High School Royale

High School of the Dead recently began airing and has brought the irrepressible zombie to a media which has peculiarly ignored their archetypes in favour of more culturally relevant afflictions such as demonic possession and the like. Based on the manga of the same name, in only two episodes the series has shown a remarkably sympathetic hand for including genre sensitive elements - is that the signature tune for 28 Days Later at the end of the first episode?

it says volumes that the only females to survive are curvaceous and beautiful

Widely credited with the creation of the zombie movie genre, George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead is one of his earliest and most widely known movies and champions a lot of the situations and scenarios that High School of the Dead apes. More interestingly though, Dawn of the Dead and its mall setting is a scathing commentary on the decadent consumerism and hedonism of the period which is still just as relevant today. Like the best fantasy and sci-fi its fiction was a critique of society and culture, a relevance which very few zombie movies have managed to achieve since.

It raises the question though of just what High School of the Dead is trying to say, if anything? The most obvious is that, like Romero's mall, high school is rotten and the students are denounced as zombies. Not exactly original and simply transposes Romero's message to a new locale - it does however fit with stories regarding Japan's schools: students forced to learn by rote, memorising endless figures and trivia without any awareness or fostering of creativity, safe in the knowledge hundreds of schools across the country are being exposed to the same curriculum at the same time; the only way to survive is to succumb to the same ethos and join the shambling, mute masses.

The setting is more than just zombies in a school though, the first two episodes at least are about students trying to break free and the only way they can do that is by fighting their classmates. This triggers ideas around individuality within a strict and homogenising education system and has been explored by others through symptoms such as gangs and fashion groups. This idea unfortunately falls flat in High School of the Dead when it transpires the students which do survive long enough to band together fall neatly into defined cookie-cutter character types and their only demonstration of individuality is in the colour of their hair which can be attributed more to eager character designers rather than a rebellious attitude.

The fighting between students however is very reminiscent of Battle Royale which, like Dawn of the Dead, laced its carnage with an underlying message, in this case that high school is hell, students fighting against students where only the strong or the cunning survive. Here though, some students are fighting however the rest are devouring each other, wandering in search of their next victim in the same way a bully would looking for someone weak and out-of-place. In that sense the zombies are the normal ones, blindly taking chunks out of their fellow student until someone not ensnared by the system comes and bludgeons them over the head.

What is most fascinating though (for various reasons) is the amount of fan-service present in the series; certainly it fits in with the primal, lizard-brain combat - fighting games such as Dead or Alive and later iterations of Soul Calibur have extolled such an approach not to mention many horror movies featuring gratuitous nudity alongside deplorable violence. Continuing with the concept of fiction reflecting of reality, it says volumes that the only females to survive are curvaceous and beautiful rather than plain and uninteresting - who have no doubt already been devoured.

How the remainder of High School of the Dead pans out will be key to whether these theories and allusions hold water or whether the zombies are simply easy antagonists for a group of high school misfits. From the end of the second episode it seems likely the series will take on board the barren nihilism of an apocalypse, perhaps commenting on slices of Japanese society or as a whole rather than simply lambasting the education system. Of course, this could all be ascribing too much to an anime and manga that rides on the back of a well-trodden genre while throwing in a bevy of strumpets for eye candy while cashing in on the ebb and flow of zombie interest.

Responses to “High School Royale”

There is a great speech in chapter 5 of the manga that pretty much sums up the most of the message of Highschool of the Dead until chapter 20-22. It is a bit spoilerish, and you might see it in episode 5 or perphaps 4.

It is said by Hirano pointing his nailgun to someone:
"I have restrained myself. I have always held it in [against all the abuse/bullying]!I wanted to have a normal life so I held it in. BUT normality doesn't exist anymore!Normality is now a death concept! So I will kill you! [insert evil/maniac face]"

FOR ME, that is main message of HotD!! What does people do when law/order/routine/"normality" disappear from the face of the Earth?

Some will turn angels, some will turn demons, others will not accept this until the zombies are bitting their neck, and others will show what is the meaning of human life.

As you said, all the characters look as stereotypes; but all of them are simple masks that will be shed out once the concept of "normality" disappears...and also that is the starting point in which their demons within starts to pop out.

I am really excited about this show and I hope it goes as a great hit.
Hmm...I'm not really expecting any social commentary a la Romero now. Hell, even Shaun of the Dead squeezed in some similar home truths and observations in the same vein when it wasn't being a comedy but I'm expecting pure, entertaining trash TV from this. The commentary/irony you outline here in setting a zombie attack in a Japanese high school is a neat idea now you mention it, but it was clearly lost on the writers...a shame really, since it would make the production more satisfying! There's certainly a lot of potential in there, as well-trodden as the zombie theme has become.

Similarly, it could as easily have been a Battle Royale with zombies, which again makes for something pretty special in terms of characterisation and chemistry between the cast members when under extreme conditions. Sadly it's another broad, fascinating avenue the show could've taken, but hasn't: the characters are, with the exception of the Kendo girl, bland and forgettable (the geek's GAR moment with the nailgun made me chuckle though, I admit). I'm not one to make an issue over cleavage and pantsu shots but the, ahem, proportions are too exaggerated for my liking.

I hope the moments of action and tension are enough to keep me watching, because those are the only two aspects that have held my interest so far. It's almost deliberately going for a lazy 'one track mind' approach to storytelling, when it could be so much better with a little extra effort. Not that my expectations were high to begin with or anything.
I think it's definitely ascribing too much to HSotD to expect any kind of depth or critique to its story. Like you say it would have been nice, but it's still great fun because it doesn't take itself too seriously. For once a series seems to have had the budget and the chutzpah to go all out and dispense with woolly pretence and Big Questions About Important Things.

It reminds me somewhat of Spriggan in its all action attitude which is definitely not a bad thing, like you say, as long as it's kept fresh I can't see me having anything but love for it.