Before I begin this review proper, a word of warning: it’s impossible to talk in any depth about anime series School-Live! without spoiling some of its surprises. Thus, I’ll simply say that if you’re a fan of genre-bending anime that are both cutesy and tragic, funny and sad – then go check out School-Live! unspoiled.
Still with me?
I somehow managed to watch School-Live! without any knowledge of what it really was. I paid little attention to Madman’s Blu-ray packaging, just stuck the disc in my player and started watching. What I assumed I was watching was a light comedic high school comedy, and that illusion was reinforced by the opening episode as Yuki Takeya (Inori Minase/Brittney Karbowski) dashed past friends and schoolmates trying to chase down her adorable puppy, Tarōmaru. While this isn’t a genre I’m especially familiar with, I was a big fan of Azumanga Daioh, and happily settled in for something similarly breezy.
Then came the zombies.
Turns out School-Live! is actually a mashup of Azumanga Daioh and The Walking Dead, with the show quickly revealing that Yuki’s colourful school is a delusion she’s created to cope with the terrifying circumstances she finds herself in. There are only five survivors – students Yuki, Kurumi (Ari Ozawa/Juliet Simmons), Yūri Wakasa (M.A.O/Luci Christian), Miki Naoki (Rie Takahashi/Cynthia Martinez) and their teacher Megumi Sakura (Ai Kayano/Stephanie Wittels) – barricade into what remains of their self-sufficient school, now encircled by mindless ghouls.
Once you’re aware of the twist, it’d be easy to dismiss this series as offering little beyond a spin on a pair of overworn sub-genres. It’d also be incorrect.
Now, I’ll concede that School-Live! doesn’t offer comedy on par with Daioh. And if you’ve seen more than a couple of zombie films, the zombie apocalypse side of things won’t offer up anything new. (There’s even an extended homage to Dawn of the Dead in a flashback set entirely within an undead-infested mall.) But it’s the contrast between the two genres that – for me at least – transformed the series into something more affecting than any zombie apocalypse story I’ve seen.
By surrounding the cutesy high school comedy with the threat of imminent death, School-Live! clarifies the nostalgic transience of the sub-genre into a kind of tragic fragility. The setting acts as an ever-present reminder that the freedom of those years – while invariably painted with an rosy-coloured hue – is temporary, doomed to be eroded by the onset of time and responsibilities and, yes, death.
More poignantly, by trading the exaggerated grimness of typical zombie apocalypse settings (yes, I’m looking at you, The Walking Dead) for something lighter, the series makes its moments of hopelessness and loss so much more devastating. The Walking Dead operates with a pessimistic fatalism, suggesting any attitude but militancy is doomed to failure. School-Live! instead celebrates softness and sympathy, even while acknowledging that those attitudes might have dire consequences.
School-Live! is nothing revolutionary, but in its genre tinkering it finds something as memorable as its strongest inspirations. A strong recommendation from me, even if I may have spoiled some of its surprises.
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