Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes.
One of the things I admire about anime narratives are their potential for creativity. Now, some people might accuse the medium nowadays of being inundated with show upon show centered around moe, peddling moe in the sense people generally seem to associate that feeling with: “cute girls.” Doubly so if the moe happens to be situated within the slice of life genre: “doing cute things.” While experiencing moe or declaring something to be moe isn’t limited to moe slice of life, or “cute girls doing cute things,” there certainly seems to be a consensus among anime otaku that “cute girls doing cute things” is one of those things that are typically designed to embody or arouse moe. There also seems to be a consensus that there’s an awful lot of anime featuring “cute girls doing cute things” nowadays.
In the midst of so many shows featuring this trope, you might ask what’s so creative about a show as seemingly redundant as School-Live! Moe slice of life can be considered a tested and tired thing. Simply put, this show uses the language of moe, the language of slice of life to re-frame how we experience familiar scenarios and inspire reflection on larger themes. The scenario is psychological survival in a zombie setting. The theme is living in spite of that. That theme extends both literally to the characters of the show and figuratively to the characters in the audience watching the show.
Entertain the thought that the combination of moe and slice of life isn’t always just isn’t some perverse fantasy of gazing at innocent, adolescent females from a voyeuristic distance. Different people experience media in different ways. I frankly think it’s disingenuous to discount face-value claims that some people watch moe slice of life for reasons that aren’t conventionally problematic. They find the combination relaxing to watch. Characterization in moe slice of life tends to be simple and, as aforementioned, cute. Conflicts, if there are any, tend to be low-key or are portrayed in a low-key format. It’s a valve of escapism, a place that avoids complication and provides sanctuary from the real world.
Why is it that this form of escapism is popular, or at least popular enough that anime with these two aforementioned elements keep getting consistently produced each season? Most anime are produced with a primarily Japanese audience and consumer base in mind. While workaholic people aren’t exclusive to Japan, it wouldn’t be completely baseless to claim that Japanese society is disproportionately comprised of workaholics. Salarymen, contract workers, and part-time employees make it back after lengthy and grueling days on the job. In Japan’s current economic malaise, salarymen are increasingly finding it harder to live up to the Japanese middle class standard, unique and lauded throughout the world for constituting a greater proportion of the total population than any other developed country. Contract workers and part-time employees are finding it more difficult to pay for basic necessities.
Many otaku are at least partly, and understandably, the way they are because of disillusionment. They are turned-off by the cultural notion their non-otaku peers seem to slavishly subscribe to or practice (or now struggle to practice): people live to work, rather than the other way around. Otaku, among others, are wary of becoming draft animals to their workplaces. What moe slice of life shows provide for otaku are a chance to escape from the stress attached to this state of affairs, for even a moment. Before they have to face the tedium or nightmare of reality, they can relax to the nostalgic, uncomplicated, relatively inconsequential scenario of “cute girls” in a idealized high school setting “doing cute things.” Cute is simple. Cute is safe, and most viewers have experienced high school once. Whether or not high school for viewers were ideal when they actually experienced it, high school theoretically served as a time where they were allowed a degree of freedom they aren’t permitted before, a normative teenage buffer before the expectations and obligations of of adulthood came to eat them.
School-Live! is struggle. It is a metaphor for the struggle of Japanese workers, and working Japanese otaku in particular, to just… live. While struggling to avoid becoming literal zombies, the girls in the show simultaneously struggle to not become like zombies. The TV screen or computer monitor acting as a glass reflection, many members of the audience may be grappling with the very same issue of not resembling the undead. The fix that these girls come up with to avoid falling into existential monotony and eventual despair is a fix that otaku can sympathize with: moe slice of life.
As a psychical defense mechanism to the trauma of the zombie apocalypse taking away the things and people she loves most causes Yuki Takeya’s subconscious to fabricate an alternate reality. Dissociated from actual reality, she deludes herself into thinking she lives in a simple and safe world of high school moe slice of life, attending classes, interacting with classmates and teachers long since deceased and reanimated, going on extracurricular excursions with club members.
Yuuri Wakasa and Kurumi Ebisuzawa, her fellow club mates, play along with Yuki’s delusions. In fact, they (like many otaku) act vicariously through them. If they don’t distract themselves somehow, they’d go mad. Through the relief and comfort that, if only for moments at a time, they experience playing along with Yuki’s delusions, they immunize themselves from insanity, despondence, and/or suicidal thoughts. They play to Yuki’s more daring and dangerous delusion-fueled suggestions at physical risk to themselves at times (like how many otaku put themselves in financial austerity and disrepair by their consumption habits), but to Yuuri and Kurumi (and many otaku), the alternative is unbearably worse.
The horror of great zombie media and literature tend to not come from the zombies themselves. There are, of course, exceptions to this trend, but the popular culture image of zombies were these lumbering, shambling horrors that people could outsmart and outrun. An individual vampire or werewolf could be terrifying on their own because they could be calculating or savage. Unless you have particular phobia for walking, rotting flesh or possess a personal emotional connection to the fleshy reanimated husk that was once a living person, comparatively speaking, a zombie’s nothing.
The horror comes from what the collapse of civilization following a zombie pandemic does to the human spirit. Their sheer numbers… their familiar faces… the omnipresence of zombies are constantly gnawing and groaning reminders that everything as one knew it, with its conveniences and comforts, has changed for the worst. And when it has changed for the worse, the thought settles that, perhaps, we’ll be stuck with the worst… forever. More than eating away at people physically, it eats at people mentally. It may make them do destructive and self-destructive things. It may make them give up on life and waste away, if they don’t kill themselves first.
This is where my point about creativity in anime narratives comes in. It is a creativity born from a thorough analysis and subsequent commentary of Japanese society as well as otaku culture. That commentary is clothed in a raiment that the otaku may be more willing to try on. It is spoken in speech that the otaku may be more partial to. And yet it is not entirely a tactic of deceit, because that commentary strikes at something personal and painful to many otaku. With a fictional zombie setting the girls are trapped in paralleling the factual zombie setting the audience are also trapped in, imagine the scores who can empathize with Yuki’s delusions and identify with Yuuri’s and Kurumi’s desires for escape.
School-Live! is not a show solely oriented around the trope and gimmick of “cute girls doing cute things” but with zombies. School-Live! is not a show simply geared to fetishizing the suffering of cute girls. I don’t find the show bitter toward moe slice of life. It many ways, it affirms it and celebrates it, because for the girls of the show and the many Japanese viewers, Japanese otaku particularly, who watch them do cute things amidst and despite terrible circumstances, they might not be able to endure otherwise. It is a show about trying one’s best to live.