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A Pandemic Guide to Anime: Zombie Land Saga

Meet Saga prefecture’s promising new idol group. They’re a little, um, rough around the edges.

Welcome back to our impromptu and sporadically scheduled pandemic guide to anime. If you’ve missed any of our earlier entries, you can find them all here; for our introductory post you can go here, yada yada yada, introduction done.

All right, recent entries have ranged from the perils of high school life to the perils of the afterlife. There’s only one thing to do now, which is to combine them both and watch a nice show about the perils of being a high school girl who is dead. A high school girl who has to both hide that she’s a reanimated zombie and nail her idol group’s new choreography without any of her tenuously attached limbs falling off and into a skeptical audience.

What? Why are you looking at me like that? This is the sort of thing kids today have to worry about, and it’s your own fault if you don’t “get it.” You think you’re so great, with your attached limbs and beating heart. Pretty stuck up, if you ask me.

Zombie Land Saga

I do not like idol shows. I do not like shows in which plucky girl groups or plucky boy bands hone their skills in order to become the Best Idols Ever. I do not like the inevitably syrupy, aggressively generic pop lyrics. I do not like to watch character development that revolves around, “Can I hit this note?” or, “What if our group changes costumes, will that help?”

But this? This I like. Zombie Land Saga is a show about an aspiring all-girl idol group that dares to ask the question “Would all of this be better if the main characters were, like, dead?” The answer: Yes. A thousand times yes.

Sakura is a high school student who dreams of becoming an idol and who finally works up the courage to submit an audition. She is also hit by a truck in the opening minutes of the show. Not only does she die, she’s dead before she even hits the ground. Very dead. No doubt about it. She is an ex-teenager.

Uncannily, however, Sakura appears to be the one modern teen in Japan who does not get her soul blasted to a parallel world from the truck-body collision. She does, however, wake up again afterwards. She wakes up in a dark room in a dark house—and is surrounded by zombies. Sakura freaks out, makes a run for it, gets shot by a panicking police officer, and only then realizes that she, too, is a zombie. It’s been 10 years since she died, and she’s been brought back to life by a bizarre would-be promoter who promises to make her and her new zombie housemates into Saga prefecture’s top girl group. Those housemates (mostly) begin to awaken from their zombie stupors themselves, and one by one decide to go along because, let’s face it, they don’t have a lot of other options here.

Some of the girls are past idols who died in their heydays, each among the best Japan has ever seen. Others are more mysterious choices, like the no-experience Sakura or the biker delinquent Saki. Their promoter? Sakura can remember seeing him when she was alive, but she can’t remember when or why. But with the showboating necromancer manager, heavy use of makeup, and the talents of each ex-idol and eager wannabe, they’ll give it a go. Manager Kotaro Tatsumi is obsessed with saving the sleepy Saga—a backwater, and barely even remembered by the rest of Japan—and is somehow convinced that his plan, consisting solely of “reanimate seven dead accomplished or aspiring idols, then turn them into the prefecture’s top singing group” is the way to do it.

That means our new girl group will have to learn their choreography, master new songs, and resolve creative disputes arising from the gaps in what they can do and what they can’t. Piling into a van for a nonpaying gig is an experience most new bands might relate to, but new idol group Franchouchou has to contend with makeup that washes off in bad weather and limbs that are tenuously attached at best. It’s hard to pretend that you are not among the walking dead when someone’s head falls off during a live performance. Would you believe it’s a magic trick? You would? Whew.

Zombie Land is a satirical riff on the entire “idol group” genre, but it holds its own whether you like idol shows or (ahem) would rather chew your own arm off than watch most. Each of our new zombies must work out their own problems, whether it be coping with past regrets or coming to terms with the many problems of being undead. Hiding their identities is paramount—but it’s also a tenuous proposition when half the group consists of reanimated past stars who were themselves famous. Ai is pressed to explain why she looks exactly like the dead singer of hit group Iron Frill, a singer killed during a live concert when she was struck by lightning. Lily must come to terms with her own grieving father, who has become a new Franchouchou fan due to her uncanny resemblance in face and in voice to his dead child. A local reporter mulls the group of idols who look and sound exactly like past stars and can’t decide if the manager is pulling some sort of elaborate prank, has a dead person fetish, or something else.

It’s not long before we learn that there’s something even stranger than “reanimated corpse girl group” going on here, though. Kotaro is curiously insistent that his new group must “save” Saga—even as the band manages to have bad luck on a scale that, even from the standpoint of a now-corpse who was struck by lightning onstage or one hit by a speeding truck only seconds after leaving her house, seems something more sinister than mere coincidence. Things only get weirder from there.

Zombie Land has what makes most good shows good: uniqueness. You may have seen a dozen shows in which the main character dies in the first five minutes of episode one, scrubbing off most of the novelty of the premise, but you’ve never seen one that follows it with this. You may have seen a hundred zombie shows, but how many of them, post-Michael Jackson, have dance routines?

Mostly, though, it meets the all-important Bechdel test. Our female characters are not here to be the unwilling harem to an uninteresting but all-powerful male fantasy hero. They each have motivations of their own, character flaws of their own, and special talents of their own. It is transgender-friendly, kid-friendly, and both a little bit scary and garishly over-the-top in turn.

A low spot would be a handful of CGI-rendered “dance” routines at around the series midpoint that don’t blend well with the rest of the animation; another would be that the maybe too on-the-nose satirical take for “terrible music producer,” the necromancer-manager Kotaro, is an always-shouting pompous jerk who will probably wear on you as much as he wears on Franchouchou’s put-upon members. The high spots are the colorful palette, an assortment of series-long running gags, and a willingness to let the fame-seeking girl group be unapologetically terrible from time to time. There’s not much of the music that I’d peg as “good,” as the series riffs on everything from bubbly pop-idol love songs to (literal, cough) death metal, but that’s not the point. When was the last time an idol group’s songs were categorically good? Anywhere? Ever?

The idol group Franchouchou, fully kitted out to hide their zombie characteristics, in concert, in the anime series Zombie Land Saga.
Some concerts go well, some don’t go well, and sometimes everybody dies. Just another day in the live music biz.

Don’t answer that. Let’s not fight during the holidays. Let’s just agree that whatever group you’re thinking of, it would be 10 times better if all the members were zombies struggling to keep their limbs even when the choreography gets a bit too animated.

Mick Jagger pretty much proves my case on that one. This is a show of seven Mick Jaggers, all trying their best to keep the show going while hiding the characteristic zombie musk that might give away the game.

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