But as the continued success of The Walking Dead shows, some formulas never go stale. Hell, even Archie is battling the undead these days. And it should come as no surprise that zombies are popular across borders, with even manga experiencing a boom in the genre. The Japanese version of the zombipocalypse isn't that different from what you find in American zombie films, though the flavoring can be a little weird at times, such as School Live! which mixes zombies with the cute-girls-doing-cute-things genre, with surprisingly effective results.
HIGH SCHOOLS OF THE DEADThe most important ingredient for any zombie story is the setting. The audience is paying money to see the familiar world getting torn down, so coming up with an interesting and familiar locale is key to capturing their interest. That's why Dawn of the Dead is the most effective of all zombie movies -- even putting aside the heavy handed anti-consumerist message, who doesn't want to see a shopping mall get shredded?
Which makes it amazing that it took until 2006 for anyone to come up with the idea of using a high school as the setting for a zombipocalypse. As much as we don't like to admit it in the post-Columbine world, every kid at some point, in the darkest part of their id, fantasizes about their school blowing up, or a despised teacher getting run over by a car, or Cthulhu rising in the middle of a football game and devouring the varsity team. It's a natural way of dealing with the frustrations of adolescence, and as long as it remains fantasy, as it does for 99.9999% of kids, it's no problem. Zombies and schools should fit together as naturally as an Oreo.
The first manga to take this idea and run with it was Highschool of the Dead by Daisuke and Shouji Sato (no relation). The series established what has become the standard set up for a school-based zombipocalypse. Our Hero Komuro is moping about on the school roof because Rei, the girl he has a crush on, is dating his best friend Hisashi. Suddenly his attention is drawn to a commotion by the front gate -- a gym teacher confronting a bedraggled man who's trying to get onto the school grounds. The man gets his head through the gate and tears out the gym teacher's throat. Other teachers rush over to help, only to get bitten when the gym coach comes back to life.
Komuro rushes back to class and grabs Rei, telling her she has to come with him right the fuck now, and yeah Hisashi can tag along. This doesn't sit well with the teacher, but the shits Komuro gives are not two.
Once the zombies get into the school, the situation deteriorates rapidly. If the students stay in their rooms, they become a smorgasbord; if they go into the halls, they get caught in a stampede. Best friends turn on each other as they realize the truth of the old adage -- you don't have to be faster than the lion, just faster than the slowest person running from the lion.
Komuro, Rei and Hisashi make it to the roof and try to hide out atop the water tank, but, alas, Hisashi is btten and Komuro has to murder his best friend, ensuring that any romance that develops between him and Rei will be filled with glorious teen angst. Komuro and Rei venture back into the school where they hook up with a couple other survivors, Saeka Busajima, the kendo club captain; super nerd Kouta Hirano, who is handily knowledgeable about guns and power tools; rich girl Saya Takagi; and school nurse Shizuka Marikawa, who happens to own a car.
At this point, only one volume into the story, the series abandons its title in favor the characters fleeing the school to search for their parents.
On the face of it, this is a perfect set-up for a zombie story, and in many ways it lives up to the premise. You've got action. You've got drama. You've got romance.
But, there are issues.
First, the artist, Shouji Sato got his start with X-rated comics, and it comes through here. All the female characters (save the little girl Alice who turns up later) are ridiculously well endowed -- seriously, there's a stat page in the omnibus edition that includes bra sizes, and the smallest size is DD -- and Shouji chooses his POVs to emphasize their bodies. This goes beyond the male gaze and into creeper territory as a number of shots provide up-skirt views of the women. And that's not even getting into the chapter where the characters find temporary refuge in an apartment and the girls bathe together.
The anime adaptation takes this to parodic extremes with a bullet-time sequence more ridiculous than anything in The Matrix.
If you can somehow tune-out the objectification of Shouji's art, though, the actual story still works and is less sexist than The Walking Dead.
At least, as much of the story as exists. Which is the other big problem with the manga -- it's been on hiatus since 2011, coming back for just one chapter in 2013. The story itself looks to be on track for the climax in just one or two more volumes, but there's no sign of that happening any time soon. Or ever.
No one's sure of exactly what the cause is, though the fan speculation is that the author, Daisuke, called a halt so he could work on other things (he's also a novelist), and Shouji got fed up with waiting around. We do know that Shouji started his own series, Triage X, during an earlier hiatus, so it's quite possible that he doesn't feel like putting in extra work on somebody else's story.
But that's okay, because in the meantime a ton of HotD knockoffs have sprung up, so there are plenty of other options for people looking for zombie manga.
The most direct imitation is Magical Girl Apocalypse by Kentaro Sato (no relation to either Daisuke or Shouji -- Sato's just that common of a name). As the name indicates, this isn't strictly a zombie story, but the plot of the first volume is a near one-to-one copy of HotD, the only difference being that the monsters are "magical girls." But don't let that term fool you. These aren't Sailor Scouts reliant on the power of friendship. These are eldritch horrors that happen to take the form of dark, twisted magical girls.
They use their wands to make people explode in bloody balls of giblets, and then resurrect their victims as new magical girls. (So it's still,kinda, a zombie story.)
As with HotD, the hero and his companions escape the school by the end of the first volume. Unlike HotD the hero's companions don't acquire plot-related immunity, and the death count continues to tick upwards until the reader is left wondering whether there's any point to getting attached to the characters since they're guaranteed to die within a couple chapters.
Thankfully the series arrests this tendency quickly, and, after briefly ripping of HotD's third arc (the inevitable, "we're trapped in a shopping mall" storyline), the author starts coming up with original ideas, spinning out a complex story involving time travel, double crosses, and the Kwisatz Haderach of witches.
The down side, however, is that MGA is basted in misogyny. With HotD the sexism was mainly confined to the artwork, with the actual story letting the girls be kickass heroines. If someone were to redraw the series with less objectifying art, HotD would be less sexist than the average summer blockbuster.
But in MGA, not only do we have sexist artwork, but one of the main characters is a police officer whom other cast members refer to as "the rapey cop." When he first appears, he's trying to use his authority to sexually assault survivors of the magical girl invasion. That'd be bad enough if he were presented as a bad guy, but instead he's one of the protagonists. At first he's presented as pure comic relief (yes, even his rapey tendencies), but he quickly becomes the most badass member of the main gang. And any time he does something heroic, it's because he hope if he rescues a woman from danger, she'll let him feel her "fun bags". And if his heroics fail and a woman dies, his only regret is that now he'll never get a chance to feel her "fun bags." Hell, even when the guy loses his arms, his only worry is that now he's never going to be able to touch a woman's breasts.
And this is supposed to be funny.
Much like MGA, the opening chapter of Hour of the Zombie is a straight lift from HotD, down to individual scenes being copied. But even more quickly that MGA, HotZ strikes out in its own direction, introducing a new twist that completely alters the direction of the story in a fascinating way. In this world, zombism isn't a permanent state. Rather, those who are infected turn into ravening zombies for about an hour, then revert to normal.
Naturally this alters the dynamics of the zombipocalypse at the most fundamental level. Normally the uninfected get to run around blasting anything that looks like a zombie, no remorse necessary. Sure, they'll shed a tear when a familiar face turns up growling, "Braaaaiiiins!" but then -- pop! pop! -- two to the head. But when the zombie will go back to being a regular person in short order, you can't do that unless you're a complete sociopath.
Of course being set at a high school, there are a couple sociopaths who are ready to slaughter the zombies no matter what, and even some who want to do it when the zombies return to their human state, since they're more vulnerable that way.
But on the flip-side, the infected aren't going to stand there and take it. Because they have no memory of being zombies, they see a situation where their classmates have gone crazy and seem ready to reenact the Rwandan Genocide. They respond by barricading themselves in one of the school buildings and planning a defense.
Only one volume of HotZ has been published in the US so far, and there are no scanlations, so there's no way of peeking ahead, so it's hard to tell exactly where the story is going at this point. Unfortunately, despite the innovative conceit at the center of the story, the execution so far has been plodding and by the numbers, so unless the story picks up in the second volume, the series won't be worth following.
Out of all the high school zombie stories, School Live! is far and away the best and most audacious. The story begins with one of those twists that are supposed to be a sucker punch to the audience even though it's impossible to market or discuss the series without describing the twist, thus ensuring that nobody will ever experience the twist as a surprise. In this case, simply mentioning this as a zombie story is a spoiler.
The first chapter is ostensibly about Megurigaoka High School's "School Living Club," a group devoted to developing sustainable living techniques. As such the three members, Yuki, Kurumi and Rii, live on campus at all times, camping out in the club room and spending their afternoons tending a garden on the roof, from which they derive most of their food. Realistically this is a ridiculous club that no school would ever allow, but anime and manga are full of clubs even more ridiculous. The most prominent recent example is the anime series Girls und Panzers, in which high school girls fix up WWII era tanks and engage in mock battles. By comparison, the School Living Club barely strains credibility.
And that's where the twist comes in. In the first chapter, the narrator, Yuki goes around the school acting like the main character in any moe comedy, engaging in wacky antics, having silly conversations with her friends, and just plain exuding happiness on a level that would make Snow White barf. But there's something subtely off throughout the opening chapter, which is only revealed as the supposed twist at the end -- you see, School Live! is actually set in a world where the SLC would be ridiculous and no school administrator would allow it to operate.
But it exists because there are no school administrators. Or students. Or teachers. Or even a world outside. The zombipocalypse has already struck. The three members of the SLC are the only survivors on campus. Traumatized by the site of all her classmates turning into vicious zombies, Yuki has retreated into a world of self-delusion, imagining that the zombies that roam the lower halls are still her classmates, the classrooms are all still neatly ordered, and there are still adults running things. Not knowing how else to handle Yuki, her two surviving classmates, Kurumi and Rii have decided to humor her by creating the School Living Club.
The series is thus just as schizophrenic as its heroine, with the gritty reality that Kurumi and Rii have to deal with daily being juxtaposed with the insipid comedy of Yuki's happy fantasies, creating a melange that is even more unsettling than if the story were a straight up story about survivors holed up somewhere.
JUVIE OF THE DEADHard as it is to believe, not every Japanese zombie story is set at a high school, and some don't even feature teenage girls. Case in point -- Fort of Apocalypse, about what happens to the inmates of a juvenile detention center when the zombipocalypse breaks out.
As fans of The Walking Dead know, prisons make excellent strongholds until human conflicts come into play. They're among the few fortified structures in modern civilization, with strong walls and open land all around. They even come with a limited number of firearms, an important consideration in less gun-crazed cultures like Japan.
But while The Walking Dead involves a prison appropriated by survivors, Fort of Apocalypse is about the prisoners. When the zombipocalypse breaks out, the walls don't prevent the infection from getting inside, but the guards are able to stop the initial outbreak and seal the gates against further incursions. Too bad for them they lost so many men in the defense that they're now at the mercy of the prisoners. After a short and bloody coup, a new regime takes hold of the prison, and the story looks like it's going to settle into a classic zombie-seige situation. There's even a handy counter at the end of each chapter to keep track of how many people are still alive on the inside.
If only the series had stuck to that.
But instead the main group of protagonists fall afoul of the new boss-man and he decides to send them on risky recon missions. Meanwhile some shady military force shows up at the prison, things go south, and by the midpoint of the series, the focus is no longer focused on the tension amongst the survivors, but on fighting the zombies. Things take a turn for the weird in the later part of the series when the author decides to introduce mutant zombies with intelligence and special powers (read: a lot of gobbledygook) that turns the story into a morass of action scenes.
It's too bad, the first five volumes are quite good, but as a series as a whole, it ends up going nowhere.
LOVE -- ZOMBIE STYLEFor all their quirks, the series I've discussed so far have followed the traditional formula for zombie stories laid out by George Romero in the original Night of the Living Dead. The next one, though, is that rarest of commodities -- a zombie story with original ideas.
Do you remember when Twilight first came out and there were bunches of horror fans upset that vampires were being used in romance novels? One common refrain at the time was, "What's next, sexy zombies?"
Well, now that you mention it ...
Chihiro Furuya is the son of a Buddhist priest, which means he gets to live in a totally bitchin' old temple full of fascinating relics. One day he's cleaning out the attic when he stumbles across a dusty grimoire which seems to contain notes on how to resurrect the dead. Chihiro happens to be a huge fan of zombie movies, and his room is stuffed with collectibles of all sorts, so naturally he grabs the book and gives it pride of place in his collection. He has no intention of ever using it, until one day his beloved cat Bub is run over by a car.
The recipe for creating a zombie seems pretty straightforward, but there's one bit where the writing is a smudged, and he can't quite make out one of the ingredients. He knows it's some kind of blossom, but he doesn't know what. So he packs Bub on ice and totes him over to an abandoned bowling alley where he sets up a lab.He figures he'll have the place to himself, but as he works into the night he hears a noise outside and goes to investigate.
What he finds is Rea Sanka (Sanka Rea in Japanese name-order), the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who lives in town. Rea's dad is an abusive asshat who's raising her as a pawn he can eventually marry off to seal a strategic alliance. (This is something that happens a lot in Japanese popular fiction, though I've never figured out whether it's an outdated cliche or something that still happens in the upper echelons of Japanese industry.) The only chance Rea ever has to be herself is to sneak away from her family's estate late at night and hang out at this derelict bowling alley. When Chihiro approaches her, she's surprised to find somebody else there, but she's fascinated by his experiment and offers to be his Igor.
Chihiro doesn't get any results that first night, so he comes back the next, and then the night after that. After a week, poor Bub's body is starting to decay despite being covered in ice, and Chihiro has to face facts -- if he can't figure out the last ingredient by the next night, he'll have to give up. Rea's horrified at this -- Chihiro's the first real friend she's ever had, and if he gives up on Bub, he'll have no reason to hang out with her any more.
On the final night Chihiro tries one last concoction with hydrangea blossoms as the missing ingredient. But before he can try it, Rea's dad shows up. He's grown suspicious of the way Rea's behaving and followed her out. He flies into a rage at seeing her with a boy and chases her out behind the bowling alley, where she tumbles into a gully and breaks her neck. Mr. Sanka is horrified at what he's done and gets the hell out of there. But Chihiro climbs down to the body and gives her the latest concoction,
And it works.
Rea returns to life, seemingly the same as before except for some problems with her digestive tract. But as time goes on, Chihiro realizes that the zombie elixir is less than perfect. It reanimated Rea, but it didn't stop her body's decay. He has to keep her out of sunshine, as that'll exacerbate the problem, but even so she still starts to deteriorate. The worst part is that it affects her mind as well, causing her to take on more and more zombie-like traits, including a desire to eat the people she loves.
The story goes through several distinct arcs. Early on it resembles nothing so much as E.T., with Chihiro trying to hide the fact that he has a girl living in his bedroom. Later a zombie researcher arrives and Chihiro learns the truth about the grimoire and how it relates to his own family, then things take a turn for the action-oriented as he and Rea are whisked away to a zombie research station where he hopes to find a way to arrest the decay ... but of course zombie research stations are always bad news, and the people running them even worse.
The series constantly walks a fence between romantic comedy and zombie horror. The tension between these two extremes can be jarring at times (particularly the aforementioned zombie researcher, who oscillates between comic relief and ominous presence), but overall it works. As the series progresses it tends more towards the horror side, making the moments of romantic comedy heart-wrenching as they become fewer and father between. The ending, without getting into spoiler territory, tries too hard to be all things to all readers, but the ride to get there makes the series worth it.
HIDEO OF THE DEADYou know how the joke in the first twenty minutes of Shaun of the Dead is that the zombipocalypse has broken out but Shaun is too thick to notice? Kengo Hanazawa's I Am a Hero takes that premise and plays it totally straight.
The titular hero is Hideo Suzuki, a struggling manga artist who's forced to work as an assistant for another artist. Working late into the night and sleeping through the morning, Hideo's main source of news is Boob Morning Japan, a show that airs at 3:00 AM and focuses as much on the anchor's chests as the stories they cover. So when reports pop up about strange incidents throughout Japan, Hideo barely notices. Even when he witnesses one of these incidents himself -- a woman gets hit by a taxi and walks away like it was nothing even though her neck's bent 90 degrees -- he doesn't think much of it.
Because, you see, Hideo has a tendency to hallucinate. A woman walking around after getting run over is no stranger than the little boy who appears in his toilet bowl.
But other people are only slightly more with-it than Hideo. In part this is thanks to the slowness with which the zombie plague spreads. Whereas movies often assume it would only take a single night for things to get so bad that law-and-order break down, or at most a couple days, the epidemic here simmers for a full week before reaching critical mass. The media tries to play things down to avoid panic. People go about their lives, not realizing the world is ending until it's too late.
What makes this possible is that nobody in I Am a Hero seems to have ever seen a zombie movie. This is implausible unless we presume this takes place in an alternate timeline where George Romero never made Night of the Living Dead, but it does avoid the problem that a lot of modern zombie movies have. When a character in a horror movie encounters a vampire or a werewolf, they know what to do because they're familiar with the "folklore" surrounding such creatures. Even when the folklore was invented by Bram Stoker or F.W. Murnau, the audience can still pretend that it's actually ancient knowledge that's been passed down throughout human history.
But folkloric zombies are nothing like the ones that populate the typical zombie movie. No, movie zombies are derived almost entirely from NotLD with a few tweaks from Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead (the originator of both fast zombies, and brain-eating zombies). Worse still, zombie movies almost always treat zombies as a de novo problem -- you never see a movie where zombies have always been around, or where there have been past zombie outbreaks that have been suppressed throughout history, so there's not even a possibility of fictional folklore for the characters to draw upon. So if they know how to handle zombies, it's because they've seen zombie movies. But how does that make any sense? That's like somebody inventing a time machine that just happens to be powered by a flux capacitor that needs 1.21 gigawatts of juice, and only works when the vehicle it's in is traveling at 88 miles per hour.
This is of course why Danny Boyle made a point of not using the z-word in 28 Days Later and making the infected behave in ways that are kinda like zombies but not quite. But most zombie movies just handwave the problem away, or ignore it outright. O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead, which treats Night as a documentary about a chemical weapons accident, is the only zombie film that I've ever seen to address the issue head on.
So Hanazawa's tactic of creating a world where nobody knows what a zombie is, is a refreshing change. If zombies are going to be presented as a new phenomenon, then everyone should treat them as a new phenomenon. And so we get scenes like the one where Hideo kills his zombified girlfriend and tries to call the police, and when he gets a recording he writes a note confessing to what he did and explaining why he had to do it. Seeing people having to figure out how to deal with zombies is a lot more interesting than everyone grabbing a gun in the first five minutes and shooting everyone who grrrs.