Highschool of the Dead (Gakuen Mokushiroku in Japan) is the horror-ecchi 12-episode anime series which had a simultaneous premiere and series airing in both Japan and the United States in the summer of 2010 has finally been released as a DVD/Blu-Ray set. I was able enough to watch the series as it aired during it’s initial summer 2010 run. I was able to watch 11 of the 12 eisodes aired and wrote up “first impressions” of each episode right after they aired. With the 12th episode still unwatched I held off doing a proper review of the whole series. Now that the series has been released on home video that has changed.
The anime was adapted from the original manga (still ongoing though on hiatus at the moment) from Sato Daisuke and Sato Shouji who wrote and drew the series for Monthly Dragon Age. This was a manga that gained popularity outside Japan through fan scanlations of the original Japanese issues. So, it was with great anticipation when Sentai Filmworks and Yen Press announced at anime conventions of 2010 that the series will be making its way to the US in its manga and anime format.
Highschool of the Dead has quite a simple story. It’s pretty much a survival horror tale of a small group of Japanese high school students trying to survive the sudden arrival of a zombie apocalypse. The zombies themselves don’t get too much of an explanation as to how they came to be only that one day the outbreak began all over the world. We see this through brief scenes when the core group of characters stop to try and get some news of the crisis at hand. It’s during the first two episodes that we meet the members of this group. There’s the group’s reluctant leader in highschool student Komuro Takashi who also happens to be in love with another group member, Miyamoto Rei, and best friends since kindergarten with another, Takagi Saya. Into this mix comes in the highly confident and supremely calm Busujima Saeko whose mysterious nature soon becomes clear later on in the series as a certain darkness in her nature becomes known which adds a layer of complexity to the character. It is no wonder that the Saeko role has become such a major favorite of the male fans of the series, but also of women fans. One cannot go into any anime convention in 2011 and not see dozens of females cosplaying as Busujima Saeko.
The group is rounded out by the military-obsessed otaku, Hirano Kohta, who seems to worship Saya despite her belittling attitude towards him. Also, rounding out the group is the only adult along with the teenagers, Marikawa Shizuka who was the school nurse at the school the group escapes from when the zombie outbreak reaches it’s height. Along the way the group picks up young Marisato Arisu, the 7-year old whose father gets killed in an attempt to save her young daughter from the zombies. The series even has a cute puppy in the form of Zeke who becomes quite attached to young Arisu and becomes the de facto mascot of the group who senses the arrival of zombies and barks out his warnings to the group.
To say that Highschool of the Dead is not your typical zombie apocalypse tale would be too simplistic. There’s enough of the usual zombie story conventions to make the series familiar to fans of the genre, but enough tweaks were added to the story that at times it does feel fresh to American eyes. For one thing with the series being set in Japan there’s certain Japanese cultural themes which may sound out of left-field to it’s Western audiences. There’s the concept of a land where violent crime is so low that it’s police force don’t come equipped with the necessary force to deal with the zombie outbreak which in turn just helps fan it hotter to the point that things quickly spiral out of their control and chaos becomes the norm in a society steeped in order. There’s also the use of fanservice in the series which may surprise new fans of the anime format who have been introduced to it by way of this series.
Highschool of the Dead has an inordinate amount of fanservice and this means most of the females in the series were drawn to be quite busty and beautiful. It also means that there’s huge amounts of scenes where the animators go out of their way to include panty, stocking and bra shots into a scene even when at times it boggles one’s mind why it was there in the first place. Some anime fans have complained about this and how it has ruined the series for them, but as a fan of the original manga I knew going in what the series will include so the fanservice didn’t bother me. The fact that the original creators of the series having done hentai-manga before this series should’ve given the more knowledgable anime fans a clue as to what they’d be seeing in the series. One such scene of the series’ use of fanservice which has become quite infamous (or famous depending on one’s thoughts about the subject matter) would be dubbed the “Matrix Boobs” by fans.
The series does explore some serious themes about human nature and their moral codes in the face of the zombie apocalypse and the possible extinction of one’s race. Like most good zombie stories the series tackles the concept of the human’s themselves becoming the bigger danger to each other than the encroaching zombie horde knocking on their door. We seen through the series how the teenage group of survivors have adjusted better to the apocalyptic event better than the very adults who are suppose to protect them. In fact, it’s some of those adults who seem to hide their heads in the sand or take advantage of the situation for their own benefit. I found it ironic that the only adults who actually fare well would be the right-wing extremist and his retainers who impose the necessary rules to keep everyone safe, but also try to rescue as much people as possible when the government (both local and national) have failed to do what’s needed and right to restore order.
As I mentioned earlier the manga is still ongoing with 27 chapters (or Acts as they’re called in the manga and in the anime), but with the series only at 12-episodes there’s much about Highschool of the Dead which get left up in the air once the 12th episode airs. The series also leapfrogs certain chapters from the manga to keep the series moving forward instead of being bogged down. The anime also borrows certain scenes later on in the manga and uses them instead to help create backstory for some of the characters in the show. No one knows is this 12-episode will be it for Highschool of the Dead or will a second season be in the future depending on sales of the DVD and Blu-Ray sets. I’m hoping for the latter since the manga definitely gets real serious about the story and tones down some of the fanservice in later chapters. It’d be a shame if Highschool of the Dead ends with just these 12-episodes.
The Blu-Ray set for Highschool of the Dead has been released in the US through Sentai Filmworks which acquired the licensing rights for US home video distribution in 2010 (US manga distributer Yen Press releases the manga volumes). Like most anime Blu-Ray releases, Highschool of the Dead is pretty much barebones when it comes to supplemental content. The set comes in a two-disc set with all 12 episodes split between two discs. Disc 1 contains episodes 1 thru 8 while Disc two has episodes 9 thru 12 and the cleaned up versions of the show’s intro and end credit sequence.
There’s not much to the disc in terms of language content. Sentai Filmworks really keeps things basic as it just includes two languages to the series set. There’s the original Japanese language cast which (to my disappointment) has been mixed in just regular Stereo 2.0 while the English Dub option has been given the much more heftier 5.1 surround sound mix. I understand the reasoning for this as the original Japanese distributor of the series wishes to keep the Japanese surround sound mix in the more expensive Japanese region Blu-Ray. It’s just one of the more assbackwards business reasonings between the Japanese distributors and it’s American distributing partner that frustrates anime fans in the US.
Despite these flaws in the Blu-Ray set there’s no denying that the series has made a near-perfect visual remastering. The series looks great in 1080p HD with little to no digital noise in the playback. Madhouse’s visual artwork comes in very clean and clear with even some of the more CGI-element in the animation blending in well with the more traditional handmade animation of the series. While the animation is not the best Madhouse has done in the past for a series that’s a weird mash of horror and ecchi themes the look of the series should please fans of both (though I will admit that the series really leans a lot more towards to fanservice side of things than outright horror).
In the end, Highschool of the Dead is a series that’s tailor-built for people whose experience with anime is very little to non-existent. The two themes of zombie horror and softcore, fanservice of ecchi should be the sort of things in an anime that should reel in those wondering what it is about this show that has so many people raving about it. It’s almost like a gateway drug of anime. It’s not the greatest anime or even the best one of the past year, but it definitely panders (which in this case is a good thing) to the grindhouse and exploitation denominator that’s in everyone whether they like to admit it or not. If there was ever a grindhouse anime series then Highschool of the Dead is it.
PS: The titles of each Act (chapters) is quite grindhouse.
Episode 01: Spring of the Dead
Episode 02: Escape from the Dead
Episode 03: Democracy Under the Dead
Episode 04: Running in the Dead
Episode 05: Streets of the Dead
Episode 06: In the Dead of the Night
Episode 07: Dead Night and the Dead Ruck
Episode 08: The Dead Way Home
Episode 09: The Sword and Dead
Episode 10: The Dead’s House Rules
Episode 11: Dead Storm Rising
Episode 12: All Deads Attack