Female idol groups are a peculiar phenomenon. They’re a cast of female performers who belt out massive pop choruses while dancing intricate choreographed numbers in front of thousands of mostly sweaty, male fans. They are the fantasy for throngs of Asian male viewers, yet they can’t be touched in photo opportunities, much less be allowed to date anyone. They practice under rigorous conditions, too often at the mercy of an authoritarian manager. In some respects, they’re better off dead rather than working in these circumstances.
Zombieland Saga Review: Undead Idols Shine Brighter
Alternative Title: Zombie Land Saga, ゾンビランドサガ
Release Date: Oct 4, to Dec 20, 2018
Genre: Comedy, Supernatural
Theme: Idols, Music
Studio Mappa’s attempt at the idol format during the 2018 Fall Anime Season brought a new layer to an already tried and true formula. The world has enough Love Live!, Idolmaster and Revue: Starlight to make your heart go doki-doki every time as it is, so why is this entry any different? Zombieland Saga takes the idea of being overworked in idol culture a step further: why not have a corpse cast become idol sensations in life after death?
Zombieland kicks off by immediately killing main protagonist Sakura Minamoto in the first two minutes and sends a clear message that it’s not interested in being the same league as the other idol behemoths. It’s absurd, at times chaotic, and it doesn’t care. A rap battle here and a commercial spot for fried chicken there are all in an effort to “save” Kyushu’s Saga Prefecture from a depopulation crisis. Idol group Franchouchou must inspire the youth of Saga in order to stymie an exodus to more populated areas.
Speaking of that rap battle in episode 2, it’s a travesty it wasn’t included on the ballot for best fight sequence in the 2018 Crunchyroll Anime Awards. Kotaro’s beat boxing is on point.
Idol groups can grow to astronomical numbers, like with the group AKB48, which has had 347 members spanning 16 generations (I’ve had Japanese students I taught in the past try to ask me who my favorite AKB48 member was. I never had an answer for them). Fortunately, Zombieland Saga goes for a more restrained route with seven members, which gives them proper development and background detail. The 2nd half of the series in particular focuses on individual members with Episodes 6 and 7 being devoted to Junko and Ai, 8 to Lily, 9 to Saki and 10-12 to Sakura.
The tonal shift at the midway point didn’t personally deter me as I enjoyed learning the backstories of this undead collective, but there is a noticeable shift from pure comedy to slight dramatic tension which could turn off those seeing this as their week-to-week gag material.
A staple in this genre are the songs performed by the idols, obviously. There are normally tunes about how an individual member or group can overcome hardship and fortify their bonds. In the character profile centered episodes, the girls get their own songs to highlight their spirit and determination to make amends with previous tragedies that sent them into the afterlife. This is where idol shows tend to lose me because the tunes, while catchy, are normally mindless fluff that showcase CGI choreography that’ll have me running back to Land of the Lustrous.
But by God, this time I was actually reading the lyrics to the tunes and sincerely sympathizing with them. Lily’s ode to her father was enough to pander to my father-daughter sympathy complex. Saki’s forceful declaration of pursuing what you love alongside allies is invigorating. The climax song in the finale where Sakura has to persevere despite her horrible string of misfortune is a triumphant cap to the season. For as bombastic as everyone is and asinine the setup can be, this is the first idol anime where I actually felt anything for any individual cast members.
The real star here may not even be the girls themselves, but their manager. Kotaro Tatsumi is played by Mamoru Miyano, who most notably played Rintaro Okabe in Steins;Gate, and he is a force. Constantly bombastic, his seemingly erratic motivation techniques inspire fear and bemusement in his troupe. He’s screaming and sprinting everywhere to make these girls the best idol group in Kyushu. Miyano is extra gregarious in how he portrays a group manager and the series is better off for it.
While I mentioned how thoroughly the show covered most of the group, it wasn’t able to highlight Tae, the most zombie-like member, nor Yuugiri, it’s oldest. It’s possible that Tae will never “awaken” like the others did or perhaps that’s her true personality, but I still desire to know her origins. Yuugiri, while mostly stoic, is ultimately a member even though she got shafted for a majority of the run time. As disappointing as this was, the creators may believe that some mystery is still necessary in order to keep viewers invested. A slight cliffhanger at season’s end alludes to the series being continued and potentially leading to answers about Saga, Tae and Yuugiri’s background as well as more dirt on the mastermind Kotaro.
Watching Zombieland Saga undoubtedly had me more personally invested than any idol show I’ve seen to date. While drawing numerous laughs, it effectively tackles more serious topics concerning death and the cause of it. It doesn’t dive into those subjects until it’s properly satiated its audience with absurdity and gags, and that’s possibly its biggest strength. This genre is geared towards those who love Japanese pop music, cute girls and idol culture as a whole, but Zombieland is geared towards those who like a combination of ludicrous and charm.