I know what you’re thinking: “Zombies? Why do you keep writing about horror anime, Jonathan?!” First, watch your tone, I’ll do what I want. Second, Zombieland Saga is far from a horror anime.
Idol culture is a huge industry in Japan. For the uninitiated, idols are groups of pop singers manufactured by the music industry and are typically composed of cute young women. Because of the popularity of idol groups, the anime industry has its share of idol-based shows. My girlfriend, Patti, was obsessed with one of those shows, Love Live, so I watched the first series with her. That experience cemented my disdain for the genre. However, when I discovered that an idol anime featuring zombies was recently released, I needed to watch.
Zombieland Saga follows the formation of an idol group composed of seven cute girls who also happen to be zombies. The premise sounds ridiculous, but that just fueled my intrigue. Although zombies are generally associated with horror, Zombieland Saga is overtly comedic. Don’t be scared of the zombies, but beware of spoilers, anime-niacs.
The show begins with a high school girl, Sakura, getting hit by a car and killed. She awakens 10 years later with amnesia, but all of her faculties. A very energetic young man, Kotaro, tells Sakura that she is a zombie, and that she and six other zombie girls are going to revitalize Saga prefecture by forming an idol group, for which he is the manager (sounds perfectly reasonable). Unfortunately, the six other zombies do not have the awareness that Sakura has.
The other girls initially feature the generic characteristics of zombies: They have green skin, move slowly, and groan. Regardless of their condition, and much to Sakura’s chagrin, Kotaro schedules a performance at a local death metal club (you can’t get more metal than death-metal zombies). When the girls hear the loud and fast music play, they begin to headbang. Since their joints and limbs are extremely flexible as zombies, the crowd is impressed with their movements. The combination of music and headbanging seems to “wake” all of the remaining girls except for one.
Once the girls regain their faculties, it is clear that they have very distinct personalities and are from different eras. Saki is an aggressive biker from the 90s who misses her Tamagotchi. Junko is a loner, and a former idol from the 80s. Ai was a member of an idol group in the 2000s and has the most experience. Yugiri is a very elegant woman who likely lived in the late 1800s and was a courtesan – a prostitute to the wealthy. Lily is a pre-teen who was a television star. Although Kotaro introduces all of these girls by calling them “legendary,” he has absolutely nothing more to say about Tae (oh but I do in exactly two paragraphs). This girl never officially wakes from her zombie state, but eventually exhibits awareness of her surroundings and retains some memories as she interacts with the others.
Although the group must hide the fact that they are zombies, the primary conflict throughout this show is improving routines and increasing exposure to become an established staple in Saga. Eventually settling on the name, Franchouchou (pronounced Fran-shoo-shoo), the girls stumble through their first performance, but eventually improve and land larger events. I have certainly spoiled some of the plot, but this show would not have had the appeal it did without interesting characters (well, interesting undead characters). All of them certainly have positive traits, but two of them particularly stood out.
Although Tae never receives an official backstory nor does she ever “wake,” she is easily the funniest character. She growls, bites others (don’t worry, no one gets zombie-fied this way) and wins the Kashima Gatalympics, which are basically the Olympics in mud, in a hilarious turn of events. Surprisingly, she actually develops as a character by the end of the season. A situation leading to Franchouchou’s final performance of the season reveals that Tae has some intelligence as she works extremely hard to convince one of the others not to leave the group (despite what the mainstream media tells you, zombies have feelings too). Even more interesting is a reveal about another character that I completely missed when Patti and I first watched.
One episode focuses solely on Lily, and although it is a wonderful story with a bittersweet ending, I completely missed an enormous reveal – Lily is transsexual. I believe that a few small sections of dialogue weren’t translated well because she is never explicitly referred to as “transsexual.” I had a whole new appreciation for the character once I read this (thanks, internet). I’m not going to preach social justice and the importance of diversity in this column, but I hope if someone reads this and then watches the show, having this knowledge beforehand enhances enjoyment. Regardless of the endearing characters, I believe this show has deeper meaning (and certainly deeper than their graves…heh).
Both Love Live and Zombieland Saga have similarities in that the main characters of both shows aspire to be successful in their respective idol groups and must overcome hardships to do so. Love Live was a very simple show with no deeper meaning than “follow your dreams.” I believe shows like that are marketed to people who may simply find the girls’ costumes pretty, the songs entertaining, and are willing to easily digest the extremely basic message (sorry, Patti…I love you). However, I think that Zombieland Saga offers much more.
The girls in Franchouchou are zombies – essentially brain-dead actors who entertain the masses in a way that so many others have done before. The message is that those who belong to idol groups are mindless performers who enact repetitive variations of dance routines and constantly sing about love. Although these were my initial thoughts, I’ve come to read more into the show. These girls are zombies from different periods of time, and although nothing will ever be the same for them, they still want to perform. Regardless of the enormous changes to which they must acclimate, such as (mostly) avoiding family and friends from their respective pasts, it is clear that performing brings them all joy. Perhaps Zombieland Saga just does a better job illustrating the difficulties that girls must overcome to be idols, because the difficulties that the girls in Love Live encountered were superficial and simplistic to the point of ridiculousness. Furthermore, Zombieland Saga helped me realize something about myself and my own attitudes in regards to idols (that zombies can make literally anything better).
In the second episode, the group performs for the elderly, but the performance quickly descends into a mess and an argument on stage leads to a rap battle between Sakura and Saki. The elderly absolutely loved the performance. In the first episode, two of the death-metal fans enjoy the group so much that they attend all of Franchouchou’s performances throughout the season. Perhaps this means that idol groups and their songs can appeal to literally anybody. Obviously, even zombies enjoy it! Why should I question someone else’s joy just because I think it’s ridiculous? Certainly, I had trouble understanding Patti’s very serious enjoyment of Love Live, but it made her happy, so I supported it. I should not look down upon idol groups, anime about such groups, nor the fans who love them, because not every show needs a deep meaning to be enjoyable.
Even without trying to intellectualize Zombieland Saga, it was so damn good. The first episode had me wanting more, and the second episode completely sold me on the show. The characters are sympathetic and endearing, and because the girls are so wonderful, their collective plight becomes even more interesting. Still, not much is revealed about how they were raised from the dead, nor does everyone get a backstory. I sincerely hope that this show gets a second season so more can be revealed. I would recommend Zombieland Saga for fans of idol groups, idol anime, or comedies. If a show about an idol group appealed to me, I’m certain it can appeal to anyone.
Note: Featured image for this article by Yuugiri