What better way to start Zombie Week than with a Japanese spin on the survival horror genre with zombies and the undead. Incidentally “Highschool of the Dead” is one of my random manga picks for the Japanese Reading Challenge and can easily fit in Carl’s R.I.P challenge, but let’s not push my luck and stick with this title being a shared submission for just two events.
The great thing about Japanese horror artists and writers is that they are demented, brutal and they seem to be caught in a race to out-scare, out-gross and out-disturb one another, which gives plenty of creative material to take zombies and kick the scare factor to overload. I wish to point out that despite this manga series features a main cast predominantly in its teens, this is seinen manga, aimed for a male audience between 18 and 30 usually. This alone promises no censorship and the output of gore is industrious. The series so far have 23 chapters out with three extras, but sadly has been in hiatus since June 2009, which doesn’t fair well in Japan’s ever competitive and fast paced publishing world.
So, why is this, a perfect choice for the zombie fan? For one, if you are like me, then you most certainly have read and experienced the zombie the way Westerners have so far. The change of scenery, culture and human behavior is refreshing, while at the same it gives the reader the opportunity to enjoy survival horror in a different manner. Japanese tradition in entertainment is marked by over-the-top performances. Westerners enjoy subtleties and gradual building, whereas from my experience with manga, the Easterners magnify every element surrounding a story.
In “Highschool of the Dead” every trip is an ambush of undead, every argument becomes a scandal that reopens old still aching wounds and action sequences toy with what’s believable and what is fairly impossible. The cast is an example of what I am illustrating here. Almost all characters are high school sophomores or seniors, who all have fighting capabilities like the sadistic Saeko, who is excellent at close combat, or Kohta, a frighteningly good and nutty sharpshooter. Although it’s believable that teens in Japan do have useful skills, since there is not a single teen in Japan not enrolled in a sports or arts and crafts or science club, how long can a group of teens last in a metropolis filled with the undead? Not to mention their luck in raiding the house of a sniper in Japan’s Special Assault Team. It’s plausible, but unbelievable at the same time.
I recently started Chapter 14 ‘Dead Storm Rising’ and can testify that as far as plotting goes Japanese manga writers know how to start small and then expand to let the reader see the bigger picture. As it does, the reader sees other survivors, the generational gap and attitude between teens and adults as well as seedy agendas forming. This a dark survival story with a lot of scares, moments of disgust by living and undead alike as well as the typical for horror genre sexual tension. It’s the kind of inner human exploration the horror genres executes in a manner that only can originate from Japan.
A zombie must-read.