Boobs, guns, butts, zombies, blood, and boobs. You excited yet? Highschool of the Dead sure hopes so. I’ve put off watching this anime for years, due to the schlocky and off-putting first episode, but finally sitting down to watch it proved, once again, that Testuro Araki sure knows how to make schlock entertaining. HotD, a predicament many viewers likely faced while watching this, is severely flawed at its worst but a hell of a ride at its best.
The story follows five high school students and the school nurse as they come to terms with the zombie apocalypse and just what the hell is going on. Rather than start in the middle of it, this show is a bit unique in that it starts just hours before the zombies actually arrive, and we get to see the action unfold bit by bit. It all starts with one bite and soon the entire school is overrun with the undead. Friends betray friends, people are eaten alive, and some find the strength to fight back, all while the usual high school hormones are flaring at their highest.
The first thing that immediately springs to mind about this anime are the visuals. Bright colors, beautiful lighting, solid animation, sexy character designs (maybe a bit too sexy for some?), HotD rarely misses a beat when it comes to the animation. No matter how much is going on, the visuals remain crisp and fluid. Madhouse is known for being the best in the business of manga adaptations and this here proves why. HotD can be broken up into basic elements: zombie action and boobs in your face, often both at once, and the series knows exactly how to make the most of each one.
The zombie fighting isn’t brutal, nor is it disgusting. Although this is a zombie anime, it’s never an ugly anime, and it doesn’t try to be. This is one of the most pleasant zombie apocalypses I’ve ever seen. Plenty of background characters are betrayed, eaten alive, zombified, eaten again, and yet nothing of any real consequence happens to any of the main characters. And that’s fine. That’s the point. The series is focused on the action first and foremost and it delivers solidly, ramping up the tension just enough to pump you up for the next battle, but never enough for it to bring the mood down. Several characters even mention how much fun they’re having mowing down these mindless masses. It’s more of a question of how they will survive rather than who.
One the flip side of the coin, against all odds, every female survivor of the zombie apocalypse seems to be beautiful, independent, excellent in a wide variety of areas ranging from combat skill to impressive intellect, and somehow extremely horny. And the show REALLY wants you to know that. When HotD isn’t focusing on battles against the undead, it’s focusing on the, rather ample, assets of its female cast. Actually, even during the battles. Readily apparent on the box, promotional material, opening, and just about everywhere else, no one can claim HotD isn’t wearing its two bouncy hearts on its sleeve, but it does make it immediately obvious why this show was such a hit when it came out.
And yet, it doesn’t feel pandering, at least not as much as most anime. There is almost nonstop focus on bouncing mammaries and exposed undersides, but the characters have personalities and agency. They often know how sexy they are and are perfectly okay flaunting that fact while also kicking ass. Obvious reasons for that aside, I’d much rather girls of this type be sexualized than the usual moeblob with a mind of a 5 year old. The show is even pretty tame with its child character. No one stands out as especially layered or compelling but I found myself enjoying these characters much more often than not. Bravo, HotD, bravo.
The plot is nothing unique or even particularly well told, but the step by step pacing that moves the characters from set piece to set piece is very well done, especially early on. The viewer is in the moment with these characters, experiencing this new world along with them. Every zombie encounter is tense and grabs your attention, but not so harrowing as to elicit any negative emotions from the viewer. This is a show meant to be fun and it sticks to that as often as it can.
Unfortunately, once the show stops to actually try and take a break or develop its world, that’s when things fall apart. The first episode in particular had me on edge and is one of the reasons why I never bothered watching this series for a long time. Takashi is a rather uniquely annoying protagonist, a purportedly badass but self-entitled brat who seems to have acquired his zombie-slaying talent simply by virtue of being the main character. Rei, his childhood friend and would-be love interest who is apparently highly skilled with a spear due to being a member of the sojutsu club, is totally helpless and gets slapped around by Takashi more than than by the zombies. These two are just insufferable in the first episode, fighting over a love triangle that should never have existed in the first place and no one in the audience could possibly have a reason to care about. That, along with how the series seemed to relish in secondary characters betraying, sacrificing, or just being generally nasty to one another, left a sour taste in my mouth. Thankfully, that is not a problem for most of the series and Rei becomes a much better character. Takashi, unfortunately, does not.
The main character is, strangely enough, one of the worst things about HotD (a fact that the anime-original OVA seemed to agree with me on). He’s whiny, boring, and hesitant, things he gets called out on in the show itself. Takashi comes off as a strange misstep on a cast of otherwise likable characters that manage to step out of their own stereotypes a bit and make a lasting impression. Every scene he has with Rei is a train wreck, inevitably leading her to compare him to her old boyfriend and ending with him whining about it. Not making a good case for yourself there, Takashi. Rei at least manages a little better by showing some personality in her scenes separate from him. Saeko is the crazy swordswoman, Saya is the bitchy genius, Shizuna is the ditzy nurse, Kouta is the gun otaku. They’re all memorable characters in their own right. The only thing I can remember Takashi for is how he’s that guy who whined about not being Rei’s boyfriend.
And this leads into the much larger problem with the series as a whole. For the second half of the series, the characters manage to make it to a safe haven where there are other survivors and it is horrid. Finally a place to unwind, develop the characters, and learn a bit more about the world. Sounds like a good time. They did that earlier in the series and it worked like a charm. The difference here is that the zombies are no longer a threat. So instead, we get to see how incompetent everyone but the main characters are, how insufferable the main characters can actually be for almost no real reason, and how the plot of this show for some reason involves the entire zombification of the US government leading to nukes going off in the atmosphere of Japan, wiping out all of their electrical equipment. What is this? Why is any of this happening? Where are the zombies? Why did Takashi pick up Saya when he was angry like a spoiled child in an adult body? Wouldn’t it have been much more interesting to see the characters we grew to care about helping each other survive than have them bicker in a peaceful mansion while god knows what happens outside? Give us the show we came for HotD. Stick to what you’re good at.
All in all, HotD is a very enjoyable experience for the first 9 episodes or so, not so much for the rest, but it definitely left me wanting more, which can’t be a bad thing. Unfortunately, it left off in a pretty bad spot and, since we haven’t gotten more in six years, it looks like we never will. The manga continues to be on hiatus due to a dispute between the artist and the writer and it looks like the conclusion to this happy accident might never see the light of day. It’s a shame, really. Schlock this good doesn’t happen every day.
Overall a very enjoyable show with fun characters and great animation that almost lost a point on the last arc.