Chihiro Furuya has no interest in the opposite sex. This is of course far from uncommon in the anime world, as male protagonists often act chaste and reject the conventions of romantic or sexual attraction, but the difference with Chihiro is that he has an actual reason… He’s been obsessed with zombie fiction for as long as he can remember, and he’s been on the look out for a certain kind of girl that’s just drop dead gorgeous… That is to say, a hot zombie chick. One day, after finding a mysterious ink-splatted book about resurrecting the dead in his attic, his precious pet cat Babu is run over by a local man’s car, killing the freaky feline instantly. Not yet ready to part with one of his only friends, Chihiro begins to study the old book, and begins to experiment with the potion listed inside of it, crafting different variations of the same concoction to try and find that one sweet mix that will bring Babu back to life. Of course he can’t do this at home, so he chooses an abandoned hotel as his makeshift mad science lab… And that’s where he meets Rea.
As one of the most popular girls in school and the daughter of it’s owner, you might expect her to live a happy and privileged life, fulfilling and free of want, with nary a care in the world that wouldn’t fall under the term “First world problems.” You would be wrong, as the lifestyle of this rich and famous heiress is closer to that of a detainee than that of a debutante. Putting up with her Father’s soul-crushing over-protection and her Mother’s alcohol-influenced indifference, she finds Chihiro’s weirdness to be a pleasant diversion, and winds up becoming the Igor in his experiments. Unbeknownst to them, he actually manages to perfect the potion, so when she secretly steals a vial of it to end her own life with, she soon winds up becoming the one thing he’s always wanted… A living dead girl. But with her psychopathic father waiting for the perfect moment to strike, and her own mysterious condition presenting them with challenges at every turn, is there any hope for their boy-meets-ghoul romance? Or like Rea, are they simply living on borrowed time?
Once upon a time, I came across somebody in the forums I frequent, denouncing Studio Deen as the worst animation company he’s ever seen. He showed a mediocre-looking clip from the first episode of Fate/Stay Night, calling it “literally the best looking thing they’ve ever done.” Now I’ll admit that that Deen’s put out a few ass-looking anime before, but I was quick to show him clips from a few shows that I’d specially selected to show just how amazing some of their shows can look… And one of them was Sankarea, which had just begun to air on Funimation.com. I selected this particular title for one specific reason… Because the animation in this series is nothing short of perfect.
Now, don’t get me wrong… We are of course not talking about constant fluid motion, like what you may find in the best looking Kyoto Animation shows… On-screen movement is restricted to what’s necessary, but it never feels like they’re being held back by anything other than their own discretion. When the movement does slow down, it’s almost always for the sake of an emotionally significant moment, at which point it’s more like the visuals stepping back and letting you become engrossed in the shock and gravity that you’re supposed to be experiencing, which is further amplified by the exquisite art design and brilliant use of sound effects. This gives the series a sense of energy and atmosphere that can, at times, make you feel as though you’re really there in the moment alongside the characters.
For the most part, the art design is rooted firmly in reality… Well, blonde japanese girls with large breasts aren’t exactly realistic, but you could consider that the exception that proves the rule. Everything from a field of flowers to a row of trees to your basic urban settings are drawn with elaborate detail down to the very last blemish, arranged on screen with strict adherence to attractive color palettes and in ways that draw your eyes directly to the human characters living out their lives in the midst of it all. Having said that, the use of off-beat camera angles and just plain weird shot set-ups doesn’t always work, and can at times feel a little over-excessive, like they’re trying way too hard to look like Studio Shaft, who can be extremely hit or miss in terms of visuals in their own right. Some occurrences deserve to be explored from less commonplace angles, but when you’re trying to spice up a conversation in a locker room by having three characters open up their lockers as though they’re practicing their timing for a synchronized swimming meet, the show can start to look a little pretentious. The character designs are also a bit strange, despite the mostly realistic body proportions… I will never for the life of me understand why old people are often portrayed as little people… And then there’s the main character’s cat-like hairdo, which I’m sure has some sort of symbolic meaning in regards to his zombie cat. Rea looks like the stereotypical standard of young Japanese beauty, and while I would be crying ‘generic’ over it, there’s an argument to be made that her father simply raised her to look like that.
The opening and ending portions are just beautiful. The OP, Esoragoto by nano.Ripe, is one of my favorites of all time for some damn good reasons. Aside from the throwaway side-character breakdown that happens at about 45 seconds in, the imagery used in this opening is full of metaphors for the story of the anime, none of which you’ll understand until probably your second time through. They’re very subtle in the way they’re presented, and the childish voice singing the lyrics perfectly emphasizes the tragedy of a young adolescent who was never truly allowed to experience childhood, and thus hasn’t been allowed to grow up. The ending, Above Your Hand by Annabel, takes that idea to it’s natural conclusion… Rea in a bowling alley, what one might consider the ideal teen hangout, just lying in the lane and waiting to get struck, knowing she’ll never truly live and patiently, serenely awaiting death to take her. There’s a good reason the singer sounds older here than in the OP… It’s the harsh reality to the op’s unsettlingly upbeat fantasy.
In keeping with these thematic ideals, Yukari Hashimoto composed the soundtrack to hit two major notes… One decidedly better than the other. Half of the OST explores the emotional trauma faced by Rea… The exact nature of which is betrayed by an array of music box, organ and piano orchestrations. The other half is tailored more towards Chihiro, and there’s a reason nobody’s going out of their way to upload them on youtube. These tunes skew more towards the background, and have a much more homey feel to them… They can be downright happy and disarming, and while they’re perfectly fine in their own right, the emotional resonance of the stronger half of the soundtrack does tend to attract more attention. Personally, my favorite is Babu’s theme, Babu no Iru Fuukei, which just sounds like the anthem of a cat strutting around town without a care in the world, and it’s surprisingly easy to dance to.
The English dub is also top notch, which shouldn’t surprise you if you look at the list of names involved before viewing. The backstage work is in the hands of the right people, with Joel McDonald directing and Monica Rial writing the script, two choices you can’t go wrong with. Jamie Marchi stayed the hell away from the script, which is also to it’s great credit, as she’s a far better actor than she is a writer. She plays Chihiro’s cousin Ranko, and while she’s played more than her fair share of loud, energetic girls, her character has a great deal more emotional depth than your typical incest-obsessed cousin cliche, and Marchi makes you genuinely feel for this character who would probably come off as annoying in anyone else’s hands. David Wald, whom I’m convinced can do no wrong, plays Rea’s creepy father, bringing forth an air of pride and nobility, with some heavily unsettling tones lurking just beneath the surface.
Monica Rial is of course adorable as a zombie cat, as is Felecia Angelle, who plays Chihiro’s ghost-obsessed sister Mero with the perfect deadpan sarcasm. However, the real surprise here is with our two leads, Chihiro and Rea. Ever since Aaron Dismuke hit puberty, I’ve found his performances to be extremely hit-or-miss, but he was luckily able to play off of his own obsession with zombies to play his strange, socially awkward character. His performance could be described as one note, but it’s the kind of one-note an introverted teenager would believably use, and he’s more than capable of emoting through it whenever he needs to. And what’s more shocking is that I’ve NEVER liked Tia Ballard, the high-pitched banshee who ruined the first episode of Shiki for me. But in the title role of Rea Sanka, there are no words for how amazing she is. She shows an unbelievable amount of control over her voice, and is able to put forth consistent quality whether her character is cheerful, suffering, or going through rigor mortis(her approach to which is hilarious). When she goes into her backstory, her expository dialogue can be downright heartbreaking, and it’s clear she feels all the pain in her character’s heart. She can come off as a bit too whiny and spoiled at some points in the story, but I can’t really fault the actor for that… It is, unfortunately, the way the character was written.
What’s that? You think it’s weird for a girl who’s been established as an abuse victim to be portrayed as annoying and spoiled? Well, get ready for worse, because this show is really freaking weird. And I’m not referring to it’s concept, either… This is one of the most bafflingly executed anime series I’ve ever seen. It has no sense of tone, it constantly shoots itself in the foot with it’s lack of focus, and seemingly has no idea what it wants to be. Is it an intense, dramatic character study? Is it a light-hearted slice of life with an unusual premise? Is it a tongue-in-cheek love letter to the zombie genre? Hell, it could be all of those things without feeling nearly as jarring… Comedy, drama and off-kilter subject matter has been handled expertly in shows like Ouran Highschool Host Club… but Sankarea just doesn’t understand how.
Our central character is Chihiro, a zombie obsessed boy who immediately gains your attention via some subtle hints that he actually doesn’t want a zombie girlfriend, and is only saying that as an excuse to himself as others as to why he’s not yet mature enough to be interested in girls. He lives in a house with what could almost be called a Japanese Addams Family, has a dead cat he’s trying to resurrect, which(along with his own cat-like appearance) could be a metaphor that he desperately wants to get a life himself. He’s one of the better male protagonists I’ve seen, but he’s immediately over-shadowed by the lead female, Rea. Not long after she’s introduced, we start to hear her sad tale, and it is so bizarrely horrifying that it winds up hijacking the story. It’s like hearing about a triplegic puppy who just found out it has another case of leg cancer, it’s that merciless of an attack on your sympathies.
At first, we’re told that her father takes naked pictures of her on her birthday, which she’s sick of. Yeah, that sounds like a spoiler, but we find it out in the first episode, so whatever. Then we find out that he shelters and controls her, firing any maid who he doesn’t agree with, possibly killing a stray cat that got too close to the house, and using his influence to destroy the lives of the family of a girl she’d confided to about the pictures. You’d think that’s bad enough, but as the story goes on, we also learn some things that are supposed to make him feel more sympathetic, but they just wind up making the situation feel all the more sinister. I won’t give away the spoiler that reveals this, but it becomes evident by the end of the series(to anybody who’s really paying attention) that he’s planning to start engaging in a physical relationship with her as soon as she turns 16. Hell, there’s an OVA episode where it’s heavily implied that he takes extra naked pictures of her that DON’T wind up in the official collection.
Every time I watch this series, my heart feels heavy for Rea, and the tone of the series at that point is appropriately crushing. But that tone starts to fade, and by the time she’s become a zombie, it’s all but gone. We go right back to silly, weird slice of life zom-com fare. It feels like you’re watching a different show, and the worst of it has to be the gratuitous fan-service. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against animated nudity. I’m no prude with that kind of thing, and if it’s done well, I welcome it. But Sankarea is that rare title where it just feels like a horrible, misguided idea. Remember, we just got through a soul-crushing backstory where it was firmly established that the exploitation of her naked body is supposed to feel sick and wrong. Why not follow this up with pointless shower scenes(she even states that she doesn’t need them because she doesn’t sweat) where she’s confusedly squeezing a loofa between her boobs and getting comedically attacked by an old man? Yeah, they use her hair as a source of convenient censoring, and even if they didn’t she has no nipples for us to ogle(which is strange, because Ranko definitely does), but it still feels wrong. It starts to feel like the writers and animators, and by extension the audience, are no better than her father.
Now, it is of course possible to start an anime on an emotionally turbulent note and still have it be a comedy. It’s not an immediately terrible idea, but you have to commit in some way to both sides of the story. In Kotoura-san, we follow a telepathic girl as she doesn’t know she’s not supposed to be able to read minds, so she unknowingly alienates her friends and destroys her own family by revealing peoples’ secrets to each other. She grows up depressed and cynical, until she meets a group of friends who are willing and eager to accept her for who she is, and even though she has many hilarious misadventures with them, we’re never spared the psychological effects of her unfortunate childhood and the damage that she has to overcome, and we’re terrified of what will happen when her mother re-enters the story. See? This sort of thing can be executed well, but you have to work to MAKE IT WORK. Kotoura is a hilarious show, but her psychological trauma is never played for laughs, just like Rea’s body should never have been exploited for cheap fan service. It’s easy enough to accept anime fanservice as a natural element of the medium, but if you’re going to take the very idea of a female character being objectified by the male gaze to such a dark place, you can’t just go back to silly cheesecake. You’ve gone under anyway, you might as well throw some depth at us.
Well, it’s not like Sankarea doesn’t try… That’s the most frustrating thing about it. It has depth, but it doesn’t know what the fuck to DO with it. First of all, this series is a subversion of the magical girlfriend genre, a style of story where a male protagonist who’s unlucky in love receives a female companion who’s perfect for him through supernatural means, and likely has to teach her an unspecified amount of stuff about the world around them, while she finds fulfillment in simply being his waifu. Sankarea is the zombie version of this, which is a welcome diversion compared to the homogeny of the genre. She’s found happiness in death that she didn’t have in life, although this is eventually shelved so the story can focus on exploring the physical properties of zombies in it’s canon. Frankly, I would have loved to see the trope humanized further by having Rea get uncomfortable with Chihiro filming her for research, as such an activity would probably remind her of her father’s photo sessions.
But while we’re on the subject of Chihiro and Rea’s dad, there’s a whole other can of worms lurking in that subject. A few times during the series, Chihiro reflects on how he’s no better than her Dad, because he keeps her locked up in the house. This serves as a convenient reason for him to take her on some walks around town, but what the anime fails to realize is that the similarities go a lot deeper than that. Yeah, they both keep her locked up, but it’s also worth mentioning that she symbolizes an unusual fetish for each of them, and also that they both value her primarily as a triumph of life over the tragedy of death… Chihiro loves her because she’s a zombie who literally came back from the dead, and Rea’s father loves her for certain spoiler reasons. Aside from those rare moments of lucidity that I mentioned before, Sankarea never capitalized on these things, forgoing a wealth of possible depth in exchange for an ending that begs for an unlikely sequel and a resolution that deals with Rea’s father almost as poorly as Akihiko was dealt with in Sword Art Online.
So is Sankarea a bad show? Well… Kind of. I hate to say that, because while there are a lot of negative aspects to the writing and execution of the series, most of them are more like missed opportunities than actual flaws. It’s like I said before, this is just a really weird show all around, and it can make for a bewildering experience, regardless of what you were expecting from it. It’s overuse of cliches can be irritating, especially when it comes to Chihiro having basically the same two best friends that Kyon from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and several other protagonists have had, but it manages to cast more of it’s cliches in an interesting and fresh light than not. Hell, even the incest-crazy cousin is way more sympathetic and relatable than she should be, by any convention. Honestly? I just can’t help but enjoy it in all of it’s flaws, just because of how bizarre it is.
Sankarea is available from Funimation. It was originally released as the censored TV cut, but was later released uncensored, although if I’m being totally honest, if you can save some money by picking the censored version, you probably should. There really isn’t that much difference between them. For the extra money you get a couple shots of zombified Rea with her guts hanging out, as well as no more than 30 collective seconds of uncensored nudity that you’ll barely miss. The uncensored version is cheaper now than when it was released, going for thirty-five bucks instead of sixty, but you can still find copies of the censored version floating around Ebay for ten to fifteen bucks. The original manga is available stateside from Kodansha entertainment, and while I haven’t read it, it apparently offers a more complete story. It has a few OVAs, and while one of them made it onto the DVD set as an episode, the other two did not, and are not available stateside.
Sankarea is far from perfect, but I still have to stick to my guns on one thing I said two years ago… It’s the best zombie anime I’d seen at the time, although it’s since been dethroned by School Live. It creates it’s own logic from scratch instead of clumsily trying to reinterpret and reinvent the existing logic, choosing to paint the many established zombie lores as the works of fiction that they are. It’s love of the zombie sub-genre and dedication towards being a new and distinctive entry into said sub-genre is what ties the series together with a note of other-wise sorely lacking consistency, and to it’s credit, the off-kilter execution just serves as one more thing that’s unique about it. It’s bigger problems are a little too serious to ignore, and there are parts of it that feel jarring and uncomfortable, but I really like it’s brand of weirdness, and would easily recommend it to anyone who loves zombies, but is sick and tired of watching the same old genre fare. Even as a Halloween title, it might not be for everyone, but with it’s high production values, offbeat campiness and unwavering devotion to the undead, I still recommend checking it out. Unfortunately, when the title of “Halloween treat” is removed, it’s not very good. I give Sankarea a 5/10.