogue grounded in what needs to be said, rather than having the characters explain things to us. It’s that show, don’t tell I raved about more than once in the series recaps. We are seeing it, and we are feeling it, so we don’t need anyone to explain it to us.
Another spot that shines is the use of the music. There’s a recurring theme in the show that is made to sound almost like a music box, and it’s really very beautiful. It keys us into the heartfelt moments, showcasing those times when the characters are emotionally vulnerable, and helps drive the story forward as much as the dialogue or animation.
There’s also the moments when that music box winds down, causing it to hit a jarring note. By the final episode, I knew just what that meant. That something bad had happened. It’s a clever audio clue, and works really well, as it is not overused, occurring with just enough frequency that we know what it means, but not enough to become trite.
The darker moments of the show were accompanied by appropriately heavy themes, while the lighter moments got their upbeat, easy to separate pieces. I still don’t know who composed the soundtrack to this show, but I know I want a copy of it. It really is just that good.
I want to pause here to admit that I am a big fan of music in filmed works, and the soundtrack composition in Gakkou Gurashi is not just marvelous, but an integral part of the storytelling that really got to me on a deep, emotional level. Because of this, it may have influenced my reading of the manga, and even lessened my enjoyment of it. That’s on me, and is no fault of the manga itself.
The animation quality, on the other hand, kinds does transcend the artwork of the source material. It’s always well done, with the character designs being so powerfully at odds with the backdrops, it is occasionally shocking. In this same vein, the zombie animation is just plain creepy, at least, when we’re allowed to see it. Normally, that would be a big negative for me, not getting to see the zombies clearly, but here, it works like magic, making them a thousand times creepier.
There’s just something about not being able to see them for most of the series, with full on visuals only really happening towards the last few episodes, and even then, kept to a minimum, that ups the scare factor. Of course, we all know what a zombie looks like, so just showing us zombies wouldn’t have been that interesting, really. Taking them out of focus, keeping them hidden in shadows, and obscuring them via Kurumi’s coping mechanism, takes them from run of the mill zombies to something almost otherworldly. Almost alien. It’s brilliant, and it works.
Probably my favorite thing about the series, however, is how well written the characters are. Fully realized people, with strengths and weaknesses, who are brave and fearful in turns, as they struggle to survive a world where literally everything is actively trying to kill them. They are consistent, and grow in a believable fashion, while never losing that part of themselves that made them interesting from the very first episode.
Each is an individual, and move beyond the archetype mold very quickly to give us more nuanced people, who we can easily form a strong bond with, including Yuki, who really becomes the heart of the show very easily. More than just that, though, is the real and believable connections they have with one another, propelling the story forward with an often slow, but mostly steady momentum.
Even Megumi, who is dead for pretty much the entire twelve episodes, has a strong character arc, and deep, believable, emotional bonds with the three girls who were on the roof with her the day the world went to shit. The same goes for Miki, who has never met Megumi, yet forms a connection, one that she speaks about with sincerity in the final episode.
Then there’s Taroumaru. Though his presence in the manga was limited to a single chapter, his addition to the anime made the show stronger. I have pets, and I know how they affect and influence me as a person, making me kinder and more emphatic to the needs of others. The inclusion of Taroumaru to the series was a subtle touch that helped flesh out the girls characters, as they built a relationship with this little dog, who was braver than he was smart. His loss, at the end, was just the gut punch the final episode needed to take it to the top of the sad-o-meter, because it was believable, real, and the reactions of the girls genuine.
They knew what tragedy was. They knew what loss was. The harsh reality of the new world they live in means that no matter how hard they try to guard themselves against it, it will still happen. Yet, they chose to keep their hearts open to others, rather than fall into cynicism and become hard. Taroumaru, silly though he often was, helped us see them in that light, people who will always, even with the world collapsing around them, try to help others, and be kind. It’s a good touch, and one the show was better for having.
Nor was it just those two who got significant character arcs. Yuki, of course, was a central focus, and while I could go on about her arc for a while, I’ll leave it to my friend, Dee Hogan, who posted a really insightful article about this. I’ve reblogged it here, but in case you missed, here’s a link.
Instead, I want to look at the others arcs for a moment. Starting with Yuri, who I often feared was a breath away from snapping. During the graduation ceremony, Miki talked about how Yuri taught her the importance of believing in your own strength, and what you could do with your own two hands. While I don’t disagree, the fact is, Yuri herself learned a different lesson. In the end, her inner strength, and her own two hands, was not enough to end Kurumi’s suffering, even when it seemed clear Miki wasn’t going to return. Instead, Yuri learned how to actually rely on those around her, to have faith in them, and became a stronger person for that.
Speaking of Kurumi, we saw all through the series her penchant for taking brash actions. She frequently faced zombies alone, but was still careful not to get tangled up against too many. It made her pretty cocky, really, and lead to her being bitten. Sometimes, as Kurumi learned, you really can’t take on the world by yourself, and must rely on others to help you.
Gee, it’s almost like they were building a theme there about cooperation, wasn’t it?
The place it is most evident is in Miki’s arc, though. Her initial trouble with Yuki’s condition made it hard for her to trust that these girls knew what they were doing. In accepting Yuki being different, she was able to. Kinda like saying we are all stronger when we work together, despite our differences. You might could even say that those differences give us strength.
More importantly was the really interesting, subtly woven story that is just under Miki’s arc, though. I mentioned that she appeared to be coded as gay soon after her flashback episodes began, but it was only when I rewatched the series as a whole that I saw just how deep that story arc went.
When the zombies appear, Miki and Kei retreat to the storage room. They are clearly more than just friends, but are hiding it from the world, you could say. Kei wants to be “out”, but Miki doesn’t, leading to Kei leaving her. Miki suffers in isolation, afraid of being “out”, and is only freed from this by the compassion of others. Even after that, she struggles to fit in, as she frets over what is “normal” behavior and what is not. Eventually, she learns to accept that normal is whatever you need it to be, and becomes braver, even venturing “out” into the world to face many threats from the mindless hordes of zombies, which have long been associated with “group think”.
Yeah, Miki’s whole arc is a metaphor for coming out of the closet. Really well written, too. It’s clever in that it’s subtle, something this show is really good at. It’s in those kinds of subtle touches, that nuanced storytelling, the really clever metaphors and symbolic imagery they use, that this show has it’s greatest moments. Where it goes beyond a “cute girls” show, or even traditional zombie fiction, to become something really unique, and truly special.
From direction, to animation, to music, to storytelling and even taking a look at social issues, Gakkou Gurashi is a really masterful work, and for me at least, one of the finest offerings of the 2015 summer season. I’m sorry that it’s unlikely we’ll get a second season, but then again, they told the story they wanted to, and even when they faltered a bit, with episodes like “Holiday”, they still managed to present a series that is part psychological drama, part horror, and entirely thought provoking and memorable.
Thanks for taking the trip with me. It’s been truly enjoyable.