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Reaper's Reviews: 'Zombie Land Saga'

Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

By the end of its run, this was THE most popular anime of 2018.

By the end of its run, this was THE most popular anime of 2018.

Zombie Land Saga Review

Production: MAPPA
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Format: 12 episodes
Release: October 4, 2018 – December 20, 2018
Source: Original

While idol anime shows definitely have their niche among western audiences, it suffices to say that they are a much bigger deal in their native Japan.

Idols are a very big part of the modern Japanese entertainment industry and culture, and they have huge followings along with very high sales and popularity. And as such, idol anime often tend to be overwhelmingly successful, selling tons of merchandise and creating juggernaut franchises in weeks.

Here in the west, though? If it’s not The Idolmaster franchise or Love Live!, which even then might not have that much of a broad audience among western viewers, chances are that you have never heard about it. And yes, I’m aware of series such as PriPara and Skip Beat, but let’s be honest, only about 5% of the anime community has heard of them.

So what happens when studio MAPPA realizes they have some budget to fill in another airing slot? Well, someone on the writing team thought to himself what would become of said series if they replaced all cute girls with cute zombie girls and make the entire show a lighthearted mockery at the idol genre.

Zombie Land Saga is the type of story that occurs every once in a while; from a relatively small project whose staff expressed very little faith in, the series became a mega-hit after its first episode, and by the end of its run was THE most popular anime of 2018, not to mention the acclaim it received among western audiences.

So it wasn’t a surprise that I eventually decided to pick it up shortly after having had my share of dark, twisted and bleak shows for the past few weeks. You know what was a surprise? That it was one of the best anime that I’ve watched in years.


Story & Setting

A generic schoolgirl with a love for idol singers, Sakura Minamoto (even her name is generic), seems to be in high spirits one particular morning. It’s all nice and dandy as she goes off to school…only to get hit out of nowhere by a truck and promptly die. This was in 2008.

Ten years later, Sakura wakes up in a seemingly abandoned mansion and is chased away by what appears to be six zombie girls. After a series of misunderstandings, Sakura finds out that she, too, is a zombie. She and the rest of the zombie girls - all from different areas of Japan’s history - were resurrected by a shady and eccentric stranger called Kotaro Tatsumi.

Kotaro then reveals to Sakura that she and the other girls are to form an idol group whose main purpose is to save the Saga prefecture, which has been in decline for several years now. This crazy yet amusing set-up eventually leads to the formation of the idol group “Franchouchou.”

Zombie Land Saga is nothing like what its promotion suggested it would be, and that final paragraph solidifies that notion. After being marketed as a rather generic zombie flick (though in Japan a serious zombie anime is a rare sight), the first episode quickly reveals that the series is far, far sillier once all the smoke faded away. In all twelve episodes, ZLS takes its goofy premise and runs miles with it for all it’s worth.

And the result is nothing short of brilliant.

Okay, sure, there are some shortcomings here and there, but rarely have I encountered a series that, for the most part, manages to be so consistently gut-wrenching hilarious thanks to superb comedic timing and wonderful scenarios, while also being able to drop everything presented before and tell surprisingly heartfelt stories about its main characters.

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The humor never delves into cheap one-note jokes nor does it try to get overwhelmingly offensive to get a chuckle or two. As the characters are so well characterized with defined personalities, their interactions lead naturally to over-the-top encounters, snarky jabs at one another or clever visual puns.

The comedy never feels like it’s just there to fill in. In a similar case to KonoSuba, its charm comes from writing around the characters, not around the jokes themselves, which in turn gives birth to a more organic sitcom-like hilarity. This series is just so damn fun, and its humor is so varied that you can rewatch the series so many times and still find new little bits that make you appreciate it even more.

For the most part, it also blends very well with more serious scenes, where the humor is toned down, but is still presented with a more down-to-earth approach and less over-stylized expressions or animations, sometimes to black comedy levels. Even in some of its most serious character drama moments, the fun and lighthearted vibes never really go away, but the series knows how to make them co-exist together.

Now as for the drama, what is shocking is not that it’s there - because many comedies just love throwing it in - but how respectfully genuine it is. All girls have died in some truly heartbreaking ways, some of which also affected their behavior with the rest once being resurrected, but the series rarely allows these moments to lose their impact as they get intertwined with each girl’s personal development.

ZLS really doesn’t shy away from portraying the raw, uncertain emotions of its zombified protagonists, who suffer from regret, low self-esteem, fear and loneliness. When two members of the group get into a fight, the series spends an episode and a half at carefully examining and resolving their differences as well as ironing their friendship and motivations, while also subtly building towards their fight earlier through specific lines and actions in previous episodes.

And this is just one example from a goddamn horror-comedy series. There are even more personal stories about dealing with people from one or two of the girls’ pasts and another girl dealing with her increasing depression, and it’s just excellent writing that knows how to balance being funny, and heartfelt.

Now, it’s not always perfectly balanced, but this is more a nitpick than anything serious. There have been a few times where the series shoved in a joke that I found to be… inappropriate or unneeded at the time. It wasn’t a big deal, but I felt somewhat annoyed that the production team decided to play one of the girl’s death scenes for laughs rather than continuing with the more somber tone. It’s not a big deal, but it was a noticeable thing.

The series presents itself as a parody and soft attempt at a deconstruction of the idol industry. While for the most part, ZLS does sugarcoat some aspects of that industry, at the same time it also takes an insightful look at the struggles and hardships that idol singers have to deal with, ranging from the stressful hours they need to invest in practicing, to joking about abusive managers which the series takes to its logical extreme, not to mention its on-the-nose portrayal of idols as zombies.

This helps it become a particularly worthwhile gateway series for people who considered trying an idol anime before, but were too confused or uncomfortable to continue. It gives an interesting peek at a relatively obscure industry, and while still being fairly idealistic, it also gets into more “behind the scenes” elements that most series tend to ignore, but it has so much heart that it at the same time it tries to show just what idol singers mean to thousands of people who see them as a source for joy and hope.

I didn’t like the fact it ended with a little stinger, though. It was obvious that a second season will come out, but it somewhat robbed the series of having a more conclusive finale.


The Characters

The characters are the absolute best of Zombie Land Saga. As I mentioned earlier, ZLS has some truly brilliant characters with depth, development and defined personalities, making them all the more funny when you watch their wild shenanigans between each other, and they become even more relatable when you witness their normally hidden vulnerable and mature sides.

Our main protagonist is Sakura Minamoto, which I swear is among the most generic names that I have ever encountered in an anime, but it does make sense given that she is the most balanced of the main seven.

Sakura is your average everyday schoolgirl, being gentle, kind, cute and overall a nice person to be around with. Unlike the rest of the girls, Sakura has no unique ability or a glorious past that made her famous or popular in life, but it is exactly for this down-to-earth yet idealistic nature of her that she becomes the very heart and core of the group. Even without her memories, Sakura almost always proves to be insightful and witty, and once her own character arc gets into motion, she comes full circle to realize the extent of her potential.

Next up is Saki Nikaido, a hot-blooded and vulgar girl who used to be a leader in a biker gang back in the 1990s. She stands as the band’s most headstrong and rebellious member, who constantly bickers with or teases her co-workers, but is appointed as the band’s leader due to her past experience. But despite that, her character mellows out as the series goes on, becoming a trusty - if still unorthodox - leader and friend, and befitting to her personality, her past is one of the less… somber ones, as she is pretty laid-back about it.

Following her, Ai Mizuno is the only member of the band who was originally an idol singer in a previous group before her death, and as such is the most experienced one when it comes to idol matters; that said, unlike the other girls, she has a lot more trouble adjusting to her current situation, which forms a story arc lasting until around episode 7 where she not only becomes a full-fledged member, but also comes to terms with her death and current position, and her progress by the end of the series is among the cast’s best.

Similar to Ai, fellow idol Junko Konno also has some difficulties adjusting to her current situation, but being an idol from the 1980s, her problems lie more within how the industry changed since her death. While she is the band’s most reserved and shiest member, she also happens to be their best singer, and similar to Ai, her progress of accepting the new reality of her undead life is compelling. Also, she’s my favorite character from the series.

After Ai and Junko comes Yugiri, notable for being from a far earlier time period than any of the other girls, the 1880s. She is the band’s most mature member, almost always talking in a motherly and polite manner… And tends to slap the hell out of the girls when one of them acts miserable. Sadly, out of the six girls, she is one of the two who don’t really get much regarding their pasts, and she lacks any character arc, which is a shame because she is wonderful.

The youngest of the girls is Lily Hoshikawa, a cute child actress from the 2010s. As expected from her age, she is the band’s most childish and cheerful member. There isn’t too much to talk about Lily without delving into spoiler territory, but I would say that her focus episode is among the best in the series, if not the best.

Finally, we have the Legendary Tae Yamada, the only one of the girls to not regain her consciousness and the resident comic relief as a result. Similar to Yugiri, Tae doesn’t get as much focus as the rest of the girls. That said, she also has a very subtle development as the series goes on, culminating in her role in the final two episodes where she finally shows that she is sentient enough to care for her friends.

The supporting cast is very small and is made of fans and friends who Franchouchou manages to gain, some of which are linked to some of the girls’ past. Normally the majority of them only have a major role in one episode, but their screentime is wasted cleverly to establish a deep connection to some of the girls.

Oh, and, of course, how could I forget about the breakout character of the series? Kotaro Tatsumi is the eccentric manager of Franchouchou, the one behind resurrecting all the girls, and - if you ask any person who’s watched the series - is the real star of Zombie Land Saga. There isn’t a character who is louder or funnier than the girls’ hyperactive shades-wearing manager, who steals every scene in which he appears and whose charisma dominates almost everyone.

While he is capable of being calm and supportive, he simply prefers being as insane and bombastic as they come, but one thing is for sure: I doubt the series would have been as fun without him.


Animation & Art

On a technical level, I’d say that Zombie Land Saga is rather average, which is not bad for a comedy/drama series, even if I’m sure studio MAPPA is better than this. While there is nothing that particularly impressed me in the animation, it’s perfectly serviceable for the series as a whole.

The best thing about the series aesthetically - besides its large color palette - is its very wide array of character animations and expressions. Aside from the fact that the character designs are so vivid and recognizable and blend zombies with moe exceptionally well, I really enjoy how eccentric and exaggerated the animations of the characters can get when they get into hilarious situations, with Sakura’s facial expressions being some of the greatest in recent memory. Hell, Saki’s episode even spoofed things further with overly rough and shounen-like stares.

Also, another aspect that I enjoy is how the zombie girls are portrayed depending on the point of view; for the majority of the series, whenever the girls are seen without their human-like make-up, they still look remarkably cute for decomposing corpses. However, whenever any other human besides Kotaro sees them, they look like more stereotypical zombies with morbid and sunken features. It’s that small thing that is just really cool.

Now, I’m not particularly sure if the concert scenes deserve to be criticized or not. Using CGI for all these dance sequences is an industry standard for idol anime, but I can’t help it that the transition can feel jarring and out-of-place, especially when digital animation is used in-between said scenes.

It doesn’t really help that the CGI itself is rather inconsistent in terms of quality, because there are some shots that can easily rival The Idolmaster’s more polished CGI (not to mention the highlight of the lightning concert in episode 7), and at times it almost borders on early Polygon Pictures productions. That said, the choreography is pretty damn good most of the time.

By the way, I would also like to point out that the opening sequence is one of the most visually stylish to come out in recent years.


Audio & Sound

Yasuharu Takanashi is a talented composer who was at the helm of Zombie Land Saga’s score, which is pretty good, as most of his works are. It’s catchy and upbeat, but also knows when to be gloomy or somber, and is always on-point depending on the scene that is playing out.

But let’s be honest, the real meat of the soundtrack is the goddamn glorious insert songs used for the concerts. From the girls’ flagship song “Mazme Returner” to the hard-hitting “Atsuku Nare” led by Ai and Junko, the rockish “Tokkou Song” led by Saki and the beautifully bittersweet “To My Dearest” led by Lily, each one of the insert songs is instantly memorable.

Even among all those high-quality songs, the highlight is the jaw-dropping rap battle between Sakura and Saki during the closing events of the second episode, which is simply awesome.

To go with its stunning animation, opener “Adabana Necromancy” - sang by the main Japanese actresses themselves - is just so catchy, quirky and joyful and will be stuck in your head for ages. In contrast, the ending theme “Hikari e” is a calmer and more slow-moving song that simply feels soothing.

Now as for the voice acting, the good news is that the English dub is pretty good with some good talent such as Ricco Fajardo, Brina Palencia, Caitlin Glass, Bryn Apprill and Stephanie Young, and is very well-acted all around. Now the bad news comes in two waves.

At the time of this writing, the series is yet to be released on DVDs and Blu-Rays dubbed, which will add the actresses singing the series’ songs in English, so for now it is slightly jarring when the characters simply move from English to Japanese, including some cases of non-lyrical Japanese dialogue here and there as a result.

And the second part… Well, you would probably avoid the English dub simply because of the fact that Mamoru Miyano voices Kotaro. I am not sure what Miyano took before recording his lines, but his voice acting for Zombie Land Saga was nothing short of brilliant. He is the primary reason why Kotaro is such an enjoyable character, and while I liked Fajardo’s take on the character, Miyano simply injects him with so much insanity and randomness that it’s just impossible to unhear him.

So in short: if you love English dubs, I suggest waiting for the CD releases of the series once the recording of the songs is completed, because the dub is good. At the same time, I also highly recommend the Japanese dub, simply because Mamoru Miyano is amazing. This was the first time in ages that I watched both versions of a series in rapid succession.


Overall Review

Nobody could prepare me for what Zombie Land Saga was all about. Its deceptive trailer and early lack of hype could very well doom it to obscurity, but this series hits all the right notes and then some. ZLS can be one of the funniest shows around with superb cast dynamics and great timing, but at the same time, it is also a surprisingly mature and sensitive series that blows most dramas out the water with its tender writing and affable characters. Couple this with effective parody and celebration of the largely obscure (in the west) idol genre and ZLS is something truly special.

Zombie Land Saga has so much heart in it, and watching its unconventional characters grow is both amusing and relatable. 2018 will be remembered as one of the biggest and most important years for anime ever with its ridiculously gigantic offering of excellent shows and movies, but even among the mountain of great anime, Zombie Land Saga stands out. It fully deserves its unexpected success story and I can’t wait to see how will MAPPA build upon its foundations, as Zombie Land Saga has all that is important: genuine writing, a slew of unforgettable characters and a pure sense of fun.

The Good:

  • A clever and fun parody on the idol singer genre
  • Manages to be both funny and heartfelt without derailing itself too much
  • The characters, especially Kotaro, are absolutely brilliant and lively
  • Filled with catchy and addicting songs

The Bad:

  • A few hiccups here and there in meshing up the comedy and drama together
  • Some of the girls (Yugiri and Tae) get sidelined
  • Ends on a minor sequel hook (nitpick)

& the Ugly:

  • Will Yugiri count as necrophilia?

As for alternate recommendations:

  • Love Live - Let's go with the obvious for the first recommendation, shall we? Love Live may not be the first idol anime ever made, but it's easily the most well-known nowadays, features a plethora of likable girls, great dancing choreography with far more polished CGI in comparison to ZLS, and superb songs, so if ZLS made you itching for more idol series, the Love Live franchise is a good start.
  • Samurai Flamenco - Similar to ZLS, Flamenco is an oddball of a parody, in this case of superheroes. While its shift from a parody to a bizarre deconstruction of the genre may be a little questionable, like ZLS, Flamenco is one hell of a crazy ride and a loving celebration of tropes and cliches from start to finish.

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