Otaku-tober: What is the Best Zombie Anime?

Hello otakus, and welcome to the Fullmetal Narcissist anime blog! I’m your host Naru, and I hope you’re enjoying my first annual Otaku-tober!

I decided at the beginning that if I were ever to start doing theme-based months, I’d fill each one with three reviews and one supplemental post. For the innaugural Studio Gainax Month, I gave you a rap battle. But for Otaku-tober, I’ve decided instead to give you something of a little more substance… A good old fashioned rambling!

Today’s topic… What’s the greatest zombie anime ever made?

Some of you may be thinking that the answer to that is obvious… It has to be Highschool of the Dead, right? It’s the most popular zombie anime ever made, and it’s a very hard series to not enjoy. I don’t want to get into a full review of this series, but from my perspective, it’s a really fun show. It may be stupid, incompetent, and entirely trashy, but it also has great animation, perfect pacing, and enough raw entertainment value to make even the most stubborn viewers turn off their brains for some good old fashioned head-chomping fun. Which is fine, because you have to turn your brain off to enjoy MOST zombie stories.

See, by real world logic, a zombie apocalypse could never actually happen… Cracked.com has published dozens of articles about this, with evidence ranging from wild animals to extreme weather. So yeah, in pretty much any zombie related story, you can’t enjoy it unless you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and accept that in this fictional universe, a zombie apocalypse IS possible… The dead can rise, they want to eat the living, and if you get bitten or scratched, you’ll become one of them upon your rapidly approaching death. And it works, because they follow a very tried-and-true formula that people have invested in for decades, even after the original social commentary faded from the medium.

So it should go without saying that when you try to update that formula, you have to be careful of what you’re doing. You don’t want to accidentally shatter the illusion that millions of projects have found success under. For example, look at what Stephanie Meyer did to the vampire illusion. She’s not the only writer to portray vampires that can walk in the daytime… In fact, my favorite two vampires, D and Evangeline, can do it… But she IS the only one who’s portrayed vampires that can sparkle in the sunlight. But it can also kill them. This is a contradiction so obvious that even the dumbest of readers gave it a well deserved WTF reaction.

The reason I bring this up is because HOTD tried to update the zombie illusion… It made what the writers probably perceived at the time to be a minor change, but when examined by a viewer who’s brain isn’t just a rolled up sock, it winds up opening what can only be described as a chain-reaction plot hole.

The change I’m referring to is the idea of the zombies being blind. Now, on paper, this makes perfect sense… After all, if you were a theoretical walking corpse, your eye sight would probably be the first and most rapid thing to deteriorate. Cracked has mentioned this before. Eyeballs are soft, and maggots are non-descriminating. But putting scientific accuracy to a zombie story can create problems, and if you’re making a change that major, you have to keep it in mind at all times in order to not contradict it.

There are several moments in the anime where characters who’ve learned about the disability of their undead foes take full advantage of it, quietly sneaking past them without being detected. Considering how close they’re able to get to the zombies without having their cover blown, this says some pretty revealing things about their sense of smell… I’m not saying they don’t have one, but at the very least, they obviously don’t have the ability to smell the difference between tasty humans and their fellow zombies. And if that’s not problematic enough, their reaction to being on fire is also null at best, so it can also be argued that they don’t have the ability to feel more minor differences in temperature, either. So, breaking it down, the situation isn’t just that they find their prey with their sense of hearing… It’s that hearing is the only useful sense they have, aside from possibly taste.

This creates too much bigger problems.

First of all, if you’re able to realize this, then surviving in the zombie infested world would be as easy as 1-2-3. Just find somewhere to hide, never wear shoes, steal whatever food and drink you need as quietly as possible, and if you snore, make sure your home is high up enough that they can’t get to it. If you’re able to stick to this routine for an extended period of time, then your only real threats would be other humans and food shortages. And yet the humans in HOTD… Even the ones that should know better… Are constantly making the most stupid decisions possible. Screaming around zombies, risking their lives to save a noisy puppy, wasting alcohol that could have been used as Molotov cocktails, and generally creating a ruckus at the worst possible times.

The other problem is far greater… By the logic we’ve followed thus far, the zombie apocalypse should have been over within a week. How do I know this? Well, blind zombies would be unmistakably the clumsiest things on earth. Without the ability to see, they would at least occasionally be knocking things over. And without the ability to smell, a stack of plates shattering on the floor would sound exactly the same, regardless of the life status of the one who pushed it over. These zombies would swarm each other, and without the ability to feel temperature differences, there’d be no telling whether the arm you’re grabbing is alive or undead unless it’s already in your mouth. In short, these zombies would eat each other to extinction within a week.

And yes, I’ve heard the “Human echolocation” argument, but I seriously doubt that’s what’s going on here.

When I complain about all of this to other people, they say pretty much the same thing… “You’re over-thinking it.” Well, yeah, I hate having to turn my brain off just to enjoy something. I can usually suspend my disbelief just far enough to accept any zombie story as is, but when they start throwing such stupid, poorly thought out details at me, I really can’t help but be distracted by them. It’s fun and entertaining, but overall, it’s not a silly zombie anime that happens to contain a lot fan service… It’s a silly fan service show that happens to have a lot of zombies. So really, the only way this show could be considered the greatest zombie anime of all time is if it’s only competition was Is This A Zombie?

Which, thankfully, it isn’t.

The truth is, I came across another zombie anime that was released back in 2012. Rather than fun and fan-servicey, it went the route of honest to god horror… And succeeded with flying colors. And the name of that anime was… Gyo, Tokyo Fish Attack. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s a seventy minute movie that was very loosely adapted from one of the most celebrated horror mangas of all time. It’s about mankind being invaded by walking fish… And based on that plot assessment, you’re probably wondering why I consider it a zombie anime.

Well, true, it doesn’t have the traditional zombie design… But let’s take a look at what it does have, by examining the common rules of what makes a zombie story.

1: Reanimated corpses. Yes, the walking fish are dead, and just like your favorite McCarthyism metaphors, they’ve been reanimated by an unnatural outside force. In this case it’s not a virus, but a bizarre mix of bioterror and technology, but nevertheless, the end result is the same.

2: They try to eat humans. Well, they don’t all do this, but we do get to see a few reanimated sharks and even a giant octopus, and they try to take big chunks out of our main cast.

3: The infection is spreading. It’s never explained how, but yes, this qualification is also accounted for. If the mechanical legs that the dead fish are attached to happen to stab you, then you become infected by the same engineered gas that has taken over the fish. You get sick, bloat up like a balloon, and basically become a zombie who’s only goal is to find an empty pairs of legs and get strapped in.
Even though that stabbing thing is absent from the manga. and the gas alone will infect you.

So yeah, I’m not making this up… Gyo is, by definition, a zombie movie. And unlike Highschool of the Dead, it makes a HUGE change to the lore. Yeah, no matter how you look at it, swapping out the traditional zombies for walking fish is a pretty big deal. So how does it fair?

Well, much like the common zombie story, Gyo follows a premise that could never work in the real world… Back in the WW2 era, the Japanese military developed a virus that would cause a serious disease in any living thing that contracted it. They created machines that would infect people with this virus, and then feed off of their gasses, granting them movement… It’s a ridiculous notion, and it makes a bit more sense in the manga, but no more ridiculous than the common zombie story. Unlike HOTD, it follows it’s own premise without biting itself in the ass.

So, is Gyo a good movie? No, not really… I don’t think it’s as bad as a lot of people do, but it definitely fails pretty hard as an adaptation. Kaori’s not as strong a main character as her boyfriend would have been, but you still feel for her as she navigates through the quickly fading human world, as a possible cure to a world that may already be far too gone. It’s only slightly better than Highschool of the Dead… By my standards, it’s a 5/10 vs. a 6/10… But as far as zombie apocalypses go, the pickings are slim.

Is This A Zombie may have the key word in it’s title, but it’s barely related to the genre at all, and the less I say about Red Garden, the better. There are a few anime series out there that have zombie related episodes… For example, Panty and Stocking and Space Dandy each bring their own deeply hilarious genre-parody episodes to the table… But as far as anime that deal specifically with zombies as their subject, Gyo’s the best we’ve got.

Or… Is it? There’s another zombie title out there, but it’s just so… Out there… That I find it difficult to consider. It’s called Sankarea; Undying Love, and it’s much more similar to Warm Bodies than it is to anything the great Romero ever put out. But it is a zombie title, after all, so I suppose we should give it it’s due.

Sankarea isn’t about a zombie infestation, with hordes of the undead ambling around like small tanks while attempting to wipe out the struggling human race. It’s about a teenage boy who’s addicted to that exact type of movie, who finds an old book in his family’s archives that tells of a way to reanimate the dead. His enthusiasm in hand, he sets about the task of reanimating his beloved deceased pet cat, Babu. His trips to the cemetery… Because that’s where anybody would want to do this kind of thing, let’s just be honest… Lead him to encounter Rea, a pretty teenage girl who’s been isolated and controlled by her father to some very unsettling levels. She helps him figure out what poisonous plant his formula needs, and when it appears to not work, she swipes a bottle of the concoction and later attempts to kill herself with it. Well, it does work, and Babu comes back to life… And after a nasty fall off of a cliff, so does she.

There’s some surprising depth to this story… The main character says he’s all alone and doesn’t have a girlfriend because he’s attracted to zombie women… He says as much to the one woman who’s interested in him, and it seems to keep her at bay for the most part. But is he really a sincere necrophiliac, or is he just making excuses for the fact that he’s too immature to handle a relationship? Rea jumps into the zombie life as well as into Chihiro’s arms, but does she really want either one, or are they just pleasant alternatives to the way her father treated her? Would she have feelings for him if she’d been given a normal upbringing? These questions would be plot holes in a lesser story, but in Sankarea, it’s almost as if the anime WANTS you to ask them. There’s even some troubling parallels between Rea’s controlling father and Chihiro’s behavior to her later on.

Rather than using the classic zombie formulas, like the other two titles I discussed, Sankarea seems content to pay homage to those formulas, acknowledging and celebrating it’s existence as the extensive realm of fiction that it is. In short, it rejects that reality and substitutes it’s own, offering something that the genre rarely ever uses… Lucid, conscious zombies who are fully self-aware, as well as fully subject to the ever-present dangers of decomposition and rigor mortis, which they will suffer if they don’t stay out of the sun and replenish themselves by eating the same poisonous plants that contributed to their condition in the first place. It’s a version of the story that many long time deadheads may cry foul against, but when you think about it, it’s a story about a deadhead who’s dream comes true, and what kind of fan wouldn’t want to watch that? On top of that, the production values are outstanding, the story has a really good pace, and Rea… The titular decomposing damsel… Is one hell of an interesting character. So what happens when you compare it to Gyo and HOTD?

Well, unlike in HOTD, Sankarea is very careful to never contradict the laws of it’s own universe, and the result of this is a rich, original idea that’s explored and executed in some very unexpected ways. Unlike in Gyo, Sankarea is also a very well told story, although admittedly, the first half is much stronger than the second half. It’s able to make a dramatic change to the zombie lore without going too far and stretching our suspension of disbelief. It’s a little lacking in gore, but when you consider that the show’s most iconic moment is Rea turning zombie after a nasty fall and getting back up to her feet with some very explicitly designed intestines hanging out of her stomach, this is one of the cases where less is more.

It leaves off on a cliffhanger, with Rea just beginning to slip into the bite-happy stage of her zombification, a development that will leave you salivating for a sequel… Which, considering the amount of unadapted manga that’s still left over, we’ll probably get at some point in the future. I can tell you this much… Even with only one season of Highschool of the Dead out, I seriously don’t care whether or not it ever gets a second one. Even with the cliffhanger in Gyo, there’s little to no reason to care what the fate of the human race is, or what boring little Kaori can possibly do to stop it. Rea and Chihiro are characters you care about, and what happens to them is more than just a series of events.

So… I guess that’s the answer I’m settling on. Sankarea, the zombie romance, is the best zombie anime ever made. Even the censored broadcast version, which is the only version you can actually buy without specifically contacting Funimation, is a lot more creepy and fullfilling than either of the other two. They’re both enjoyable in their own way, and I would definitely recommend them for a night of brain-at-the-door drinking with your friends, but they’ll never come close to what Sankarea offers to both dead-heads and non-zombie fans alike.

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4 comments
  1. RE-ANIMATED OCTOPUS….

    All this underwater creature turn zombie stuff sounds fascinating!!!!!

    • Yup, a re-animated octopus… There’s a few sharks, too. There was a whale in the manga, and I really wish they’d kept it in the movie too!

  2. I haven’t watched many zombie anime shows so I would vote for High School of the Dead. It’s fun to watch thanks to the action and eye candy. You don’t like Red Garden? I thought it was an under rated gem.

  3. Highschool of the Dead was fun… It was definitely unique, if nothing else.
    As for Red Garden… Well, I guess I can see some appeal in it, but it’s not really my cup of tea. I couldn’t wrap my head around it taking itself so seriously, yet somehow being a musical.

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