Thursday, January 20, 2011

:anime: Final Impression:: Highschool of the Dead

Review: Highschool of the Dead (High School of the Dead)

Official Sites: Japanese
Additional Links: ANN Entry
Video [Free]: The Anime Network (Ep. 1 is available to everyone at the "Guest" level, and Eps. 2 and beyond for those who register, which is at no cost), Hulu

When coming across the trailer for Highschool of the Dead last summer, there were a few things that stunned me about it--none of which involved its content of zombies and big boobs. For one, I was really impressed by it. I'm no fan of the horror genre, much less shows with heavy fanservice, and in both cases, there have been many a cheap and paltry entry. But with HOTD, it was quite clear that a lot of effort went into the production and presentation of it with its stunning animation and color palette, with its intensity pouring out of the screen. Its character designs were easy on the eyes, too, and with all of the frantic action and fluidity, what started as a curiosity over its title became a hot anticipation for a show screaming "greatness" and "instant hit".

So I was also quite stunned to see Madhouse's name pop up during it. It certainly explained the high level of artistry on display, but for a studio that has covered a wide swath of genres, horror (of the zombie variety) and fanservice are two that they have very rarely done. And that they decided to put this much effort into a show with both (and an admittedly/purposefully-schlocky title) was especially puzzling. Not that the studio has a "snobby" reputation, but given their pedigree, one might naturally assume that this type of material would be "beneath them". On top of that, Death Note director Tetsuro Araki and big-time screenwriter Yousuke Kuroda (Honey & Clover, Gungrave, Hellsing Ultimate, Infinite Ryvius) were attached to it, furthering the notion that nothing added up. At least at first glance, as what unfolds is a well thought-out and -presented tale with depth all around--as well as one of the best anime of 2010.

Takashi Komuro is a normal high-school boy, down on the dumps as his childhood friend/former crush, Rei Miyamoto, is going out with Hisashi Igou--his best friend. As he hangs out on the school stairway above, a absent-minded man stumbles into the gate of the premises, attracting the attention of nearby faculty. As one of them grabs him by the collar, the man suddenly bites into the teacher's arm, causing him to flail on the ground in excruciating pain. The others shriek at the bloody sight as he stops moving altogether. Thought dead, he suddenly begins to stir to everyone's relief--until he grabs one of his peers and rips into her neck with his teeth. Takashi is paralyzed by what his eyes just witnessed and rushes back to the classroom to get Rei and escape. But it is only just the beginning, as soon, the whole school is overrun by zombie-like specters, once peers and teachers that very morning, by the afternoon, dead, mindless drones biting and devouring any person in their path. And by the end of the day, it will be Takashi having to take a bat to the head of his soon-to-be-former best friend, Hisashi, to save both his life and Rei's…

Takashi and Rei, along with the brainy and demanding Saya Takagi, school outcast and gun enthusiast Kota Hirano, kendo champion Saeko Busujima, and the too well-endowed (and air-headed) school nurse Shizuka Marikawa band together as they defend themselves from the growing horde and escape the school. The world outside is no safer, though, as the unknown plague spreads throughout to no end or explanation. And as madness and paranoia engulf Japan and the rest of the globe, sometimes waves of zombies may be the least of their worries…

One of the main reasons Highschool of the Dead works so well is that it neither tries to be anything more than what it is (i.e. making itself into a morality tale, (overly-)philosophical commentary on man), nor does it succumb to its conventions and just satisfy the lowest common denominator ("'tits-and-zombies', 'nuff said"). It is a survival story at heart, and while it indeed involves awesomely-choreographed zombie-killing action and copious amounts of fanservice, it also manages to keep the story effectively simple, its characters grounded, and the various situations in perspective, presenting the quickly deteriorating world around them (both physically and socially) in a believable, plausible light. And when a character has to make a morally questionable decision--and in their environment, it is a given to happen--it feels organic rather than put-on.

Outside of, perhaps, the source material (which I haven't read extensively), a good amount of the anime's success can be attributed in part to director Araki and writer Kuroda, who do a great job in picking their spots in showing the story's various facets, knowing when to get serious, and when to take it easy and just have fun--all with a stylish and cinematic flair. Madhouse's high-profile hirings pays off in spades here as the series could have easily been a hackneyed mess, but instead, walks a fine line between seriousness and ridiculousness (chiefly, the fanservice). Even when both often intersect, it manages to surprisingly not feel jarring. It is not a simple feat to pull off, and sometimes that ridiculousness gets laid on thick, but with the talent behind the series, the results are quite impressive, especially when considering how utterly shameless that prominent aspect is…

The fanservice deserves particular mention not because it is, well, fanservice, but because HOTD has some of the most insane displays of it out there (and that's saying quite a bit in this current landscape). The girls, while far from useless eye-candy, have more than enough "assets", and though no outright nudity is shown (in the stream, anyway…), the staff ensures that no moment goes untapped, milking each scene for what its worth--habitual jiggling (complete with Benny Hill-caliber sound effects for Shizuka), skimpy clothes, open baths, grabbing, panty shots, torn clothes, wet clothes, etc. It's as if Araki and Madhouse, after so many non-skin-centric works, felt a release and needed to get it all out of their systems--culminating in the thing of beauty that is Ep. 8's battle scene, which virtually defies adequate description and must be seen to believe. While I'm not a fanservice-type of guy, I actually did not find myself too bothered or offended by any of it. If anything, I chuckled more at it for the sheer absurdity of it all. To say that Highschool of the Dead's fanservice was not a detriment or a distraction is a testament about the quality and true focus of the show. Who'd have thunk that Madhouse even had any of that stuff in them, in the first place?

If you only knew the craziness that follows…

As good as the series is, would not have been as memorable or enjoyable, perhaps, if it were not for its central cast of characters. High-schoolers they may be, they all strong characters in their own right that bring something to the table. That goes for the girls as well, who, despite their curvaceousness, aren't the weak type that need to be bailed out by the males at every turn (like in some shounen title) and are capable of defending themselves (and sometimes bailing out the boys, too). Rei is skilled with her makeshift spear, Saeko is a force of nature--and perhaps the most dangerous in the group--with her wooden sword, and Saya, while not a fighter, knows how to use her smarts and tries help out in the fighting when necessary. Even ditsy nurse Shizuka, arguably the weakest link, proves her worth as the group's driver. And even while Takashi shows a great amount of courage and leadership qualities, and though Kota puts his gun-nut skills to considerable work, none of them are perfect, and occasionally makes a dangerous decision or are struggling with their own personal crisis.

That being said, they are all likable in their own way and are excellently played by their respective seiyuu. Like the show itself, they can be easy to fit into archetypes, but as it goes on, you see that there is more beneath their surfaces as they fight, strategize, and adapt their way though each dire situation. They are a dynamic and resourceful bunch, so seeing their development and maturation throughout and the relationships forged within the group is one of the series biggest strengths and a worthwhile watch, alone. Whether it is Takashi and Kota going over their stash of guns, Saya wanting to learn how to defend herself, Rei coming to terms with her feelings, or two characters unexpectedly coming together, it all fits together well and plays out in a realistic manner, even if most of HOTD takes place in the span of two or so weeks. The staff allows events and situations to play out as they happen and let the characters act accordingly. Perhaps in a less zombie-filled life, Takashi and Kota wouldn't have ever been brother-in-arms, much less befriend one another, nor would certain characters say or do some of the things they do, but given everything, it's totally possible in their current world.

Giving Highschool of the Dead the kind of credence to back up its end-of-the-world setting is the sumptuous and vibrantly-colored animation work by Madhouse, who give it the same kind of attention they give the story. Keeping in line with previous efforts, the anime hews very closely to the manga's already-gorgeous artwork (though the zombie gore isn't as explicit as in the original). The cityscape is convincingly rendered and detailed, which should come as no surprise with venerable background art studio Kusanagi behind it--but even by their standards, this ranks as one of their best jobs. In most apocalyptic settings, everything is awash in monochrome, but here, everything retains a sense of beauty and colorfulness, more reflective of not only a sense of realism, but also a world still just freshly thrown into chaos (as opposed to one following years of decay). The added grime and blood splatters look great and give the scenery more character, and the lighting--an important element in setting-dependent stories--is superb. Similarly well-animated are the characters themselves: sharp, attractive, curvaceous (for the females, though the busts can be a bit much) and consistently on-model. Just well-designed and varied, period.

On the other side of the beauty scale are "Them", the generalized term attributed to the zombies by Takashi and the others. Though they hew close to the traditional appearance of the undead, they look more like haggard, diseased people than walking corpses. This makes sense considering the catalyst for it moves like a flu bug and you just have to be bitten once to start showing the symptoms. While they have an impressive and nasty look to them, what really sells the image are the breathless gasping and hissing sounds they make, which come off better than the usual moaning you would hear from a zombie.

It is just one part of a stellar sound production that makes exceptional use of every aspect of the environment to enhance the experience. Takafumi Wada's score, his second after 2009's Rideback, is similar to that particular series, where it may not necessarily "stand out" like a Yoko Kanno or Yuki Kajiura piece, but is still effective and enjoyable enough in backing the atmosphere of a scene with the right mood. The titular OP is a great rock piece that also helps sets the mood for the show and gets you right in it, while the different EDs for each episode (all sung by newcomer Maon Kurosaki, accompanied by a different pastiche of photographs), reflect their theme or particular character at-focus with appropriate lyrics that are (thankfully) well-written, and not hokey or heavy-handed with symbolism.

Madhouse has a well-earned reputation for making high-quality anime across many genres, styles, and subject matter, but the prospect of them doing a show centered around a zombie invasion with mounds of fanservice, sounded like a stretch, even with a strong, if not equally unlikely, staff behind it. However, the studio would not have done so if it didn't know what it was doing and their intent to make Highschool of the Dead another quality show of theirs, and have some fun along the way, was evident ever since the trailer for the show came out. Sure enough, by the end of the first episode, that seemed all the more apparent, and with each passing episode, the series continued to stay solid and surpass expectations.

In a number of ways, Highschool of the Dead is similar to Madhouse's Gungrave anime from the mid-2000s. As a video-game adaptation centered around a mafia story with, ironically, zombie elements, it automatically seemed doomed to failure, but instead, became one of the best anime of the decade with its strong story and characters (which, too, was written by Yousuke Kuroda). While HOTD is more straightforward and simple, it is told very well within its confines and does quite well in showing its characters' growth and development. Though the subject matter may breed skepticism, especially with some of the kinky shenanigans involved, HOTD has far more going for it than that. The staff delivers and bring out everything they can from its zombie-survival trappings, from the inherent tribulations to the ambiance of it all. As such, it succeeds on so many levels while being also fun and intense to watch. Contributing to its enjoyment also is its affable cast of high school denizens just trying to stay alive and make sense of their new world, as well as the other interesting (living) characters that appear.

As a horror show, a survival drama, a fanservice-laden feast for the eyes, a compelling (and different, given its setting) character study/coming-of-age story, and a fine showpiece of animation and sound, Highschool of the Dead is that rare show with a great deal of promise from the outset of which it exceeds, chiefly by being itself and making the most of it, with very few flaws along the way. Surprisingly good as one of the best anime of 2010, its execution just might be scarier than any walking dead…

EDIT [01/31/11]: As of this writing, HOTD is now freely available in its entirety to all viewers online, after being predominately a Premium title for Anime Network site subscribers since it debuted late last summer. As such, I have changed the video info accordingly and added Hulu's link, as well. Last month's free/low-cost anime pick, which showcased this title, also makes note of this.

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