Part 12 of my final impressions countdown. Only one more to go!
2. Gakkou Gurashi!/School Live!
(Edit – I actually wrote most of this post prior to watching the finale, so apologies if you notice a few hastily added sentences. I didn’t expect the story to become quite so heavy-handed in its themes, let alone turn into the ending of Angel Beats. Also, episode one spoilers)
From my experience, shows that rely on premise defining twists tend not to hold up favourably once the surprise fades away. Whether in the shock tactics of Ga-Rei Zero, or the singular gimmicks of Haruhi Suzumiya (well, the Endless Eight arc) and Dusk Maiden of Amnesia, you need to show there’s more to a story than a single one-off hook, otherwise people will lose interest .
That was my reaction to the opening episode of School Live. Don’t get me wrong, the foreshadowing to the reveal that Yuki’s happy high school antics were really delusions caused by her psychological breakdown over the zombie apocalypse was incredibly well executed, using a perfect blend of framing and ever-so-slightly off mannerisms, but I had huge doubts whether the momentum could be maintained. If it simply aimed to be a moe slice-of-life series, only occasionally making nods to the fact it was all a dark fabrication, then I probably wouldn’t have stuck around. Divorced from the larger picture, episode one’s content was mostly just silly antics and high-pitched voices.
Thankfully I was proved completely wrong on that front, with School Live managing to find a perfect balance between the Living Club members’ happy-go-lucky activities to maintain a measure of normalcy and joy in their lives, and trying to find resources to survive, with neither element overwhelming the other until the final dramatic arc. Even episode nine’s pool party focus was deliberately designed to be a breather event serving as the calm before the storm. I’ve seen horror anime like Higurashi try to follow the same approach, but failed because the lighter/comedic skits felt disconnected from the greater story & seemed in lieu of nothing; however, in School Live the two elements complement each other perfectly, with a brooding sense of dread following the girls during their school activities, while actual expeditions into infected areas are contextualised by club rules in order to keep Yuki in check. You can tell a great deal of thought was put into making these two seemingly disparate genres gel together.
There’s also a lot going for the show in terms of thematic reading. Yuki’s moe behaviour being the result of an inability to accept the painful reality of her situation shares some interesting parallels with some of the negative stereotypes surrounding that particular element of the fandom; i.e. hikikomori displaying signs of arrested development, etc. I latched on to the idea in my first impressions post, while being sceptical it wasn’t just unintentional commentary on the show’s part. There is evidence to support that however, with all of Yuki’s imaginary interactions with friendly classmates masking the reality that she was incredibly socially awkward and treated like a joke by many of them (it’s also telling how little convincing it takes for her not to leave the school and return to her family home). Her life sucked. That she has retreated to a fantasy reality where everyone is kind and happy, avoiding complex adult matters seems a fairly pointed gesture towards the popularity of light and breezy school-based series. The final episode tries to put a positive spin on this on this by making it look like she actually did have friends in her class, but that goes against what we’ve already been shown. I’m not sure whether it was case of anime original content, a retcon or Yuki refusing to give up the delusions towards certain aspects of her life (EDIT – according to manga readers it’s most likely the latter).
This reading seems to serve School Live’s greater theme of accepting the reality that we all need to grow up and move forward. Miki’s initial introduction has her hiding in a shopping mall, refusing to hope for anything better, only finally acknowledging that simply existing is no way to make your way through life once she is literally left behind by her best friend. The zombie apocalypse essentially serves as a metaphor for the girls’ upcoming graduation and the fear towards the unknown that emerges when life’s training wheels are taken off. Life outside of school can seem a terrifying prospect without any clear goals or drive, and the show’s overall message is that of learning to face the challenge head on. Aping Yuki’s response of turning away and pretending not to see will only prove a temporary answer. To stagnate in life is to basically become a living zombie. What I’m trying to say is that School Live basically represents the scene from the Utena movie where they literally drive through the collapsing castle of childhood and into the crumbling wasteland of puberty. You know, but with corpses instead of sports cars.
It’s really something of a shame the final episode decides to drop all subtlety with this point by making the girls undertake a literal graduation and reveal the two potentially safe locations suggested by their teacher as being a college and a corporation. It hardly ruins the point, but it’s needlessly on the nose.
Of course, personal affinity with the show will depend on how much you actually care for the characters, which might be its Achilles Heel to some, existing more as representations for certain fears and emotional hang-ups than actual people. It’s a bit like how Madoka’s cast represented world views only not quite as successful due to the greater emphasis on uneventful story beats. They can only be as in-depth as their universe allows them to be, and seeing as much of show takes place under an idyllic gag comedy conceit, the simplified nature of the inhabitants certainly reflect that. Besides, regardless of how much meaning you attach to Yuki’s character, it doesn’t stop her mannerisms coming off as incredibly obnoxious most of the time. It didn’t really bother me too much, being in service of a goal, but I can see why others might find the cast infuriating on occasions.
Overall though, this is easily my strongest entry of the season in terms of combining ideas with execution in addition to having a strong central narrative. The ending falters a little by hammering home the show’s message way too hard, not to mention all the Jun Maeda level melodrama. Still, don’t let the aesthetics put you off from what is an incredibly entertaining experience.