And so I finally get off my duff after some expected reminiscing, and whatnot to take a look at what some consider to be two of the summer season’s most promising shows. Say what I will about the current state of the industry, it at least feels like someone’s finally taking steps. That said, it is as if these steps are none too different from last seasons, or the one before it, albeit with a slightly more fierce cadence than usual. It is pretty known here, as well as on other writings elsewhere that I’m a pretty large fan of the horror genre. Growing up large with Lovecraft, King, & Poe was a massive part of growing up literate for me while the visual was defined by names like Romero, Carpenter, Cronenberg, Hooper & Fulci. So upon noticing that these two well-spoken-of shows embraced elements of western horror, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. (The ex-darkling in me has been ready for a horror-anime fix for quite some time.) Result-wise, I would say that the shows so far give off mixed signals that may be more economic than qualitatively bankrupt.
First on the roster is A-1’s supernatural series, Occult Academy that pits a petulant teen against the forces residing within the mysterious private school her recently deceased father curated as principal. Right away, the initial episode tinkers with multiple expectations to deliver a hint of fun to come. Not content with spelling out just how many fringe, occult, supernatural concepts will be toyed with, the initial episode is riddled with in-gags aimed at the cinephiles out there. (Notice the transporter right out of Cronenberg’s The Fly, The tower from Lang’s Metropolis, the nod to Evil Dead 2, as well as other benign references laced all over.) Introducing the story in the year, 1999 is a novel touch that readily hints at even time travel is a pretty cool way to keep us viewers off balance in what to expect,which is always a plus.
Regarding the central lead in Maya Kumashiro, she’s deceptively interesting as the scripting hints at a very intimate arc in the making. Being reunited with her estranged father after his death, the series seems to be playing up the gaps in their relationship as she continues to investigate the campus in the name of undoing the bad in their mutual pasts. This mixed with a labyrinthian campus, harboring some clearly nasty secrets is a pretty good setup for a character such as she. (even if I kept saying to myself, “if you’re going to run around a castle-like structure from monsters, please -TAKE OFF THE SHOES!) Even if the supporting cast seems to take a big backseat to her, it’s likely going to need balancing out as the series introduces her partner & comedic foil in time-leaping Uchida. The esoterics of the world,and the at-times kooky, yet tasteful humor make for an interesting high-wire act rare in series of this ilk. And Takahiro Chiba’s unique character designs only add more flavor to an already beguiling mix of character study & genre comedy. (also worthy of amusement is hearing bishounen seiyuu legend, Takehito Koyasu as the portly dowser, JK!)
And then came the zombies….
Okay, before sharing some thoughts on Madhouse’s High School Of The Dead, some primer words.
I’ve grown up a bit of a zombie fanatic. Few horror icons are as applicable as the zombie. In many ways, George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead is a penultimate blueprint for the apocalyptic drama. And in the earliest incarnations were a bleak & brilliant means of summoning the best and worst of human nature when placed in a pressure cooker. And when his sequel, Dawn Of The Dead shocked the world with its expanded vision of a thoughtless, self-consuming society finding solace in consumerism, the zombie movie was no longer just a brilliant metaphor, it became a license to print money and spawn a generation of mash-ups and imitators. Whether it was Fulci’s brutal Zombie series, the “zombies with guns(!!)” saga that is Nightmare City, the genie was out of the bottle. And it wasn’t until Dan O’ Bannon put a wily spin on matters with his Return Of The Living Dead that the trope had found irony and was quelled for several years as the stuff of comedy, and sent packing back into its well deserving grave. (see Peter Jackson’s Braindead for more proof)
That was until Danny Boyle’s contagion nightmare, 28 Days Later & Edgar Wright’s ingenious Shaun Of The Dead that the zombie genre experienced a sudden explosion to heights never before experienced by horror film in possibly a generation. It was even instrumental in bringing Mr. Romero back into the undead fray with new (yet terminally weaker) installments to his Dead saga. The advent of evolving, and even at times “running” zombies had ravaged the cinemas, inspired books, and slews of online activity unlike anything I had ever witnessed. So it felt like a (……..won’t say it)…natural thing for the flesh/brain eating masses to invade the anime world. Also funnier still, are my memories of a company president, and his love of american zombie flicks. This love leading to the creation of an internally made manga featuring the entire crew within the all-too-familiar confines of a zombeh holocaust.(* the archives of this little seen comic has since been lost in time, but is said to exist in places not the internet. If I could find it, it would most definitely be shared) But his love of Romero-isms (confined to an enclosed space with strangers, and low on ammunition as hordes of the creatures amass outside like oceans of motorized flesh & bone) was the stuff of office legend, which makes the release of both the manga and now anime release of Highschool Of The Dead that much more amusing to me. (“ahhh…they finally heard his prayers?”)
And so why is the show no-more than a middling parody/graftfest of anime cliches & stereotypes? The problems that follow this are of a more obvious nature when considering that the illustrated world has already experienced perhaps the pitch-perfect incarnation in ‘Kirkman & Moore’s long-running masterpiece The Walking Dead. Then again, perhaps this is why the producers here have decided on eschewing the seriousness of the genre, and goes full-bore with instant gratification at nearly every turn. From stock characters(including ditzy dead-weight ones that would sooner get you gored in minutes flat), to awkwardly staged fan service galore with the female characters, the show makes no bones about its trashy intentions. Coming from famed scribe, Yosuke Kuroda, one would expect more from a show taking on such a beloved staple of horror geekdom, but alas the exercise’s issues feel more desperately economic than a matter of being a straight-up misfire.
And yet, it is still a watchable show, in that oh-so base pleasure sort of manner in line with so many other shows of the last decade. But a part of me still mulls in the could-have-beens, like a post-Battle Royale work, where modern Japan is faced with the best representation of it’s own self-destructive nature. Now that would have been incredible. But instead, we have a zombie army invading yet another post KOR universe variation of high school crushes, and staid types(complete with well-endowed school doctor with all the grey matter of a gnat.)And the references keep coming as we even experience the already old “noble friend must kill infected buddy before he becomes one” trope, and even a song on the soundtrack resembles John Murphy’s classic track, In The House, In A Heartbeat.
But even then, the series feels as if it wants to function as a horror piece as well as a parody of tired anime tropes. Regardless, the show thus far works less than it should in this regard. So far, it has all the feel of a post-Romero gore fest, but lacks the visceral punch necessary to make it flow, nor does it have a clear agenda as to what the zombies represent this time out. At least in the west and in the 2000’s, it made a certain arcane sense before it just became another means of making green off of ravenous fanchildren. For all we know, in HOTD,… it’s representing the endless hordes of otaku, incapable of consuming anything new or inventive. Busting down doors for new renditions of exactly the same song.
Perhaps the otaku apocalypse is finally at hand? I hope so.