What on earth am I doing writing about this kind of thing, a high school horror “fanservice” title, with zombies? Not only that, but doing it from scanlations of the manga, and unofficial YouTube subs of the anime? Well, yes, it is all of those genres, with all the clichéd flaws of all of those genres, but you know what? At some level, darn it, it’s a pretty good story — although the unrelenting gore and death make it not suitable for those under, say, 16, and the unrelenting fanservice makes it less interesting for those over, say, 20.
As stated, it’s a high school horror flick, except that only the first part takes place inside the school, but it’s about high school students, so it has that going for it. It’s a zombie flick, with some speculation that the instant, world-wide plague is a failed biowarfare scheme. And it’s fanservice-heavy. So let’s get that part of things out of the way early. Yes, there’s fanservice there, complete with bouncing sound effects. Yes, it’s over the top (leading one reviewer to describe it as a “fanservice train wreck”). Remember the dodge-the-bullet scene from The Matrix? Replace Keanu Reeves with boobs. If you don’t like fanservice, stop reading now and save your time, then go buy Girl Who Leapt Through Time and save some money.
Where a Hitchcock film would pull the camera back and high when something dramatic was happening, the HOTD producers run in low and look up, usually past a miniskirt school uniform and a pair of striped panties. Tight, striped panties. The first year girls are all sweet and cute and totally clueless that within the next couple of years they are going to suffer horrible mammification. After a while you don’t even notice, unless something particularly outrageous occurs, and then you smile briefly and move on. Presumably those boys who are half a century younger than me will drool and point and snicker — and end up asking (as one reportedly did in a comic shop recently) “Why aren’t real highschool girls as hot as the ones in the manga comics”? Despite that, there’s little nudity (other than the one obligatory sento-style bath scene), and no sex (well, perhaps one implied, fade-to-black scene in the anime), and only a couple of gropings-with-intent. In the Hulu transmissions of the series, key parts are conveniently obscured by the kind of lens fog you wouldn’t expect an animated film to have. An interesting grad thesis could be written on why some bits were fogged out, and others not.
The story is the usual — worldwide zombie outbreak, school grounds almost instantly overrun (can none of these authors run a Lotka-Volterra equation?), small group of students thrown together to fight their way to safety. Each brings a different skill to the mix (at one point in the manga the authors explicitly label them the way you would a team in a role playing game), and the pairings make for an interesting array — boy protagonist Komuro Takashi with Miyamoto Rei, a girl who used to like him but recently dumped him for cooler boy who then got himself et; Takagi Saya, the genius girl with fat, nerdy, weapons-genius-geek Hirano Kōta, who she can barely stand….she says; Third-year student Busujima Saeko, the independent, overly-adult swordswoman (think female version of Kyūzō from Seven Samurai with a wooden bokken practice sword), who is a bit of a sociopath, but with a code of honor. She’s fond of saying things like “Protecting a man’s pride is the style of a real woman” just before cracking said man’s skull. On the periphery of the group are the ditzy school nurse, and the orphan kid and dog they pick up on the way.
Now, you can’t build a story like this only about fighting zombies. Since they’re just giant disease vectors it would come out sounding like a public health infomercial. What you need are human interactions, among the people on the team, and between the team and people who are not part of the core team but who’s stories intersect — life sized Non-Player Characters if you will. In a zombie flick there are two kinds of NPCs, the doomed and the villains, who are usually also doomed. The doomed are the heroic clichéd “I’ll hold them off…”, or clueless clichéd, “…and you know who gets killed” types. There’s a special kind of villain in these kind of stories — the smooth talking, suit-and-tie wearing (I knew there was a reason I hated those things) exploiter of the situation for his own ends. You can tell him by the fact that his smile always thins out at the corners, and it (and his glasses) shine when his face is in shadow. Finally, his arm and hand movements would put an Olympic ice dancer to shame. In HOTD there are a number of doomed, and just one villain.
Our Gang fights their way to a school minibus, then has to wait for the villain and his entourage of first year students before making their escape. In the face of the villain’s group voting a takeover of the bus the gang splits, then abandons the bus, reunites and finds refuge in a well stocked (with weapons!) apartment. There, the girls bathe, drink too much, and run around in their scanties, while the guys do manly things like inserting bullets into magazines. They leave there, rescue a child and a dog, and finally make it to Takagi’s home. It turns out her father is a big time right wing nationalist who had stocked his own compound and was successfully fighting off the zombie hordes. The villain and his minions turn up shortly thereafter, and are about to be given asylum, when it comes out how evil he is. Takagi sama gives Miyamoto the opportunity to kill him in revenge for damage to her family, but she, reluctantly, decides to spare his life, and has this decision ever had a good outcome? The Evil Bus crew is expelled, and just as the heavy, motorized gates have been opened to let the bus pass, a US-fired high altitude nuclear explosion creates an EMP burst that fries all electrical equipment on the Kanto plain. Zombies pour in through the unsealable breach, and Our Gang escapes out the back while Takagi’s parents heroically (yes) fight to hold them off. That’s where Season 1 of the anime and Chapter 15 of Volume 4 of the manga ends.
The manga continues (up through Chapter 28 so far), with Our Gang finding their way to — where else — a mall, and (after the usual adventures) from there to the district police station where Miyamoto’s father worked. It turns out to be empty, but there is a note (left in Miyamoto san’s handwriting) on a whiteboard that says there will be an evacuation in two days, from the elementary school where Komuro’s mother worked. At the end of the latest chapter, the team takes off for the evacuation center (on bicycles now) and we do a quick cut to the center, where we see the back of a business-suited individual making grand gestures with his hands.
I liked it. If you can see past the fanservice (heh) you find that what HOTD has going for it is a reasonably strong story, for the genre, and good characterization. My plot summary doesn’t mention the side-plots and vignettes, but those are part of the strength of the series — from the police officer trainee who dies protecting the public, to the two families cowering in their apartment, afraid to give a man and his small daughter shelter, the portrayals may be cliches, but they are well-done cliches (although there is a little overemphasis on the Japanese idea of an honorable death). Given that the 12-episode anime ends about halfway through the ongoing manga, and given the unresolved subplots (like Nurse Marikawa’s relationship with Minami Rika, her hot sniper girlfriend and apartment owner) it looks like there’s enough material there for another season, at least.
I liked both versions enough that I feel it’s only fair to pre-order the first three volumes of the manga, and buy the anime when it comes out in the US. Why do that when I’ve already read it via scanlation and seen it on YouTube and Hulu, and will probably have to hide it away when guests come over? Think of it as paying on the way out. “Wow, I really liked it. Here’s some money, and hey, I get this nice souvenir paperback book!”
NOTE 1: In the manga, but not in the anime, the JASDF F-4 that makes a flyby in Chapter 4 has tail number 680. This is a hat tip to another manga, that seems to be translated as “Phantom Villain” (ファントムぶらい), which features a series of F-4JE’s with tail number 680
NOTE 2: I have updated this review, based on the recently-released DVD. You do need to read this one first, however.
Fanservice:For those who don’t know, my definition is that it’s an egregious display of upskirt, downblouse, or cheesecake style nudity in a work that doesn’t require it for the plot. Most anime has a certain amount, much of it in the “aren’t naked people funny” line. HOTD and some other shows (Rosario+Vampire and Ikkitousen come to mind) seem to have it included in their scene-building checklist. Some shows (R+V and Ikki) need it. HOTD does not.
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