Zombie Land Saga

3 out of 5

Directed by: Munehisa Sakai

covers season 1

Just like English-based media has a particular style of weird / nonsense humor that doesn’t track for some – think Adult Swim stuff – some Japanese anime has its own form of relative randomness that probably has a genre term of which I’m unaware. With Adult Swim (and the like), the more you watch, the more palatable and recognizable its variants become; similarly, at first blush, anime that may seem wholly insane likely has a lot of tropes you’ll see more and more of if you explore, and then you get used to it. Still, some mash-ups catch me off guard and manage to charm by dint of their concoction – almost like the mind that dreamed up the mix must also imbue the series with qualities that make me like it.

I watched Zombie Land Saga simply because it was produced by MAPPA, whose work I’ve been digging lately. I went into it cold, not knowing what to expect beyond ‘zombie’ being in the name, and the cover image featuring young girls. After a few minutes, we get our premise: seven girls have been resurrected as zombies by a yelling dude wearing shades and a suit for the sole purpose of forming an idol group, which will perform and dot dot dot revitalize the Saga Prefecture. Some of the girls have their senses – like our POV character, Sakura (Kaede Hondo); some don’t, walking around, chewing on humans and growling. But they’ve all got to be part of the idol group anyway. While I guess you could see this as a dated offshoot of the zombie obsessiveness that produced things like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the way the show just dives head-first into both its “halves” – zombie series; idol series – is so weird, and hilarious, and awesome, that I loved the thing right away. I just wish it maintained that energy throughout, or chose a tactic to pursue instead of resolving to a sort of middling approach after a few episodes that definitely maintained the charm, but ultimately felt like a watered down version of the same show.

Initially, though, as the girls get to know one another, their perpetually shouting manager / resurrector, Kotaro (Mamoru Miyano), keeps sending them out on oddball assignments which result in either uncomfortable, half-polished performances, or impromptu, like, battle rap sessions; the idols get to be the “straight” characters played against the absurdity of their zombieness and inserting that mixture into the real-ish world, climaxing in crazy or funny or enthusiastic songs at episode’s end. Drizzled atop this is some sense of mystery regarding Sakura’s past, as well as Kotaro’s “real” motivations. However, once the girls get their singing and dancing together, there are no more battle raps – they resolve to singing pretty typical pop idol stuff. The sound mixing falls pretty flat during these songs, making them seem more humdrum than they are; MAPPA’s CGI motion capture that’s employed for animating the dancing drops frames, making the scenes lack fluidity. It’s a shift. And while the cast is uniformly engaging, the plots shift away from bonding-as-a-group hijinx towards episodes dedicated to various girls’ pasts. This isn’t uninteresting necessarily, it’s just, again, very, very typical stuff, and sometimes seems to completely forget the whole zombie aspect of things. By the time we wrap back around to Sakura and Kotaro’s motivations, it’s way too late, and lands with a lil’ bit of “that’s it?”

I’d stack all of that negativity – which seems like a lot, I’ll agree – against the outburts of zany humor that still populate each and every episode, and though I think the way the background explorations were done doesn’t mix well with the overall flow of the series, they’re all actually really good as individual episodes – oddly very grounded, and emotional, and well-written. But again, that comes at the sacrifice of the more wild tone with which we started, and which very much grabbed my attention.