A crossover series that didn’t quite make it.
The summer anime season always seems to have some of the hottest shows for obvious reasons. The summer of 2010 was no exception as Highschool of the Dead arrived with its twelve-episode run based on the manga of the same name. The anime boasted some solid talent with Madhouse handling the animation to a gorgeous level, Yosuke Kuroda working on the scripts and Testuro Araki directing it. Kuroda’s worked on a lot of things I’ve liked from Battle Athletes/Victory to Hellsing Ultimate along with properties like Valkyrie Drive and Gungrave. Araki’s work on properties like Kabaneri and Attack on Titan have him pretty highly regarded and you can see his eye for framing things wonderfully here in much the same way you see in those two prior titles of his.
The manga for this, licensed by Yen Press, comes from writer Daisuke Sato with artwork by Shoji Sato. The pair began this back in 2006 in Monthly Dragon Age but it wrapped up in 2013 with seven volumes. There was intent on going back to do more but Daisuke Sato passed away in 2017 and the property wasn’t going to be restarted without him, which is one understands completely but you can still feel how unfortunate it is. The two clicked perfectly in creating what they did here and the anime adaptation really took it to a whole other level in a way that, quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve seen in the past decade with any other series. Highschool of the Dead really feels like a unique moment in time for me.
The core idea of the series is simple and we’ve plainly seen it before over the decades. We’re introduced to a group of kids at a high school where they’re going through a normal day where the sun is bright, the sky is blue and the cherry blossoms are starting to fall. Within it, there are some strains that you can sense right from the starts as Takashi, a good looking kid who is a bit on the outside because of his attitude, is having issues with his longtime childhood friend of Rei who continues to have feelings for Hisashi since he’s the kind of guy who listens, whereas Takashi just complains. They’re three friends who have a tough situation to deal with, but it pales before what happens just outside the gate. In the smallest of ways, the infection that has just started to hit the country makes its way through when a teacher is bitten by someone just bumping against the gate. It doesn’t take long for the small incident to turn into a violent episode that Takashi sees from up on high.
Where the series breaks tradition is that Takashi gets a clue right away and just bolts to get Rei and Hisashi so they can make their getaway. The outbreak spreads quickly and we see the various core characters in their now ending normal lives. Saeko is the classic style young woman who trains in the sword in the school dojo and has an old school feel about her. Takagi is the bright and domineering young woman who does what she can to survive, which is why she taps the military otaku Hirano to work with her in getting out of there alive. The school succumbs quickly to the madness and the students all eventually meet up along with the school nurse – an overly buxom and slightly ditzy woman named Shizuka. These opening moments, which largely covers the first episode, clues us into the basics of how the dead operate and shows us that these kids are paying attention.
While they do actually do stupid things along the way, the lead characters manage to avoid the standard traps and bad choices that raise tension and ratchet up the anxiety. Here, they grab weapons quickly, they group together, and they keep on the move and they do what’s necessary when they realize exactly what they’re up against. All of this helps to eliminate the main problem that so many zombie shows have in that you have to believe that all of these normal people have never heard of the zombie concept before and are totally shocked by it. While the shock of the reality of it would certainly cause people to stumble, you have so many shows where they act as they’ve never heard of the idea before. And they do stupid things like not grabbing weapons, making too much noise and trying to save those that can’t be saved.
While the show is named Highschool of the Dead, little of it takes place in the school as that’s just the launching point. Once they get outside of the school, they get to see that the city is falling prey to all of this and they grasp that life is not the same. With adults proving just as dangerous as the dead, the kids work together to try and figure out how to get to various homes so they can check on their parents. This provides plenty of challenges as they have to deal with the way law enforcement is trying to maintain order, as regular citizens hole up and isolate themselves from everyone else and some decide that this is the perfect time for a new world order so they can create a new cult. What becomes fascinating to watch is the way the kids themselves accept this new reality so quickly, not without qualms and internal angst over what they have to do, and just get down to the business of making sure they survive. Everything goes to hell so quickly that they’re forced into this acceptance and it shows a lot about their state of mind that they can adapt to it. When you see so many people chewed up and killed by adhering to the old rules, finding out ways to survive while still being true to yourself becomes paramount. But survival is still at the top.
While the story is a whole lot of fun and I adore all the characters, a large part of it is because of the gorgeous animation and designs from Madhouse that still dazzles and delights me a decade later. It feels just as fresh and engaging as the first time I saw it as the show gives us a lush real-world set design and populates it with great-looking characters that are a touch more angular than usual. It also helps that, weird as it sounds, they end up changing clothes a few times as they cope with the changing situation and that’s a small but important detail for me. It’s filled with a lot of detail when it comes to the death and destruction, the gear and the weapons, as well as the way the characters interact with the world at large. It has a lot of fluid animation to it and it covers numerous locales to good effect, giving us a fairly well-realized world in which the story gets to play. Even when watching the simulcast, I was really impressed with the design of it all. In this format on a big screen TV, it’s simply gorgeous.
Particularly all the fanservice. I love the fanservice here. Hell, it’s not even fanservice. It’s exploitation of the best form. Lots of panty shots flip by as the camera runs around, as characters panic and freak out over the situation they’re in. With death constantly around them, there’s a time when the cast works through the first night of the outbreak holed up in an apartment and they take some showers and get a little lightheaded, which has the girls feeling safe and wearing practically nothing. There’s plenty of overt sexuality here. And when you put a group of teenagers, hormones already in effect, and put them in a world-ending situation, they’re going to get very sexual. Nobody actually does the dead, but I loved how they used the sexuality of it all to work the show because it feels like natural responses to things. It provided the life-affirming side to a world of death that’s at hand.
With a few re-releases over the years, I’ve seen this show many times and a few times simply because I wanted to immerse myself in it. I’m not a huge zombie fan but I’ve enjoyed a lot of different works on it over the years through film and TV, animated and live-action. This series, every single time I see it, just works nearly flawlessly for me. It delivers all the things I want from it and it doesn’t feel like it’s aged at all. In some ways, it felt both ahead of its time in 2010 when it came out but also not of its time and has stepped outside of things. There is, sadly, the tragic aspect of its original writer-creator and that there isn’t more coming in some form. But this to me, years later, still feels like one of those truly rare magic in a bottle moments that was captured perfectly. And nothing has really managed to engage in the same way, working in the same kind of focused and self-aware way, since that I’ve seen. Highschool of the Dead holds up incredibly well and remains one of my all-time favorite series that I can rewatch with ease.