Zombies provide an outlet for that most mortal of fears and fascinations; death, and what comes after. It’s a universal thread that’s tugged by all cultures, linking all human thought. This gives the walking dead a power that transcend interpretive borders; for instance, between anime and the western viewer. Subtleties of language and cultural significance are bound to be lost in translation, but that gulf of the unknown, the ongoing argument over the ‘soul’, what it is and whether it survives without the body, is immortal, amorphous and interchangeable for fear itself. While we still live, we can love the undead as something that makes death unreal, something that can be decapitated by shovel or by bullet so, for a while, we can pretend that death can be stopped in its shambling tracks.
That integral drama in the familiar and beloved becoming monstrous means that undeath, in its most evocative readings, becomes about life. School-Live! put the emphasis on this drama in much the same way the AMC series The Walking Dead is celebrated for. In the onset of the apocalypse, there are palpable holes in the world the girls of the School Living Club loved being part of. For most of them the impact of this loss was only made real in hindsight, but Yuki adored her friends, her school and its teachers who helped her whenever she needed. She fills in those spaces with her imagination, patching her world with such deep desperation that it still feels real to her, building an emotional reality to an Armageddon occupied by the dead.
Perhaps what makes School-Live! most grounded in humanity is that the tension doesn’t reside in finding ways to escape, at least not in any physical sense. Instead, Yuki’s personal escape is balanced by her friends’ responsibility for holding some safe ground while working around her delusions, and trying to accept the rules of a new, more vulnerable way of life. Yuki is the metaphorical representation of this coming to terms, learning that she can’t get through by pretending the rest of her life away. Grief is a means of healing, making physical sense of suffering, and stopping that process is as soul-destroying as any zombie’s bite.
Much like the evolution of the anime vampire, the moe ‘n’ zombies aesthetic reflects the clash of the immature and advanced in Japanese society. The grief post-World War II that left Japan’s cultural identity fractured created the fear of a world forsaken, as in the series Sunday Without God. As Japan re-asserted itself as pacifist, this series adopts the Biblical roots of the undead, and light novel author Kimihito Irie mocks their nation’s naivete with the idea that, in one deciding day, heaven and hell ceased to exist, leaving humans unable to die. Putting a young girl at the heart of such stories, like Sunday Without God’s Ai, reflects a simultaneous sexualisation and nostalgic regard for her purity, especially in this anime’s reality, where humans are not only doomed to succumb to Half-Dead Fever, but can no longer procreate. This focus on such girls being the last of the innocents expresses a desire to protect that purity, as in School-Live!, when it’s under severe threat of contamination.