Halloween Special – Japan Wins at Zombies

1_4

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.

 

Unpopular Opinion: Koutestujou no Kabaneri

You know I usually I don’t do longer analytical posts of newly finished show but I saw a video a few days ago talking about why Koutetsujou no Kabaneri was a good time despite how a ton of people on the internet said it went way downhill, and I feel the need to speak up as well. If you haven’t seen the show and want spoiler free recommendation to watch or not watch, my answer is yes, you should absolutely watch it, now let’s dig into the show in more detail.  There will be spoilers ahead.

So the argument presented in the video that got me to write this post was as follows: Koutetsujou no Kabaneri was never about making a great story is was about showing you a bunch of awesome shit and making sure you had a good time, so it seems weird to complain about the weak story elements.  I’m grossly oversimplifying and cutting the argument down of course but that was the main thrust of the video.  And I have mixed feelings about this.  Because I don’t this video’s argument is wrong per se, I just have a different perspective.  Because in the video part of the argument is that all the plot elements that come into play in the second half of the show, which is what most people seem to be ragging on, are present early on and are predictable as fuck.  I agree with this part of the argument but I don’t a lot of the things people are complaining about were ever bad nor do I think the story doesn’t really matter.  This brings me to the director of Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, Tetsuro Araki.

Araki has worked on some of the biggest shows in the anime industry, he directed Death Note, Shingeki no Kyojin, High School of the Dead and now Koutetsujou no Kabaneri.  However despite his rather impressive resume I’m not much a fan of Araki.  My impression of Araki is that he is phenomenal at crafting big hype moments, at making mind-blowing action scenes or building up tension so high that eating a chip can become hype as fuck, this is Araki’s strong suit and it’s a great strong suit to have, in my opinion him being good at big dramatic hype moments is what has made his biggest hits so damn popular.  However, I also feel like Araki is pretty bad at telling stories.  In Shingeki no Kyojin and Death Note in particular I felt like Araki mangled the pacing of the show by throwing us into the action right away and then being forced to get slow as fuck to get all the setting and plot details to catch up to the big action scenes.  This could just be a fault of the source material as well, I don’t know, but Araki’s shows tend to get a lot weaker when slower, plot driven episodes take center stage.  This presents a problem for me because I am a story guy, like don’t get wrong I dig the hype moments and I’ll take a good hype moment over a mediocre story any day, my favorite scene in Shingeki no Kyojin was when giant Eren threw giant Annie over a huge building and then crashed through the building to keep the fight going for instance, but ultimately stories are more interesting to me than just big moments.

This is why I think High School of the Dead might be Araki’s best work, because it doesn’t need a story at all, it’s basic zombie fare with better action and hilariously over the top fanservice.  To some people that makes High School of the Dead low hanging fruit, but I always loved High School of the Dead though because it has great, memorable moments as it moves from one action set piece to the next with story that is simple and easily understood, really it’s more of placeholder than anything.  High School of the Dead is a show where the big ridiculous moments and drama (and of course fanservice) are king, and in my mind that what Araki is great at and the show never suffers from slow, plot driven episodes, which is what he’s not so great at.  This is why I understand why so many people think the second half of Koutetsujou no Kabaneri is bad, regardless of their actual reasoning, what details they take issue with and so on, Araki has always been weaker when it comes to plot to me and it’s not at all unreasonable to expect the same of Koutetsujou no Kabaneri.  Even the guy who made the video I’ve been mentioning thought it went downhill in the second half even though it was still a good time.

But this is where I disagree, because I don’t think anything went downhill.  In fact my main complaint is that the show wasn’t given enough time to properly flesh itself out.  Because while the show had plenty of hype moments it also had excellent story elements which, if further explored, could have made for a really impressive story.  For example one thing I found myself questioning was why did the pregnant woman from episode three take so long to turn into a Kabane when Ikoma was going to be turned super fast.  But then I remembered that Ikoma’s sister took a long time to turn, and then they brought up that only female Kabaneri can become Fused Colonies and it got me thinking about how the show has what it takes to make total sense of the Kabane virus.  See because men and women can have different symptoms or be affected differently by the same disease or condition all the time in the real world, you easily apply the same logic to the Kabane virus and if given the time work out how it functions exactly it could be very interesting.  Likewise Ikoma’s and Biba’s technology makes sense, while also being awesome steampunk shit.  In the video the guy making the argument I’ve been referencing was saying that all kinds of aspects of the show was just about making it cooler, and I don’t disagree so much as I think he’s not giving the show enough credit.  Sure coating swords in the metal of Kabane heart cages to make the blade stronger is there so we can watch someone sword fight with uber zombies, but it also makes sense as a scientific-technology concept and it could potentially be applied to other shit the same way that Ikoma’s jet bullets could be fired from his steampunk pressure gun or the more traditional steam rifles all the bushi used.  Speaking of Ikoma’s gun, in retrospect it reminds a lot of the fat nerd from High School of the Dead and his improvised nail gun, like they have the exact same shorter, snub-nosed look and the fat guy and Ikoma take the same stance when using them, no joke, go compare them it’s awesome.

Likewise I feel that Biba and his group were a lot more compelling than most people give them credit for.  Sure what he did is fucked up and is by normal standards crazy, but to me he had a very clear logic behind him and I totally get why his men followed in in his insanity.  See Biba both literally and figuratively gets backstabbed by the Shogun, his father.  This is the inciting incident for him turning into a madman and it makes perfect sense.  So get this, you’re twelve and your dad sends you to command a crazy dangerous mission, and against all odds you are doing a good job, then he cuts off the supplies and leaves you to die.  I’d be more surprised by someone who didn’t crack at all in those circumstances or who didn’t want revenge.  And it’s why it makes sense that Biba and his men would go so overboard in the show, they’ve all been left to die and they all feel betrayed and bitter, get a group of people like that together and you have a recipe for disaster.  Not to mention I get why they think differently from everyone else, most people are cowering behind the walls actively avoiding Kabane, Biba and his men are dedicating everything they have to fighting Kabane, their lives are utterly consumed by violence in a dog-eat-dog world where the weak inevitably die off, that it’s all they know.  This is why one of Biba’s men can cut a dude’s arm off and not be at all troubled by it, this is why Biba and his men can level cities and wipe out hordes of helpless innocents and not bat an eye, they no longer have any concept of social norms or peace because those things are meaningless to them and their everyday lives.  Likewise they have been numbed to violence so where everyone else see tragedy when Biba wrecks a city, he and his men see another day at the proverbial office and are not troubled.

Biba and his men have even more weight lent to their actions by their ideals.  Because Biba and Ikoma have almost exactly the same ideals save that Ikoma doesn’t think the strong survive and the weak die.  Both of them want the bushi to stop cowering in fear and fight, to stop killing other people in their fright, like what happened in episode one, to man up and take the fight to the Kabane.  However Ikoma sees the value of the cities as a way to keep the weak safe, Biba sees the cities as what’s holding humanity back and encouraging fear and weakness among the bushi so he’s setting out to destroy them, and get back at the Shogun while he’s at it. Basically the main point I want to make is that I find Koutetsujou no Kabaneri very impressive because it has Araki’s signature hype moments but also has competent storytelling and excellent story elements even if it doesn’t have enough time to flesh them all out in the level of detail I would like and thus do not live up to their full potential for me.  This isn’t to say the show has no problems or has elements that don’t make sense.  Like how come Ikoma and Horobi get blueish-purple psychic powers when they take the black blood, how does that have anything to do with the Kabane?  But Koutetsujou no Kabaneri leaps over the these problems in a heartbeat both by being one of the best examples of storytelling on Araki’s apart, the slower episodes were actually decent in Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, and having some of the best hype moments and music of anything I’ve seen in some time.  And for the record this show shits all over Shingeki no Koyjin, so that’s worth some points in my book.

In my opinion this is a must watch show, it’s not the savior of anime, one of the greatest things of all time or even one of may top ten favorites, but all the same I think it something everyone has to see at least once, if for no other reason than to form your own opinion.  For me, I see the work where Araki improved his directing and compensated for his usual weaknesses which is impressive, and I dug the show the entire way through.  Like I said my biggest complaint against the show is that there wasn’t enough of it, which is really just another way of me saying what we had was so good I want more of it, which I feel is high praise.  Anyway I hope you enjoyed the read, if you’re feeling up to it I’d love to hear your thoughts on the show, and I’ll see you in the next one.

PS If you want more content about Koutetsujou no Kabaneri, you can find more posts here and here because I’m very much into this show.