In a world where creating original content becomes harder by the day, some anime producers in Japan have circumvented this roadblock with a clever and underrated technique. Why bother trying to be completely original when you can combine two old concepts into a single show? This is the premise of Zombieland Saga, the comedy-drama breakout hit of the Winter 2018 anime season.
In 2008, teenager Sakura Minamoto is fatally hit by a truck as she leaves home for school in the morning. She awakens in an abandoned mansion in a heavy downpour, and accidentally awakens a couple of shambling zombies while looking for an exit. When she attempts to escape in the rain, she gets shot by a passing police officer who is terrified by her presence. With a bullet hole straight between her collarbones, Sakura realizes something horrifying: she, too, has become a zombie.
Thankfully, she is rescued by a sharp-dressed stranger in sunglasses named Kotaro Tatsumi, who reveals that he is the one responsible for Sakura’s undeath. After bringing her back to the mansion, he tells her his mission: to revitalize the Saga prefecture by creating a regional pop idol unit. To fulfill this purpose, he has resurrected Sakura along with six legendary girls from different periods in history, each of whom possesses unique traits and skill sets that can theoretically help the team excel in the cutthroat idol industry. Having lost her memory in the crash, and without any chance of returning home in her current state, Sakura begrudgingly commits herself to this outlandish plan.
Zombieland Saga starts out as a straight dark comedy. The group’s first performance is at a death metal concert, where Kotaro throws the girls onstage with literally no practice. On top of that, six of the seven zombie girls have yet to “awaken”, or regain their human consciousness, which ends up being slightly problematic for the audience. As the season progresses and the team grows more cohesive, however, the tone of the series becomes much more solemn as the reasons for each of the idols’ premature deaths are revealed, and they have to contend with living in a world which has moved on without them.
At its core, Zombieland Saga is an exaggerated satire of the real life Japanese pop idol industry with a charming ensemble cast. The girls’ interactions with one another highlight the change of Japanese culture over the last few decades. For example, the midseason climax involves 1980s idol Junko and 2000s pop star Ai clashing over their individual conceptions of what standards a famous performer should conform to. Where Junko believes that a singer should maintain an image of perfection and keep an emotional and physical distance from their fans at all times, Ai’s familiarity with social media causes her to feel that a successful singer should market herself as being approachable and receptive to her fans. These conflicts and others comprise the emotional backbone of the season, and make for unexpectedly grounded struggles in an otherwise totally ridiculous overall story concept.
Zombieland Saga’s genre mashup allows for an eclectic combination of plot events. Despite the tight pacing, however, the story sometimes fails to flow without hiccups. An issue that arises more than once is mood whiplash caused by a comedic episode set in the present being immediately followed by one or two somber backstory ones. In addition, not all the mysteries posed at the beginning are answered by the last episode, presumably to allow for an upcoming second season. Viewers without some modest knowledge of Japanese culture may be confused by some of the references, as most of the locations in the show exist in the real life Saga prefecture.
Nonetheless, the clever comedy and compelling character arcs of Zombieland Saga make for a fun and standout 12 episode anime season. It is easy to become invested in the main characters’ journey towards becoming a legitimate idol group, made doubly hard by their undead status and their unresolved regrets from their brief past lives. Zombieland Saga is refreshing because it combines old tropes from different genres and neatly weaves them into a single story, and though it remains an idol show at its core, it deserves special commendation for taking a ridiculous concept on paper and turning it into a heartfelt series about a few teenage girls who learn to do their best even in the face of extreme misfortune.
All 12 episodes of Zombieland Saga can be watched for free on Crunchyroll and Funimation.