Zombie Land Saga: Songs for the Dead

It’s the day of idol tryouts! Sakura Minamoto is pumped, let me tell you. She grabs her breakfast, yells a hurried goodbye to her family, races out the front door and…

Idol anime is a favourite least-favourite of mine, we’ll say. The elements in play – the stresses of achieving the heights expected by not only fans but also the management, the camaraderie in a tense situation between the cast members, and of course the music is generally pretty good – but the actual genre on its own has never been for me. Combining idol elements with other genres – as in Symphogear or Macross Delta – has generally been a winning combination though!

So enter Zombie Land Saga, which seeks to take the trials and tribulations of being a role model, media personality and pop star and mixing it with a little…horror?

Apocalypse Wow

Bursting onto the scene from Studio MAPPA, who recently made waves with the heartwarming, progressive-minded Yuri!!! On Ice, Zombie Land Saga features Franchouchou, a group formed to “save” the Saga prefecture of Japan from falling into obscurity through marketing its various provisions. In a deliciously meta touch, the show itself is obviously written to do this in real life, with eyecatches of the characters enjoying Saga in live action photos and the show’s locations being directly lifted from the real place.

Their producer, Kotaro, is loud and proud of the group he has created, and will stop at nothing to see them perform, chewing the scenery in every scene as he drives them to greater and greater heights. And though the title has obviously spoiled this well in advance, he was also the one responsible for exhuming the corpses of girls from across time and reanimating them to form his group.

Onwards to idoldom! Zombie idoldom!

Initial episodes focus on the group’s proper founding, as Sakura finds herself the only member of the group with a human mind. She swiftly “wakes up” all but one – the legendary Tae Takemi, who becomes something of a team pet – and they begin to establish a bit of a group dynamic while beginning to make a name for themselves in the idol world.

Get Rich or Die (Again) Trying

This gives rise to some really interesting moments which swiftly become show highlights. The most notable is a brief exclamation that almost blows the group’s cover in Episode 2 which they play off as a rap battle – and it’s incredible. Other episodes – which feature the group taking part in sports days and relaxing – also flesh out the group (err, so to speak) and add a lot of character to the show. As the show expands, these isolated moments of musicality expand into full songs, performed generally at the close of each episode.

These songs are okay, but I personally don’t have much love for them aside from the absolutely banging opening theme. I really appreciate the emotional resonance of a few of them however, with the concluding song of episode 8 making basically no impact as a piece of music, but as a story element it’s positively resonant.

We then swiftly break into a series of character focus episodes that give us a bit more direct insight. TV star Lily Hoshikawa. Biker chick Saki Nikaido, famous idols Ai Mizuno and Junko Konno all receive their own 20 minutes of fame, in which we learn a bit about their life before their undeath, or get a peek into the impact they left on the world. The only group member who doesn’t really get any focus is famous courtesan Yugiri, who we learn about through sprinkled tidbits of information across the series.

Rise Up

One massively important element of Zombie Land Saga is that it contains one of anime’s most brilliantly realised trans characters in the form of Lily Hoshikawa.

I generally think anime is behind the times when it comes to attitudes towards sex, but praise must be awarded for such a respectful representation here. There were people who fabricated that Crunchyroll invented her trans status through subs (disproved through the linked article), and I feel terribly sorry that someone can be so bigoted and also so blind to the events of her episode.

Lily’s episode is a heartfelt coming out story that explains her origins and how she was formerly known as Masao Go, assigned male at birth and more comfortable identifying as Lily, her persona from the TV show she starred in. The episode touches on her relationship with her father, her acceptance from the rest of the group and her writing of a heartfelt song to help her father process her death as he becomes a fan of her new group. It is astonishingly lovely.

LGBT representation in anime – and more specifically from anime fans – I’ve seen has been through “traps”, as they’re called – characters who you’re “fooled” into thinking are women before it transpires they are actually male. If that sounds problematic, that’s because it is. Characters like Astolfo from Fate/Apocrypha are non-binary (pronouns “they”) but are dismissed by some anime fans as “a boy who dresses like a girl”, for instance.

Lily is a new benchmark for representation. One needs only to read Carlos Cadorniga’s wonderfully written piece To Lily, The Best Trans Girl I’ve Seen in Anime and you can see the impact she has had.

Removing the Head (Or Destroying the Brain)

Okay, so I said it was idols mixed with horror, but the girls simply being zombies is about as far as the concept really goes. Initial episodes give the impression that this will be more of an issue – a run-in with a policeman and a few delinquents in an early episode is a highly memorable scene – but the show quickly becomes much more interested in being a wholesome exploration of these girls’ new lives.

The girls all perform in make-up, which is seemingly infinitely resistant to water and damage, so there’s basically no danger of them being caught. They occasionally pop apart, but they fit right back together again, and survive almost everything that “traditionally” kills or harms zombies; explosions, cold, even gunshots and being totally dismembered is of zero consequence.

Even a zombie’s trademark desire to feast on the flesh of the living is totally absent here – they make a throwaway comment about placating them with squid and that’s basically the end of it, with even the totally feral Tae never getting close to biting a human. I’m not exactly suggesting that these characters rip off peoples arms or gouge out any eyes, but these have got to be the least horrifying zombies in fiction.

In one episode, a character actually discovers the group’s secret and is so scared by it that she forgets it – the status quo restored to normal once again. Yugiri outright says that she doesn’t think about how times have changed in the almost thousand-plus years since she died. The character interactions and comedy more than make up for it, but if you’re looking for a show that balances its zany antics with some drama of maintaining the masquerade, Zombie Land Saga is absolutely not interested in being that.

Grave Errors

These character moments demonstrate one of the show’s most prominent assets – its gorgeously crisp art and animation. More than any other show in recent memory, this show has extremely defined character art and incredibly expressive characters, bursting with colour and humour, which only gets better as the girls get to know each other better and rib each other all the more.

However, this is not consistent across the run. More than a few of the full dance sequences – including the final performance of the season – use CG to render the cast of Franchouchou in what looks like – but one would hope wasn’t – a cost-cutting measure.

I’ve heard justification that this is a joking dig at Love Live!, but having not seen that show I don’t really get the joke – and it happens too often in Zombie Land to reliably have been intentional or funny. There’s even a sequence where a gorgeously (traditionally) animated idol group plays before the CG Franchouchou, and the difference is too prominent to be ignored.

In an ideal world, these CG sequences will be updated or outright replaced with traditional animation for the Blu-Ray release, as happened with Mekakucity Actors and the scattershot animation of the first season of Symphogear. Time will tell, I suppose, but an otherwise gorgeous show in every frame is let down here, and I hope it gets remedied.

Final Thoughts

Zombie Land Saga ends its first season with several questions left unanswered, and I sincerely hope it receives a second to further explore those ideas. In its brief 12 episodes thus far, it has shown that it can combine a unique premise with pitch-perfect comedy and – mostly – sterling animation to create something really rather excellent.

So grab yourself a nice cold pint and let the whole show blow you over.

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