I remember reading once that on the whole the Japanese think zombies are just ridiculous because of differences regarding burial practices, they do cremations most if not all the time, so the dead would never rise up. That being said zombies rising from the dead has gradually shifted from being the standard in the West to the realm of more hardcore fantasy stuff while more mainstream zombie works typically use a more scientific explanation like a virus to bring about the zombie apocalypse. Why then does Japan win the international zombie contest I just made up? Because they made a couple of zombie shows which outclass anything I seen come out over here and I think I have a handle on why, but I’ll get to that in a minute. In the meantime the shows I’ll use to justify this position are, in the order I saw them, High School of the Dead (oh come on you knew that had to be on this list), Koutetsujou no Kabaneri and Gakkou Gurashi. There will be spoilers ahead, you’ve been warned.
If I had to list just one reason why the Japanese seem to do zombies so well it would be that the zombies themselves are not the focus of any zombie story – the best example of that I’ve come across is the manga I Am a Hero, but in that case the zombies are especially fucking weird. Maybe that’s too generic a way to put it as it’s not like zombies are the main focus of a movie like Zombieland but it nonetheless rings true. Based on the zombie movies I’ve seen, it seems like the modern American style is to focus heavily on either floods of zombies overrunning an area like in World War Z or to put a lot of emphasis on seeing a small band of survivors gun down zombie hordes Left 4 Dead style (i.e. the finale of Zombieland). By comparison the Japanese approach seems to put much more emphasis on the confusion caused by a zombie outbreak and especially how the survivors, well survive. That last bit is especially important because it not just about how characters fight off zombies and forage for food, the strain surviving the initial outbreak or prolonged survival periods puts on the survivors and how this strain manifests is a huge part of Japanese zombie shows.
Another major difference seems to be the relative differences in human agency in a zombie apocalypse. Japan gives the humans a much greater share of agency and influence than the zombie menace. This isn’t to say human enclaves aren’t overrun by zombie hordes from time to time or that human society doesn’t collapse due to the zombie outbreak as is the case in Western zombie movies, however the survivors don’t need to rely on intense firepower to survive the way they do in western movies. In Gakkou Gurashi the primary deadly weapon the four cute girls had access to was a goddamn shovel, and even in HOTD which had more guns a lot of the time a boktou, a mop haft, a nail gun and baseball bat were all the characters needed to get by. Koutetsujou no Kabaneri did require more firepower but in that specific case the zombies were made exponentially harder to kill unless you took big risks and got up close to say cut their heads off and even so, as I’ve discussed before the most destructive force in the show are humans – the ones with ill intent – not the Kabane.
As I mentioned above one of the major aspects of Japanese zombie shows is the psychological effects the zombie outbreak has on the survivors, and where applicable the world at large. Of the three shows I mentioned Gakkou Gurashi hits this particular nail most firmly on the head with it’s main character Yuki though all the cute girls struggle with this issue. Yuki was so traumatized by the zombie outbreak and in particular the loss of the only remaining authority figure in her life that her mind just straight up broke. She doesn’t perceive the world properly and is basically a Chuunibyou character except her Chuunibyou is clearly a coping mechanism instead of teenage kids being retards. Biba, despite all the criticism thrown his way is also a great example of the psychological strain of survival. His circumstances were extreme even by zombie apocalypse standards but his worldview has dramatically shifted not just because of his time out spent commanding the fight against the Kabane but because he’s seen how others behave because they’ve been consumed by their fear of the Kabane. Ikoma is similar in that regard, part of his drive comes from his disgust of everyone else’s fear and his own past failings with fear.
Part of the reason this focus on psychology is so effective is because the stories themselves are paradoxically less concerned with the zombies than the character stories which arise from the zombie outbreak and yet put more detail into the zombies than most of their western counterparts. The shows don’t overly concern themselves with the spread of the zombie outbreak the way say World War Z, the movie not the novel, did. Like even in HOTD where the outbreak happens when the story starts the zombies overrun the school and surrounding city in like maybe an hour and the rest of show from that point is focused on how the characters will get from the school to each of their various objectives while getting past zombie hoards which are usually too large to fight, and how the strain of that journey affects them – and also fanservice.
On the other hand all three shows also invest at least some time making the zombies extra special or unique somehow. Takagi spends the early episodes of HOTD trying to figure out the characteristics of the zombies and the Busujima makes sure to point out that relying on established biology, like how fast the corpses would rot, is not something they should take for granted. In Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, the Kabane are terrifying because they are fast, aggressive and display a moderate amount of intelligence like being able to operate trains or set up an ambush, but what makes them special are their durable hearts and the more advanced forms they can take like the Wazatori and the fused colony. Even Gakkou Gurashi were the zombies were the most in line with conventional ideas about zombies, they had a nasty surprise by making the teacher all the girls loved be the “final boss” of sorts for the series and the fact she maintained enough of herself to continue her patrols and even attempt to write in her diary despite being a zombie was fucking awesome – seriously the first time they teased that she was around by showing the hidden room and her diary with the crude zombie writing mixed in with the teacher’s was some of most hair-raising shit I’ve ever seen, the build-up was fucking amazing.
Another edge zombie anime have over Western zombie films are the fact they can be so wildly different. Of the Western movies I think of there are really just two forms, serious zombie movies and comic zombie movies, both of which still rely on a lot of the same scenarios and action scenes. By comparison HOTD, Gakkou Gurashi and Koutetsujou no Kabaneri are all very different. While three shows have a certain amount of overlap they ultimately have very different hooks, art styles and narrative arcs – and all of them are very different to what Western films, at least those I’ve or am aware of offer. And they are all worth a watch in the event you’ve not seem them either.
HOTD is about boobs, tits, oppai, “the plot” and BOOBS. I mean it’s also about the journey of the main cast as they try to navigate the zombie infested area around them, and that journey is surprisingly engaging, but we’ve all seen matrix boobs – after that I thinks it’s hard to argue that fanservice isn’t what HOTD is really all about. It has a nice mix of action, suspense and drama mixed in for good measure but overall it’s just a good time and it knows when to take itself seriously – and when to take Gainaxing to the next level.
Gakkou Gurashi really goes all in on the psychological aspects of surviving the zombie apocalypse, with Yuki and her broken mind being the standard bearer of that idea. There is also an intruging mystery aspect to the show as later episodes imply that the zombie outbreak may been known about in advance and might have even been an experiment. What really sets Gakkou Gurashi apart though is just how powerless the cast is relative to most zombie-braving bands. Even taking Kurumi’s high physical capabilities into account, the group’s best weapon is a shovel – not exactly much of an arsenal. And Kurumi is still quite vulnerable to emotional reactions which can stop her in her tracks, like when she’s forced to kill the zombie of a former friend.
And Koutetsujou no Kabaneri is an awesome steampunk action show which really makes a point of highlighting how, even when they are surrounded by super zombies, incredibly dangerous the humans are. The show takes a thorough approach to this as well, showing how high people can rise in the face of adversity through Ikoma and the main group and also the depths they can sink to via Biba and his troops. And while Biba is clearly the villain his actions are not the actions of someone who’s just turned feral as is frequently the case in zombie works, where minor characters take advantage of the loss of society to create their own group wherein they have all the power and take advantage of those around them. Biba’s actions are those of someone driven mad by his own struggle against the Kabane and the actions of the other people around him, which in his case was to generally leave him to die and hide behind their walls. Also I want to stress how the Koutestujou no Kabaneri was able to make the Kabane consistently terrifying throughout the show, something many zombie-fests struggle with.
In conclusion, if you wanted a couple of Halloween anime recommendations, you have them now. And I made up for the fact that Anime Trick or Treat totally failed – so we are all good here. Go get your zombie on and I’ll see you in the next one.