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 transcends 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 and interchangeable for fear itself.
While we still live, we can love the undead as something which makes death unreal, and can be decapitated by shovel or by bullet. For a time, we can pretend that death could 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 gaping wounds 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 into 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 working around her delusions, and trying to accept the rules of a new, more vulnerable way of life. Yuki is the representation of this coming to terms, learning that she can’t get through by pretending the rest of her life away. And yet, it is her make-believe which carries her friends through when reality and its grief is too hard to accept.
This moe ‘n’ zombies aesthetic reflects the clash of the immature and advanced in Japan’s current society. The grief post-World War II that left Japan’s 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. 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 when under threat of contamination.
The Korean zombie flick Train to Busan establishes itself as a story of separation from self-centred ideas of progress. Conflict between the defence of purity and seeking out material accomplishment is made metaphor in the stretched relationship between recently divorced father Seok-woo and his young daughter Soo-an. Their journey to be reunited with Soo-an’s mother – coincidentally on the same day a chemical leak spreads what’s reported as mass derangement – incites humanity’s will to survive as a species through selfless heroism. But in placing a young girl in danger of a horde of literal predators (the groping of young women and girls in crowds in Korea as dire an issue as groping on trains in Japan), the film is drawing attention to sullied purity in context with another universal horror staple – the sexuality of survival.
Certain anime, like Tokyo Ghoul, Zombie Loan and Sankarea: Undying Love, make a fetish of this instinct, entwining sex and death on the most reactive level. Even after death, we will still go on loving someone. Sankarea sparks a romance, then kills the eponymous heroine, giving Chihiro Furuya a choice – to let Rea Sanka slip into a natural death, or revive her with the same method he discovered for his undead cat, Babu. Really, there is no choice. He resurrects her because he can accept and even lust after her as a zombie, his kink coming to an unprecedented practicality, a next-level necrophilia.
Just like that, the cycle of life comes full circle. In setting out to save purity from defilement, anime lets sparks fly from the conflicts of sex, death and innocence with the unique perversion that comes from cultural trauma. It was only the turn of the millennium that spawned Japan’s own zombie obsession with the first video games dubbed ‘survival horror’, Resident Evil. But ever since they spawned from George A. Romero’s criticism of “real-world social ills” in Night of the Living Dead, Japan has continued to nurture its own unease, with industrial progress and the exploitation of innocence, through the anime zombie.