Psychological Horror Escapism Lost In Translation
It is generally expected if not a courtesy for critics to warn of spoilers before discussing any story in detail, even when it sometimes feels unnecessary such as with classics acclaimed for decades. This is a special case, however, where I’d be remiss to not be EXTRA insistent.
To any readers that may have clicked on today’s blog, but are unfamiliar with this particular property, I’m afraid I must assign some preliminary homework. Please, I beg you, DO NOT read any further if you haven’t seen School-Live! yet. I mean it! Stop reading this RIGHT NOW, go check it out, and then come back. Trust me, you won’t regret it
The anime is only 12 episodes and available online as well as on Blu-Ray in both English dub & Japanese subs (For the most authentic and emotive voice-acting, I typically prefer the original Japanese). To do otherwise would not only be a huge disservice to this critical analysis, but also deprive you as a horror fan of the chance to experience a story I cannot recommend highly enough through fresh eyes! To clarify, while I will occasionally reference the original manga on which this series is based to illustrate certain points, my comparison will primarily treat the anime as a separate entity to be judged on its own strengths & weaknesses. Now, with all that out of the way, let’s dive into how this cinematic retelling measures up against what is in my opinion some of our generation’s best executed psychological horror!
Students Yuki Takeya, Kurumi Ebisuzawa, and Yuuri Wakasa live at Megurigaoka Private High School. As the School Living Club, they perform different activities every day, overcome obstacles while learning life lessons, and have fun together under the guidance of their caring teacher/club advisor Megumi Sakura. Eventually, they meet classmate Miki Naoki and invite her to join along with the adorable dog Taromaru. Behind all the laughs & sisterhood, however, the real reason for this club’s existence and their unusual living situation is something horrific, something Yuuri and Kurumi don’t want Yuki to know about. It’s only a matter of time though, before she sees the truth. But how will this innocent girl react when she faces it?
Beginning serialization on May 24th, 2012 in an issue of Houbunsha‘s Manga Time Kirara Forward magazine, Gakkou Gurashi! (literally translating to “Living at School”) or School-Live! was written by Nitroplus‘ Norimitsu Kaiho and illustrated by Sadoru Chiba. Quickly building a reputation from there, its first tankobon (Japanese equivalent to a volume) was published by Houbunsha on December 12 of that year and continued until the final volume’s release on January 10, 2020 (78 chapters total). By March 2017, Manga Time Kirara Forward’s Twitter announced that the manga had sold over two million copies. Its success has grown to the point that a sequel was announced to start development in June.
On June 21, 2014, an anime TV adaptation was announced that would be directed by Lerche’s Masaomi Ando. Kaiho among others wrote while Chiba and Haruko Iikuza handled character design. The series, which covers events from the manga’s first 32 chapters or first six volumes, debuted to Japanese viewers in 2015 from July 9-September 24 and was simulcast by Cruncyroll. Its pilot episode alone garnered much praise, being viewed over one million times on Niconico and drastically reigniting interest in the source material with a ten-fold increase in manga sales.
On June 27, 2017, the anime was dubbed for a U.S. release but slower to gain traction with Western audiences, chiefly due to a lesser marketing presence (I myself didn’t hear about it until almost three years later and can’t recall seeing the manga in bookstores). Worse, Blu-ray sales for the first season were so poor that whether the anime will be renewed for a second is currently unknown. Regardless, School-Live!’s continued popularity overseas all but guaranteed a film adaptation at some point. Sure enough, in Manga Time Kirara Forward’s 2018 issue, that dream was announced to be a reality.
Back To School
What muddies the waters somewhat is that it’s unclear at times whether the film is trying to be more of an adaptation of the anime or manga. Because it takes influence (minor & major) at points from both versions, it can be difficult to distinguish for an honest, consistent analysis. This is one reason why, as said, I’m mainly judging the movie against the anime but will reference the manga too.
What Is The “Right Way” To Adapt An Anime?
Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. Bringing any anime or manga to life is challenging to begin with. Every story in every genre differs to some degree, meaning they must all be treated with a case-by-case approach, and the overwhelming majority of attempts have been met with mixed to negative reception.
In my experience, these failures are due to three main factors which I’ll add greater depth to as we go on:
- There’s an inherent difference in how our brains process animated figures & environments vs. real people in physical locations or sets. However accurately the setting and its cast’s appearances are recreated to make you believe these are the same characters in their own world, there will always be at least some viewers who ultimately don’t resonate. Certain adaptations succeed more in this regard than others, particularly those drawing from more grounded fictions as opposed to fantasy-heavy worlds (Ex- The live-action Rurouni Kenshin trilogy). Regardless, there are some aspects of animation that simply can’t be replicated outside the medium.
- Much like adapting superheroes, many fans will have conflicting ideas on who’s the best fit for specific roles. Whether or not audiences can see this person as that character often preemptively affects their feelings before even experiencing the adaptation. This is in our nature as a primarily visual species. We instinctively associate certain traits with faces we see over a long enough period. Thus, any deviation from that recognizable image (even if it in no way contradicts the character, story, or lore) risks apprehension toward the new version if for no other reason than its unfamiliarity. A perfect example was the controversy surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 film adaptation of Ghost in the Shell.
- How faithful the director and writers are to source material will always influence comparisons between the adaptation and its predecessor. Straying from the latter is not necessarily a death sentence though, depending on how well the plot handles whatever creative liberties are taken in the interest of run-time and standing on its own merits. This is another factor where the Rurouni Kenshin movies delivered, being critically praised in spite of how much was changed or cut out from the manga & anime. Another example is Harry Potter, the novels being adapted into one of the most successful movie franchises in history.
While I made every effort to give this movie a fair chance in spite of its trailer’s first impression, the cast did little to bolster my faith in the project. Of course, I personally don’t mind actors in adaptations not being clones of their animated counterparts. Hair dye, wigs, and eye contacts may be a resource, but seeing actors wearing colors like purple and pink would still naturally make it a tiny bit harder for me to take their performances seriously (It’s tough enough already, as I’ll explain shortly). My issue is with the immediately noticeable fact that Shibata seemingly didn’t even try. Almost nothing about these characters, save for the absolute bare minimum, has any resemblance to the anime. I can say with no exaggeration that more effort went into making the school look faithfully accurate, which isn’t saying much. I’m slightly more forgiving of the girls since they at least have their uniforms, albeit with virtually all distinguishing features missing aside from Kurumi’s pigtails. The worst offender, however, is Megumi.
This goes well beyond creative liberties and is pure laziness. If it wasn’t for her name, the watch and the crucifix (which I almost missed in her introductory scene because it’s so small), NOBODY familiar with this IP that I know of would guess this was Megumi. It doesn’t matter to me that she lacks the cute hair antenna & hair clip, nor that her outfit’s different. But by God, couldn’t the costume department have found some balance between making her look more believable vs. looking like a completely different person? I haven’t been able to find this film’s budget, but even an Indie flick could afford something better. I don’t care if somebody had to shop for materials at the nearest thrift store, money does NOT excuse this.
The Problem With Translating MOE To Live-action
For those who are new to the genre or have enjoyed it but don’t know the term, Moe (pronounced “Moe-eh”) is a Japanese word used in connection with manga or anime to describe something precious, usually (but not always) the ideal of innocent, untainted femininity. Written with the kanji 萌, which translates as “To bud or sprout”, the concept covers a range of generally idyllic behaviour for youthful female characters. It’s also one main source for Westerners often stereotyping anime as “kids’ stuff”.
This is unfortunately where the movie shoots itself in the foot and falls flat on its face before the signal gun has even started the race. Why? Because it’s adapting a genre that hasn’t yet proven to work with living, breathing actors in comparison to animation. In the world of cartoons, there’s generally an expectation for at least some exaggeration. This is a universally understood and relatable aspect of the medium, regardless of country or culture. Be it within the characters’ features, body language, mannerisms, feats of action in relation to physics or lack-there-of, sound design, or the style & atmosphere of the setting, exaggeration goes hand in hand with a platform that has historically always been built on complete freedom to deviate from reality and/or reflect it based on the artist’s intent.
As said, live-action media of any kind is inherently more limited in this regard due to the unavoidable fact that it is still operating within a tangible, physical reality. However much special effects advance, whatever fantastically detailed sets, makeups and costumes we make, however much money studios throw at a project, that won’t change. The mind will still unconsciously attempt to differentiate between what is physical vs. what is animated. Blurring this line too far tends to be counterproductive, as it risks viewers growing distracted by the Uncanny Valley. Currently, there is no means for us humans to control this.
The two most logical solutions several directors & screenwriters would likely reach are to:
- Make the movie animated (hand-drawn, digital, CG, etc), perhaps marketing it as a retelling of the anime or manga in a more cinematic format. This is common for popular anime, as studios may try to reintroduce the IP to a new generation by selling an updated version abridged for feature-length runtime. Of course, this would be more expensive and defeat the purpose of a live-action adaptation.
- Abandon the Moe tone altogether and instead faithfully retell the same events with the characters & atmosphere playing it straight. Capitalize on the psychological horror and dark subject matter in lieu of adorable teenage archetypes using comedy to hide an overarching sense of dread. Going that route, however, would sacrifice the very foundation of what helped make this story impactful.
Any way you slice it, we come back to the same problem: School-Live! was designed & written as a SUBVERSION of the Moe genre. Using that aesthetic to its advantage for purposes of continually building suspense while transitioning between slice-of-life comedy & horror was critical to its payoff. Compromising on that for any reason would inevitably render the experience as a whole less effective. Even if you still somehow managed to craft a quality psychological horror-thriller, it wouldn’t resonate in the same ways. In which case, what would be the point for fans desiring a faithful adaptation?
Thanks to the ill-advised Moe influence, this movie’s opening feels like an unintentionally laughable Japanese made-for-TV romantic comedy, complete with cutesy music and acting that quickly grows off-putting in how cartoonish it’s trying way too hard to be. Again, the anime’s pilot is very similar in that its initially colorful, innocent tone plays on Moe tropes to the point of virtually parodying the genre’s contemporaries at the time. Because the film presents a more realistic, almost mundane version of the high school setting though, that tonal juxtaposition feels more manufactured than organic.
It’s evident from the outset that this cast is being directed with the goal of recreating the anime’s trademark Moe “energy”, at least to an extent. The problem is, watching a live-action character try to speak & move in the same exaggerated manner as their anime counterpart is more cringe-inducing than funny or endearing. It doesn’t mask the horror of the scenario as well and can even break immersion, especially during the more comedy-heavy scenes. The one who suffers most from this tonal confusion throughout is Yuki’s actress. Despite her best efforts, poor Midori Nagatsuki’s performance comes off obnoxious (even for someone whose childish mentality plays into her character). Whereas the anime’s Yuki would fit this demeanor, Nagatsuki acts like she’s in an amateur stage play, unconvincing at best and distractingly annoying at worst. Have you or a friend ever tried to imitate your favorite cartoon? Yeah, it’s a lot like that.
The story also suffers from a sort of protagonist tug of war in that it begins from Kurumi’s POV instead of Yuki’s and often devotes more screen-time to the former. Focusing initially on Kurumi’s struggles admitting her feelings to her crush, Yuki is literally introduced from the background (behind a sheet) like a supporting role. Obviously, multiple protagonists sharing the spotlight is nothing new and the source material did make time to develop every member of the club (though not equally). Fans have criticized this at points in the manga as well as the anime, but both versions still begin from Yuki’s perspective.
This is first-and-foremost HER story. It’s her perception of the world that makes our first glimpse of its true nature so strong. In terms of influence, her character also plays arguably the most vital role in holding the group together, providing daily doses of much needed optimism & levity to an otherwise depressing, seemingly hopeless and often maddening situation. Kurumi and Yuuri express this to Miki in private, admitting that they likely would have broken down long ago under the circumstances if not for Yuki’s peppy enthusiasm and cheery disposition. For better and worse (We’ll get to the “worse”, trust me), she’s the glue that keeps this fragile family from self-destructing.
On the list of grievances I found in the movie, this is “Strike one” (As in, the first deal-breaker for me to enjoy it as an adaptation or even a standalone experience). In the anime, we’re led to believe from Yuki’s POV that there’s nothing out of the ordinary aside from them living at school. We see teachers, students, crowded halls, classes, socializing, all the hallmarks of entering a by-the-numbers high school environment. As we meet the other club members throughout the pilot, it’s only via subtle visual & auditory clues that it becomes apparent something is off. This helps the first episode stand out and further adds to the show’s overall rewatchability, spotting all the signs first-time viewers may have missed.
Once Miki is introduced, filling the shoes of the standard audience character who requires exposition to understand how/why everything works the way it does, the tone gradually shifts until the iconic reveal: Yuki is insane. The happy school life we’ve experienced up to now through her eyes is an illusion, and she’s totally unaware that the campus in addition to the entire city around them has been transformed into an undead hellscape (Possibly the world, as Yuuri & Kurumi can only speculate with no source of outside information). This one moment acts as a perfect, defining microcosm for the series and its themes. What helps it pull the rug out from under people so effectively is that it doesn’t occur until 20 minutes & 18 seconds into the pilot (almost the tail-end of its 24 minute, 17 second run-time).
From this major “WTF!” onward, the gleeful high school comedy we thought we’d get is replaced by a new reality except in instances where Yuki’s hallucinations play into future episodes. Admittedly, if you’re not a fan of Moe or slice-of-life anime in general, this can make it an exercise in patience for some to wait until the story truly opens up. Ex- David agreed wholeheartedly when I convinced him to get into the show. As someone who’s not big on anime to begin with, he would most likely have never watched it without my recommendation. He’d be the first to tell you, however, that, if you can keep the commitment, it’s worth it. When we discussed his reaction to the pilot, I couldn’t help grinning with satisfaction the whole time.
Even the anime’s adorably catchy, but increasingly sinister intro feeds into this masterful subversion:
Unfortunately, Shibata & the writers decided to have the film start the day BEFORE the outbreak, thereby changing the entire dynamic of our introduction to the setting. There is an attempt to recreate the anime’s buildup by subtly establishing the opening as a flashback, which I only realized later after seeing that the school Kurumi wakes up to is the present (almost identical to how Yuki wakes up in the beginning of the pilot). Nonetheless, it’s still missing several key aspects of the show. For one, most of the clues to hint at what’s really happening are either changed or don’t appear at all. Ex- One of the most important ones on the rooftop garden doesn’t appear until the CREDITS in a picture! But wait, there’s more.
Part of what made the series work was that we only ever saw pre-apocalypse life in flashbacks, which created a nice recurring rift between the past the characters long for (that Yuki believes still exists) vs. the present. It helped drive home that those halcyon days were over, yet still lingering in their minds like echoes of a bygone era. As common as this is for post-apocalyptic fiction, the anime’s execution is more authentic and ever-present as their memories torment each of them in different ways. The cabin fever of isolation exacerbates this, highlighting the delicate balance in their current ecosystem.
Another constant factor in the anime’s success over those 12 episodes is its use of color & perspective to convey the stark contrast between Yuki’s delusion and the nightmarish reality. The veneer of warm, bright, colorful imagery from the normal school of the past gives way to haunting reds, filthy browns, somber grays, and suffocating shadows. The closest comparison I can make would be the “nightmare” transition the Silent Hill franchise is best known for, the catalyst for said transition in School-Live!’s case being psychosis. No such visual tools are applied in the film to strengthen its reveal of the apocalypse for that desired “Holy crap” reaction. All we get is the exact same campus with bloodstains and property damage, but it’s not enough for it to merely look like the anime. It lacks that same tonal & psychological dichotomy.
Selling The Illusion
I’m afraid the effects don’t fare much better to build immersion in this universe, which is where we come to my “Strike two” for the movie. To be blunt, the live-action zombies are a joke both visually and how they carry little-no weight in combat. Boasting makeups so cheap, bland, and unimaginative that I dare say a Halloween store could do better, their introduction & overall presence don’t come close to the anime by a wide margin. The pale faces, faded discolored veins, glassy contacts, occasional superficial bloodstains, total lack of noticeable decay, and PG-level bite marks (Essentially a cleaner version of Train to Busan’s zombies) do absolutely nothing to create anything worth fearing, except perhaps to a small child.
Although most of the “infected” in the manga & anime weren’t nearly as gruesome as George A. Romero’s work, the artists weren’t afraid to show more blood, rot, and injuries. If the film can’t even make its main antagonists scary, illustrating not just how dangerous they are but how horrific becoming one of them would be, then that’s even less incentive for me to be invested in the conflict. It’s not enough to limp around, moan, and bite. They have to actually look intimidating. Again, I don’t accept limited funding as a defense here. Countless shoe-string budget productions have done a better job with less. I will give credit to one thing though. The survivors briefly mention how the undead carry some remnants of memory from their past lives (Ex- One zombie trying to play with a soccer ball), which later feeds into the 3rd act.
Where the horror really turns to unintentional comedy though is the fight scenes. It is hilariously unrealistic how, even with blunt-force trauma from crowbars, baseball bats and metal shovels among other weapons more than sufficient to split skulls, these zombies literally NEVER bleed one drop onscreen (that I saw, anyway) outside pre-existing stains and wounds. Again, the anime wasn’t gory either but at least it looked semi-believable when ghouls got hit. They were drawn and animated like flesh & blood walking corpses, not dried out husks. When an attack connected, the visuals and sound usually conveyed the weight of the blow without needing over-the-top blood geysers or entrails flying everywhere. Taking the opposite extreme of showing little-no blood makes it all more fake and boring.
I wish I could cut the digital effects more slack, but the CGI is painfully obvious. Ex- When zombies appear who have lit themselves on fire thanks to one infected who got his hands on a lighter. This is where my last shred of suspending disbelief officially went out the window. Even when we see bodies of infected that burned to death (or back to death), their clothes are barely singed with no burn marks on the skin. They look like someone smeared soot on them, cut a few rips in their clothes to resemble burns, then added in a lazy smoke effect. You can judge for yourself, but I saw nothing of substance here.
Of all the areas where this movie shows how the limitations of a feature-length work against it, perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the streamlined plot. While I can’t give an approximate measurement, it feels like almost half of the anime’s story & character arcs were drastically shortened, changed, or just left out. The only reason I don’t count that as a strike in itself is because the anime is also guilty of this. Several details from the manga either happen very differently or not at all in the series, while other elements have much more time spent on them to play a larger role.
The difference is, the anime more efficiently balanced what was cut vs. what is kept and/or added. It respected its source material in every episode, fulfilling the goal of an adaptation that is faithful enough but also stands apart with narrative strengths and content that some would argue actually surpass the manga at points. The movie sadly makes so many poorer choices in this regard. This is not to say that every change is unreasonable or to its detriment, but the majority are. To discuss them all would make this blog much longer, so I’ll only emphasize five important examples:
- The movie’s reveal of Yuki’s delusion is quicker (12 minutes and 40 seconds into 1 hour, 41 minutes total), when Yuuri & Kurumi interrupt her hallucinated conversation instead of Miki. This gives us a lot less time to immerse ourselves in the illusion of the school Yuki perceives, making the surprise feel rushed.
- The anime’s subplot about a classified bio-weapon later revealed to be the source of the outbreak, which Megumi secretly knew about and possessed an emergency evacuation plan for, is cut. This is understandable and an unnecessary bit of lore for the narrative to succeed, as the weapon doesn’t become important until well beyond this first saga from the manga that was adapted into the show.
- The girls still bond over various activities (Pillow fights, observing stars on the roof, throwing a party with fortune telling), but most of it passes in a montage. The anime has the advantage of giving more time per episode to these bonding moments, which informs investment in the group as well as their survival.
- Taromaru, who played a VERY important part in the anime, is gone. Despite only appearing in less than one chapter of the manga as a nameless “dog”, his presence was crucial to the show’s events. The one undermined most heavily by his absence is Miki, as her history with him was one of her character’s defining traits in the series. Reconciling her relationship with the animal (who came to fear her for a long time after she accidentally took her anger out on him by shouting) was a driving goal in her arc. This adds to the tragedy of his role when he is later infected by a specific zombie, but amazingly retains enough memory to save Yuki. His love for the girls outweighs his hunger for flesh, and that sacrifice helps them survive to the end. Despite getting a dose of vaccine discovered for the infection, he sadly dies from his wounds in Miki’s lap after having finally warmed up to her again. Overall, Taromaru embodies how great the anime’s writing justified changes from the manga and his death scene still makes countless fans cry.
- Miki & Kei Shido’s backstory is completely changed. Lacking most of her development from the anime, this side-character is mentioned only briefly after Miki first meets the club. What little screen-time she gets is mostly in one short flashback explaining how Miki carries guilt for losing her to the zombie horde. Later, while assisting Kurumi in clearing out some infected to expand their safe-zone, Miki encounters her old friend again as a zombie and hesitates, prompting Kurumi to save her by ending the threat herself.
This is pretty cliched weak sauce all around and takes so much away from how close these two were. The anime’s 4th episode centers on their introduction to the apocalypse. Barricading themselves in the supply room of a mall where they were shopping the day of the outbreak, they stayed in this refuge with Taromaru (whom they met earlier and saved from his elderly owner after she’d been infected). Eventually, however, despite having everything they needed to survive for weeks-months, Kei couldn’t stand it anymore and chose to take her chances outside against Miki’s protests. Her grief over this caused her outburst toward Taromaru and would leave deep regret for being too scared to join Kei when she had the chance. This explained much about Miki’s personality and made her more sympathetic.
Kei’s influence not only inspires her to take more risks instead of remaining alone. It also helps her open up more over time, as Yuki bonds with her (even though Miki’s pretty jaded toward everyone at first). The last episode offers some closure for her relationship with Kei, who promised before leaving that they’d meet again someday. In the scene where the club finally leaves the school after it’s been compromised, a very familiar looking zombie passes by. This blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment is a touching final farewell and implies that some part of Kei might have remembered her promise even beyond death. It’s a touching way to close this chapter of Miki’s life, helping her to forgive herself and move forward for both of them.
Unbalanced Character Building
Whereas the anime and manga took more time helping us get to know each club member individually, the film’s need to rush through the source material it’s adapting comes at the cost of these characters feeling less three-dimensional. Without question, nobody is undercut more severely than Miki and Yuuri.
Without more of that much appreciated background, Miki is less sympathetic and thus less likable as her behavior walks a fine line between socially inept and just plain antagonistic. While she was slow to befriend the club in the anime & manga, questioning how long they’d be safe waiting for help at the school, her live-action version is so adamantly against it that she actively endangers everybody. Deceiving the group to leave, she plays music over the intercom to lure away the surrounding zombie horde but fails to find a working car. Upon being caught by Yuki, her selfishness further backfires as they’re both nearly eaten and just barely escape. Had Miki been fleshed out more to justify her attitude, viewers could more easily empathize with her decision. As it stands, the film paints her like a liability.
Poor Yuuri is similarly stripped of almost all depth, reduced to a shallow supporting role with less dialogue or screen-time whose mental breakdown in the 3rd act consequently rings largely hollow. Being club President, she acts as the more responsible “big sister” figure in the group and carries the burden of always trying to be strong + rational when everyone else is on the brink. That calm exterior betrays what is in truth a scared, stressed teenager under far too much pressure who often teeters on the edge herself. She simply hides it for fear of showing weakness, making for one of the story’s most layered internal conflicts. Yet, this is the second time Yuuri’s been shorthanded by the writers. Although the anime still did her pretty decent justice in most of her plot-relevant moments, it revised or undermined her arc from the manga. Ex- Neither the film nor series include a certain small child that contributes significantly to her growth. While the movie still ultimately handles Yuuri far worse, it’s unfortunate that the other club members’ development (including newcomer Miki) always seems to come at expense to hers.
Justifying Lazy Writing Through Mental Instability & Ambiguity
Unlike the anime & manga, which used each of the characters’ varying psychological issues to explore the story’s horror and humanity, the film falls so flat in this that it seemingly can’t even maintain its own continuity. One instance is when Kurumi hallucinates talking to her late crush (The first zombie she killed) who adds his wristband alongside her own. When Kurumi looks at her arm, we see both bands. A logical wrinkle is created though, as only one band is shown prior to this scene. Naturally, we must ask: Was Kurumi wearing both the whole time, and we just didn’t see it until now? Though an intriguing idea, it strikes as more confusing than clever and just wasn’t a necessary detail in an already bloated film.
The plot similarly stumbles in illustrating Kurumi’s mental state toward zombies. In the anime, she’s shown to be the group’s most capable fighter but consistently struggles to attack when looking them in the eye (especially those she recognizes). From her POV, the infected are typically shrouded in an aura obscuring their visage as if to symbolize that she must view them as faceless automatons.
The movie touches on this, but contradicts itself as numerous shots have her look ghouls dead in the eye while killing them without a problem which by default takes away from the purpose of this symbolism. Worse, characters do things at times that simply make no sense with what the film has established. Ex- When giving Miki a tour of areas the club uses on campus, Yuki explicitly states how the club made it a rule to NEVER use the broadcasting room. This would imply they’re familiar with its equipment from when they originally secured the place, right? So, how could they possibly have forgotten to DISABLE THE SCHOOL ALARM? This plot device to instigate the 3rd act’s conflict is never explained and is not a case of psychosis or hallucination, as far as the movie shows. It’s sheer stupidity.
What A Twist
Now, at last, we come to “Strike three”. In the anime, this Grade A mind-f*** doesn’t occur until the 6th episode and expertly sets up the finale’s emotional payoff. In the film, the twist that Megumi (addressed by her students with the honorific “Megu-nee”) had died long ago and was actually a figment of Yuki’s imagination every time we saw her in the present happens around 1 hour & 20 minutes. As the fire dies down and the zombie horde falls one by one, Yuki escapes and unwittingly runs into the clinic. It is here that she finally remembers when Megu-nee got infected by a random ghoul during the early chaos while Yuki was distracted searching for her favorite teddy bear. The girls all soon reunite and discover zombie Megu-nee (in makeup as bland as the others), having tied herself up before dying so she wouldn’t harm anyone. Kurumi then reluctantly puts her out of her misery in another poor effect where she stabs Megu-nee with her shovel. Yet, her body doesn’t have a mark on it in the next shot of her on the floor.
So yeah, not the worst idea but definitely the last nail in the coffin for this movie to make its source material proud. One huge difference is that, whereas only Yuki hallucinated Megu-nee in the anime while the other club members merely played along, she’s hallucinated & interacted with by Yuuri here too. I would praise this as adding to her character if it didn’t look so derivative of Yuki’s delusion.
Though these changes are well intended for the film’s shorter run-time and make for an emotional moment, it doesn’t compare to the anime. In addition to superior buildup & writing, the flashback we later see of Megu-nee sacrificing herself to protect the girls feels sadder. Moreover, the reveal’s timing around the series’ halfway point sets up a looming threat as we now know that her zombie (unbeknownst to the club) is wandering somewhere in the school. The anticipation for when the girls encounter her and what will happen makes the final episodes that much more compelling. Lastly, it pulls off some brilliant dramatic irony as Kurumi’s hesitance to kill a zombie she once knew & cared about comes full circle.
Miki’s role as the one character best suited to lay Megu-nee to rest complements this scenario perfectly. It’s the most logical move since she’s the only one who didn’t know her and therefore wouldn’t hesitate.
If any character’s arc is the lynchpin, it’s Yuki’s. Though her child-like outlook on the world helps keep the group from despairing, it is also discussed how that escapism can be unhealthy. Yuuri & Kurumi may benefit from her delusion, but Miki debates over whether them using her to feel better could be selfish. They insist that they’re protecting her at first, arguing how she was the most traumatized of them all when the outbreak started. The idea for the School Living Club was intended as motivation for them to live and thrive as opposed to merely surviving, but it was specifically to dissuade Yuki from giving up. Without her fantasy, there is a strong possibility that this cruel reality would break her.
At the same time, the undead don’t care how Yuki perceives them. We even see moments throughout the series where her delusion almost puts her in danger, if not for the imaginary Megu-nee acting as her unconscious survival instincts. Ex- Encouraging her to hide quietly when a zombie is close by until her friends save her. This begs the question: Is it ever justified to enable mental illness? If so, where is the line drawn? Such a morally gray dilemma only enhances School-Live!’s themes, and it all comes to a head in the anime’s finale. As the fantasy gradually shatters and her friends’ deaths are imminent once the zombies finally break in, Yuki is pushed to face reality and find the strength to become a full-fledged survivor. Her speech in the last episode as they pay their respects to Megu-nee & Taromaru is reminiscent of the moral from 2015’s Inside Out. She cites a simple, but extremely important lesson:
“If you bottle up your sadness too much, you’ll forget what’s really important. So if something sad happens, it’s okay to feel sad. You don’t always have to be ‘fine’.”
The movie almost succeeds at this, but unfortunately drops the ball when Yuki briefly continues pretending Megu-nee is alive even after seeing her zombie face-to-face. It isn’t until the other girls intervene that she breaks down and admits that she understands the truth. What helps the anime is that Yuki never meets zombie Megu-nee, which in my opinion makes her acceptance of reality stronger. The film doesn’t allow enough time to marinate on the contrast between the allure of escapism vs. its toxicity.
The club’s ceremony before leaving Megurigaoka is the one scene that comes close to rivaling the anime, but it still didn’t quite hit me in the feels as hard. It lacks the payoff of having ridden the series’ mental roller coaster as well as that last warm, yet heartbreaking image of Megu-nee seeing them off.
Playing To Your Strengths
Reviewing 2019’s School-Live! is as much about introspection as it is critique. It required me to think back on where, how and why exactly the anime resonates with me. As deeply as I’ve gone into the movie’s beat-by-beat flaws & few successes, the one mistake connecting it all is the medium it’s working within. Even if we ignore everything else (animation, Moe, casting, writing, etc), the property Shibata and his team attempted to recreate is a story that fundamentally doesn’t work as well under the constraints of film. It may have been made with fans in mind, but fan service alone isn’t enough. It generally will never hit on the same levels to the same effect because it never lets its own themes breathe. The journey over each episode (or manga chapter) is necessary to substantiate the experience and keep it lingering in viewers’ minds long after they’ve turned it off. By sacrificing this, Shibata’s adaptation diluted a thoughtful deconstruction of the human condition in times of crisis to something best summed up as “artificial”, an imitation as lifeless as a zombie with nothing to say or leave behind.
- School-Live! (film)
- Gakkou Gurashi! Wiki
- Gakkou Gurashi: Psychological Horror
- Gakkou Gurashi’s Unappreciated Creativity
- Gakkou Gurashi’s Disparate Strengths
- Yuki Takeya, Escapism, and Me | Gakkou Gurashi
- Gakkou Gurashi: Anime vs Manga
- Gakkou Gurashi | A Welcomed Change ( Manga + Anime )