“Promise me that no matter what happens, you’ll never forget to smile” -Megumi Sakura
Megurigaoka Private High School is a unique and lively place where the cheerful and carefree third year student Yuki Takeya enjoys her life as a member of the School Living Club. As well as Yuki, the club consists of president Yuuri Wakasa, the sporty Kurumi Ebisuzawa, mature junior Miki Naoki, friendly club advisor and teacher Megumi Sakura and the club’s dog Taromaru and prides itself on helping members make the most out of school life. All is not as it seems, however, as the illusion of bliss is only contained within Yuki’s head, shielding her from the horrific events occurring around her. In reality, the School Living Club is used as an escape from the shocking truth: the girls are the sole survivors of a zombie apocalypse and have barricaded themselves inside their school.
As much as I love cutesy Slice-of-Life shows when it comes to anime, my interests outside of the medium are quite the opposite, as I am rather a big horror movie buff. From paranormal fright-fests to gruesome slasher films, I love the genre in every different form, but the sub-genre I love the most is almost certainly the zombie film. Be it in the form of the classic, slow-moving zombies pioneered by George Romero in the late 60s or the recent wave of fast-moving infected as popularised by Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, I’ve always had an enormous fascination with zombies. So, when I found out about 2015’s School-Live!, which endeavoured to mix the well-worn zombie genre with Slice-of-Life antics, I was incredibly intrigued. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from it, but I never could have predicted that School-Live! would become one of my all-time favourite anime.
There are so many great things to talk about with School-Live! that it’s rather hard to know where to start, so what better place than the beginning? The first episode of this show is one of the best and well-executed openings to an anime that I’ve seen, and is probably the most iconic part of the series. For those who don’t know, instead of diving straight into the zombie stuff, it tries to catch the viewer unawares by masquerading itself as a generic Slice-of-Life comedy, and doing a pretty damn convincing job of it. It’s for this opening alone that I’d highly recommend people go into this franchise as blind as possible, as it does take away from the reveal at the end if you know the premise. The out-of-nowhere revelation is masterfully handled, with an excellent use of creepy and atmospheric music to give some extra weight to the scene, that will genuinely unsettle first-time viewers.
What makes the opening even better is that on repeat viewings, the episode is still superb, as, if you keep your eyes peeled, there are lots of small hints towards the reality of the situation sprinkled subtly into the background. From the broken windows of the school being visible for a few seconds in some shots, to dour messages written on the blackboard to even the zombies themselves appearing in the background during a high angle shot on the roof, there is plenty here to keep people coming back for numerous viewings equally as engaged as those watching for the first time. The presentation of this twist is just one of many places where the adaptation of School-Live! manages to outdo the source material, written by Norimitsu Kaihou and illustrated by Sadoru Chiba, as the anime keeps up the act for far longer than the manga, a whole episode as opposed to a single chapter, and as a result the impact of the reveal is far greater.
Of course, an excellent opening isn’t worth a whole lot if the rest isn’t up to snuff, which is an issue School-Live! thankfully doesn’t run into, having both a stellar cast and an excellent story to boot. To me, the biggest strength is on the character side of things, as this is the most attached I’ve felt to a group of girls since K-On. Although I think they’re all great, the best by a mile, and a favourite-ever character of mine, is Yuki, the delusional girl who sees the school as if the disaster never happened. She is very childlike and pure-hearted, lacking in any real flaws, and whilst this is normally a negative, leading to blandness, here it works very well. Yuki being innocence personified makes it that much easier for the audience to get attached to her and grow to adore her quickly, and you feel a very genuine sense of sympathy, as you really want her to get out of her awful situation. I’d struggle to think of many anime that got me as emotionally invested in someone as School-Live! did with Yuki, making me feel genuinely distraught whenever she was upset, yet it pulls it off with such ease.
Whilst I think that Yuki is the best, the other members of the cast are also great in their own right. The series explores how the outbreak has personally affected each member of the School Living Club, as we learn the horrifying end to Kurumi’s first romance, which weighs heavily on her conscious, and how Miki’s friendship with her best friend Kei was fractured and torn apart due to Miki’s lack of courage, and how it forced her to adapt to the new world. If I did have to pick a weakest amongst the bunch, it would be the maternal club president Yuuri, who is a victim of adaptation more than anything, as the anime ends right before someone new is introduced in the manga which helps to flesh her out, explaining the reason for her role in the group as an older sister figure. In addition to the inherent strength of the characters, something that really solidifies your emotional attachment to the group comes in that initial episode. A secondary function, besides the twist, is that seeing the group in a somewhat ordinary setting really makes the audience feel that these characters are at home in that environment, and they should rightfully be in some fairly standard, albeit happy, anime instead, further amplifying your sympathy for these girls.
Although the zombie sub-genre is often criticised for its lack of originality within some circles, School-Live! cleverly subverts this notion by blending the Slice-of-Life genre with all the horror elements. Although the two halves are heavily contrasted, going from the cutesy comedy to intense horror, sometimes on a dime, it rarely results in the change feeling jarring, only serving to highlight the stark difference in Yuki’s mind between what she sees and the reality of the situation, as well as helping to balance out the series’s more intense and downbeat moments. Speaking of which, there are a lot of heartfelt scenes sprinkled throughout that never failed to generate an emotional reaction out of me, resulting in many tears being shed, especially in the gut-wrenching finale, which really just speaks volumes for the emotional attachment School-Live! manages to generate for these characters. For all the powerfully stirring scenes here, there are also an equal amount that manage to be genuinely intense too, living up to the show’s horror roots, which is especially evident towards the end. These parts do somewhat rely on commonly used tropes, such as the initial outbreak or when the group has to go scavenging for supplies, but it still executes these scenes well and is so original in other ways, that it doesn’t really matter, and at this point, I’m not even entirely sure it’d be possible to make something with zombies in it and not end up including at least a few well-worn tropes.
If I had to make one minor complaint in regards to the story, it’d have to be the fan service-y pool episode. This feels a little tonally dissonant in comparison to the rest of the series, which is almost entirely free of any kind of fan service, however it still works somewhat given its place in the show’s viewing order, and acts as a calm before the storm, so to speak, yet still contains a couple of very important moments that become relevant as the climax unfolds. Given the sheer strength of everything else, I don’t think this alone is enough to take away from any of the amazing stuff whatsoever, and is merely a slight misstep.
The animation for School-Live! is handled by Lerche (Assassination Classroom, Scum’s Wish, Danganronpa: The Animation) and in my opinion, they pretty much do a perfect job. As well as remaining accurate to the manga, the animation reflects the story itself, being a big balancing act between the two different tones found within the series, and Lerche makes sure that the transition between the two always feels natural by subtly altering the look depending on the situation. An excellent example of this is at the start of Episode 2, where Kurumi is flashing back to her first love, just before the outbreak. The start of this flashback looks like a gorgeous watercolour with bright and vibrant colours everywhere before slowly transitioning to a dark and desaturated style as things go south. There are also a number of nice touches in other places, such as the use of old projector style filters on some scenes to demonstrate an event is happening in the past.
Animatsu’s release of School Live! contains both Japanese audio with English subtitles as well as an English dub. As someone who watched this originally as it aired in Japan, I was already intimately familiar with the Japanese voices of the characters, and as such, I didn’t think the English dub voice actors quite managed to live up to the superb Japanese cast. As much as I may be biased due to her being my favourite, the standout on the Japanese side is Inori Minase (Rem from Re:Zero, Hestia from Is It Wrong to Try and Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?) who imbues Yuki with a ton of cuteness and charm that no doubt helped in making me adore her. On the English side, Yuki is voiced by Brittney Karbowski, who I feel is miscast in the role. Her voice is quite gravelly, and more fitting tomboy type characters, which just doesn’t suit Yuki at all, in my opinion. The rest of the dub cast, including Juliet Simmons, Luci Christian and Cynthia Martinez, also fail to live up to their Japanese counterparts, although if you aren’t already used to the Japanese voice actors, you may have a better time with the dub. One thing that I feel I must mention in terms of the dub is the absolute waste of legendary voice actor Tiffany Grant (Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion, Kud from Little Busters), who they cast, of all things, as the dog. Not a talking dog or anything, it literally just barks. Grant is far better than the role she was given here, and it’s a crime that she wasn’t given a substantial part. I’m not even sure what the point of recording new barks was to begin with!
The score for School-Live! is provided by the musical group known as MOSAIC.WAV, whose music is well-matched to the series, being piano-driven and very atmospheric during the horror parts but suitably chipper and upbeat when it needs to be, complementing scenes nicely. As for the Opening, it is in of itself an absolute masterclass amongst Openings. Not only does the ridiculously upbeat and catchy song ‘Friends Shitai”, performed by the main Japanese vocal cast, get lodged in your brain incredibly easily, it also doubles down on the illusion in the first episode that this is just a run-of-the-mill comedy. However, the OP has several variations too, changing subtly to reflect the events of the show itself, giving you reason to never skip the Opening and keep your eye out for the additions and changes. As for the EDs, there are four different ones, and every one of them is great, although the single-use Ending songs are far and away the best, as they are always poignant, used when the series is at its emotional peak, and it makes those events all the more impactful. You know you have a good ED on your hands when the credits are enough to bring tears to your eyes.
The Collector’s Edition of School Live! from Animatsu comes with both Blu-ray and DVD, with a plastic O-card and a rigid collector’s box. As far as on-disc extras go, it’s rather slim pickings, having only trailers as well as a clean version of every OP and ED variant.
School Live! is nothing short of a masterpiece, combining two contrasting genres into a unique anime that is equal parts charming, fun, emotional and intense, and easily cements itself as an all-time favourite of mine.