Highschool of the Dead. A 2010 zombie anime from the then-director of Death Note and future-director of Attack on Titan, best known for its, well…
... yeah. This was one of the latest series I came across, in my never ending journey to check out what’s popular just for the simple sake of it. It’s rare that an anime with a lot of fanservice is ever really for me, but I figured if Highschool of the Dead was over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek enough, along the lines of something like Prison School, then sure, I’m always game for some silly fun. As for its success… it’s complicated.
As always, this article is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my articles are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
For starters, to be sure, Highschool of the Dead is well-made — it looks pretty good — which is important for an action series. The fight scenes are filled with fluid, weighty animation, and they stay at a remarkably high level of quality from start to finish. Practically every episode has some sort of standout action sequence, be it a melee brawl or slo-mo shootout, often paired with a surprisingly active camera. The color design makes great use of deep shadows and stark whites to embed a sense of dread and uncertainty in the viewer, alongside some truly visceral physical impacts, packaged with copious amounts of blood and gore. The framing can take great pains to communicate the horror or despair of the characters, stranding our cast in long hallways, dwarfed in wide empty expenses or cornered by seemingly unrelenting darkness. Episode titles are integrated with at least some degree of creativity, every single one placed into the actual environment, rather than overlaid on the screen as a generic card. Even the transitions try to be unique, a la a scene in Episode 2, where a character sprays a firehose around the roof, and the camera follows the water draining off the side to visit other characters on a lower level.
In just about every respect, Highschool of the Dead is visually an anime that had clear effort put into it. It’s not always perfect — there’s some ugly 3D, suspiciously long recap segments, and a certain annoying reliance on freeze frames (very similar to what we would later see in Titan) — but by and large, I cannot disagree that the show looks good. However — that makes no statement on the quality of the material that these visuals are presenting (heh, it’s like Nagi no Asukara all over again). And if you’ve read the title of the article… you probably have a decent idea of where I’m going with this.
To be fair, Highschool of the Dead is an eminently watchable show, combining a lot of simple ingredients for an easy, propulsive viewing experience. The characters are simplistic, but also take-charge and surprisingly rational, as much as can be expected given their situation. Rarely is drama borne out of contrived outbursts, or deranged misunderstandings, but believable enough conundrums that would arise out of a sudden zombie apocalypse. Aside from the ditzy, infantile teacher (which is an archetype I just can’t stand), everyone’s entertaining enough, either as action badasses or well-tuned comic relief, and likable enough as a group. The story also moves with purpose, in short order taking us away from the narrow confines of the high school setting to explore the more interesting and much broader surrounding city.
But the heart of the issue (or my issue) with Highschool of the Dead is the incongruous duality between its grotesque zombie drama and its campy boob-filled fun. The series clearly wants to be enjoyed as silly action schlock. The opening is a colorful, poppy sequence, any villains will be obvious and heinously over-the-top, and the show takes every possible opportunity to shove fanservice in your face, the slightest motions sending boobs jiggling like massive water balloons. That’s all perfectly fine, and can be taken in good fun, especially when amped up to such clearly ridiculous degrees as the infamous boob Matrix scene. But to me, it feels almost as if half the show got that fun message and the other didn’t, the two halves constantly clashing and only really settling into a coherent rhythm when it’s nearly too late to matter.
This would be easiest to explain by simply walking through certain sections of the opening episode. There’s no other way to describe this first episode than “tonally deaf”. After a brief intro in media res, we cut back to a normal high school life, moments before an apparent zombie outbreak will severely fuck things up. (This is a small detail, but I actually do like seeing the zombie outbreak happen firsthand. For my taste, too many times in zombie fiction we’re just thrown straight into a world mid- or post-outbreak.) Anyway, this outbreak happens, and immediately raises some eyebrows. The first female victim’s top is torn off just before she’s mutilated by zombies, setting a precedent for the rest of the episode that juxtaposes heavy fanservice against brutal, even excessively brutal, violence. I would never know how to feel about any given scene, because at best, you’ll get some mixed messages, like a panty shot as a girl goes to rescue her literally screaming, bleeding, dying boyfriend. At worst, it feels actually repulsive. There’s this shot of a teenage girl reaching out to her best friend, with tears in her eyes, her upper body torn apart by zombies and her lower body — panties. This single, unbroken shot is a perfect symbol of the show’s problems. How can I enjoy the gore with the fanservice, or the fanservice with the gore? And in literally the next scene a shell shocked teacher commits suicide. Boy, this is a laugh a minute.
I can imagine what people will say, that this is supposed to be fun, I shouldn’t take it so seriously, and violence can be fun, usually if it’s so cartoony that it feels unreal, but Highschool of the Dead adorns itself in such grotesque and horrific violence, that the fun factor is completely lost on me. That first episode ends on a legitimately chilling death, as the main character’s best friend, bitten by a zombie, repeatedly coughs up blood, convulsing madly, begging to be put down before he becomes one of them — and then, he is. If it wants to be a campy action show, why is it shooting itself in the foot by making the threat feel so real?
Bafflingly, there are stretches later in the series which are fun, scenes that should have set the tone for the entire show and would have allowed both the camp and violence to peacefully coexist. My favorite comes near the end of Episode 7, when our cast is trapped in a house surrounded by zombies. As they make their escape, the image of a samurai girl clad in naught but an apron, standing atop a Humvee mowing down swarms of zombies as a rock song blasts in the background is so silly and absurd that you can’t help but crack a grin. The entire show should have been like this: stupid and fun. They didn’t have to make the “zombie apocalypse” angle so cripplingly serious — it makes the juxtaposition too sharp, to have this over-the-top action scene only minutes after an innocent little girl watches her dad literally get stabbed and bleed out in front of her eyes.
It just seems incompatible to me. The constant tits and ass undercut any serious attempt at horror or drama, which is fine, but then every time I tried to engage with the show on that level, as pure schlock, it would throw in these moments of such concentrated and graphic suffering that kill the buzz. There’s not enough gleeful violence here, like Baccano or Kill la Kill. Highschool of the Dead often feels just hurtful, misguided and mean spirited.
However, I must admit that (as I briefly implied earlier) it does get better in the second half, perhaps because the author eventually nailed down a consistent tone. Particularly the entire last two or three episodes give me very little to complain about, in terms of entertaining action material. It cuts back just enough on the fanservice to avoid feeling overbearing, refocuses on the simple likability of the characters’ relationships, and even refuses to take some obvious twists that would have been pretty unsatisfying, i.e. the stoic dad character turns out to be an understanding badass rather than a narrow-minded antagonist.
So… yeah. That’s the gist of it. The show looks nice, but I couldn’t get a handle on how to mentally approach it. I do have my other issues, like certain character arcs abruptly fizzling out (or fizzling in), but it’s not as if you could seriously expect a show like this to be super well-written. All Highschool of the Dead needed for success was to keep me entertained — and I will say it kept me interested, disgusted at times, but entertained? Egh, not frequently enough.
You may not have this problem. There is a certain sect of people out there that feel Highschool of the Dead is a great time, and I will not begrudge them for that. I can certainly appreciate the dedication to just how much fucking fanservice it crams in. I just — I can’t find its brand of action-drama “fun”. I’d much rather watch something either more serious, or more overtly cartoony, not this weird in-between.