Highschool of The Dead is more than fan service

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A lot of fan service with a good plot, or a good plot with lots of fan service?

[ NOTE ] This article may include spoilers. 


Zombies have saturated our screen time in the last 10 years. Since Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of The Dead in 2004, we’ve been bombarded with comics (Marvel’s Zombies, The Walking Dead), books (World War Z), video games (Dead Island, Dead Rising), and of course, movies adapted from all these previous works. In Japan, however, the Zombie phenomenon didn’t make such an impact, and there are fewer examples of media based of the undead. Perhaps the most popular work is Highschool of the Dead, a series known for it’s “subtle” panty-shots and “totally necessary for the plot” cleavages. Unfortunately, these aspects made Highschool of the Dead popular for the wrong reasons, as there are many interesting aspects in the series that are worth taking a look at besides swinging boobs.

Highschool of the Dead is more than fan service - At least hunger is a real addressed problem in Highschool of the Dead...
Actual dialogue from the OVA

The manga, written by Daisuke Satō and illustrated by Shōji Satō, was released in September 2006 and is currently on hiatus. A 12-episode anime adaptation was released during the summer of 2010, with an OVA coming out a year later. The story follows a group of high school students as they try to survive during a zombie outbreak. Along the way they must face the undead, known simply as “Them”, as well as enemy survivors, all while trying to find food, shelter, weapons, and a way out of the catastrophic event.

Before we go any further, we should let clear that HotD is not for children or even young teenagers. Its reputation is well deserved. It’s a bit more than just a few gratuitous scenes showing almost naked girls from almost invasive points of views. Erotization is an intrinsic part of the narrative. We have two main characters who are stereotypical teenagers surrounded by a group of girls who represent all kinds of fetishes (from the classic “girl next door” to the sexy teacher). The girls wear mini-skirts and the camera always takes advantage of that. If you are not comfortable with this kind of content, be warned. Of course, there’s more to it. While the manga became famous for being a fan service festival (and the anime adaptation got notoriety for the infamous “slow motion bullet boob scene”), Highschool of the Dead is a more complex product. We can see that the concept of the “zombie apocalypse” is viewed differently in Japan, but since there aren’t many Japanese zombie-themed shows or movies, we can’t tell for sure.

Highschool of the Dead is more than fan service - A lot of scenes would be equally good without fan service.
A lot of scenes would be equally good without fan service.

I was particularly drawn to it by the atmosphere of the show. There’s a certain vibe to it reminiscent of American slasher films like Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday 13th. The whole idea of a group of teenagers facing something way bigger and more powerful than them mixed with erotic elements is something that we don’t see very often nowadays. Let alone in anime and manga. 

Highschool of the Dead is more than fan service - A complex group of characters is one of the strongest points of the series
A complex group of characters is one of the strongest points of the series

In between zombies and fan service, we follow a cast of spectacular characters. With the exception of the school’s nurse (who seems to be there simply because of her curves and usefulness to the group), the main cast is composed of complex and realistic characters. They are established as clichés in the beginning (the lone samurai, the nerd with obscure knowledge, the girl whose relationship with the main character is “complicated”…), but the series quickly adds layers and layers, making them more real, deep, and believable. We see their response to the outbreak from their very first contact with it, and witness their evolution as characters, and as heroes. It’s interesting to note that during the first part of the series, they had to use handmade weapons, practice swords and whatever they could find, to slowly “level up” until they end up with proper equipment. In the meantime, the group learns to work together slowly after understanding that the only way to survive is to be together. Of course, these are the main characters and they are heroes, but they find that sweet spot between “being a shonen hero 24/7” and “letting everyone else die”, managing to survive, but still being human. All of them interact nicely with each other as well as with the world that surrounds them, while still keeping their internal struggles. Some question whether their parents are alive or not, what caused the outbreak, or what are they supposed to do now. This is particularly interesting with Hirano’s character, arguably the one with the most ‘human’ reactions in the group.

Highschool of the Dead is more than fan service - Taking care of each other is a strong concept in Highschool of the Dead
Taking care of each other is a strong concept in HotD

The settings are amazingly drawn both in the manga and the anime. They truly manage to capture the horror the author was trying to convey. Unlike in other zombie stories, the outbreak here feels dangerous. The characters avoid conflict and only battle when necessary. Being surrounded is a bad thing to let happen, and whenever possible, they try to be as silent as they can. That’s more than we usually see.

The narrative flows perfectly, and you’re never sure about what’s going to happen next. Besides their stop at a certain apartment, the travel route feels natural and intuitive. I was particularly impressed by this, because by the time I had my first contact with HotD, I was already getting tired of the whole “zombie apocalypse” thing, yet it managed to be a fresh addition to an overdone genre. Taking something everyone writes about and giving it your own twist is hard, and I praise the creators for that.

Seriously, who thought this was a good idea, Highschool of the Dead creators?
The infamous scene where Saeko’s boobs “dodge” a bullet, defying physics.

I find it hard to recommend this series. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked it! But it’s easy to see it as simple fan service, and yet another harem shonen with action scenes and hot schoolgirls. While it’s impossible to read or watch it and ignore the fan service (dude, there’s a 10 minute scene with four naked girls in a bathtub, 10 minutes), it truly deserves a spot among the best works of this genre, if only for trying a different approach to it. Try to read it keeping that in mind, and noticing the wonderful backgrounds, engaging atmosphere, and thinking about the differences between traditional western zombie stories and Highschool of the Dead

 

Also, Darth Vader is Luke’s father. What?! I said this article would contain spoilers!

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Gregory Vendramini

Translator, author, and piñata enthusiast. Greg currently writes about anime, videogames, and pop culture while working on his next books, "A Long Halloween Night" and "The Fifth Archangel". He avoids social media a little, but is very open to exchanging ideas through emails or comments. Or in person, if somehow you find his house in the woods and get past the cat guards.

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  1. Wow! So I’m not the only one who thought this! I’m relieved…

    I think your observation about the plot, complex characters, and realistic take on the zombie apocalypse is spot on.

    I also think the series had some of the strongest female characters I’ve seen. Saeko is wicked-powerful, and Saya is fiercely intelligent. I’d love to have them on my side when (if!) the zombies attack.

    1. Hi, Terrance!

      First of all, thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

      You’re definitely not the only one. HotD has a lot of fan service, for sure, but there many strong characteristics overshadowed by that.

      You gave me a pretty good idea. I might write an article in the future about the best characters to have by your side during a zombie apocalypse. If you don’t mind, of course.

      Cheers!

  2. This was one of the first anime shows that I watched when I was getting into anime during collage, just realized its been 4.5 years since I first saw HOTD. I really enjoy it and have been able to rewatch it for exactly the reasons you mention the characters seem like real people. Even if they are physically impossible.

    Though in all fairness and one of the reasons why I cannot ever knock a show for excessive fan service is that I was trier HOTD for the T&A (Tits and Action). If it helps get someone to watch anime its not the worst thing. This was the same reason why I started Rin: Daughters of Mnemosyne which has some great characters and projections on the future of technology but does have torture porn aspects.

    1. Hi!

      First of all, thanks for taking to time to read and comment on my article! When we write about things that aren’t ‘new’ but are not ‘classics’ either, not many people show interest into it.

      Fanservice is hardly a bad thing, don’t feel ashamed of it. I never watched Mnemosyne, but one of the things that first got my attention to the TV series ‘Spartacus’ was what you called T&A (and by the way, I’m definitely using that from now on).

      HOTD and many other shows that include nudity, porn, or ecchi, would never stand on their own. You can’t watch 20 minutes of porn each week for three months and say it’s a great series. You may come for the T&A, yeah, but if that’s all that there is to it, you’ll probably not come back.