Talk about never judging a book by its cover.
Expectations are funny things. I saw the cover art for this one and figured I’d make it ten minutes into the pilot; had my curiosity piqued just enough by the end-of-premiere twist to give it another week or two; continued to watch half-intrigued and half-cynical, convinced that it was always five minutes from shooting itself in the foot and leaping off a cliff… and now here I am at the end of it, writing a full review and feeling pleasantly surprised by the experience.
As I’ve said before, there’s no way to discuss this show in-depth without mentioning The Reveal that happens at the end of the first episode. If you have no clue what I’m talking about and don’t want to have it spoiled for you, then go sit through the first episode (available on Crunchyroll) and come back. Otherwise hit the jump for the happiest surprise of the season.
School-Live follows the “School Living Club,” four girls (and young teacher) (and pet dog) who look after the campus and other students and are not allowed to leave the building unless on official club business. While the first 20-odd minutes are some of the dullest and most stereotypical of the season, it drops enough hints (a hardtack breakfast here, a desk barricade there) to leave the audience uncertain, and then at last pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth: Our characters are the sole survivors of a zombie outbreak, stranded and isolated from the world, and the “happy school life” we’ve been viewing is a delusion created by the point-of-view character, Yuki.
This revelation colors everything that follows in increasingly darker tones, as the series bounces back and forth between survival tales and bursts of standard cute-girl silliness. I don’t usually like cute-girl silliness or zombie stories, but a negative times a negative really does equal a positive, because combining the two creates a genre-busting tale that bounces between amusing, tense, and poignant.
Rather than feeling like inconsequential fluff, (most of) the lighthearted moments serve as a relief, a way to catch your breath from whatever new difficulty has been unleashed via flashbacks or current events, and the constant knowledge of what lurks just beyond the barricaded school hallway tints even the most rote shenanigans and tropes in an uneasy light. Even the obligatory swimsuit episode (while laden with fanservice and nothing to write home about) carries a whiff of wistfulness to it.
The lighter moments help ingratiate the audience to the characters, but School-Live is at its best when dealing in dark hallways and skewed angles, keeping the audience on their toes via a camera that knows when to look and when to turn away, suggesting it’s what we don’t (or can’t) see that’s often more frightening than what we do. The shifting perspective from Yuki to the other girls also means we’re frequently uncertain of what’s real and what’s imagined, and teasing out the difference between the two serves as one of the primary delights during the first half of the series.
The characters are all familiar types—the calm big sister, the hotheaded warrior, the perky child, the young teacher fighting to be taken seriously, the “girl next door” audience stand-in—but they’re written with enough restraint and nuance to keep from feeling like cliches. And, again, the apocalyptic setting puts a curious spin on their roles, as it often feels as if they’ve intentionally donned these mantles to help them get through each day.
Certainly Yuki’s half-intentional delusions are a psychological shield to help her process this brave new world, but she isn’t the only one utilizing a survival strategy, and while the series doesn’t necessarily approve of her fantasy world, it doesn’t condemn her for it, either. Everyone deals with their own losses and traumas in different ways, whether that’s by fighting back, focusing on the needs of others, or retreating into private spheres of memories, music, or fiction, and School-Live treats all of them with sympathy and respect.
(Also, yes, the dog is super-cute, too.)
As fascinating as School-Live was in the way it played with perspective, revealed truths, created an aura of perpetual tension, and developed its characters, where it really succeeded for me, personally, was in how it handled its central themes. I’ve been pretty vocal about my distaste for a lot of stories in the “cute girl” genre because they’re often either silly puff pieces or grimdark tragedy porn, both of which tend to infantilize their female characters and idealize innocence and “purity” (quietly demonizing adulthood and female maturity/sexuality along the way). Which, you know, isn’t a great message to send to girls or guys.
So I was understandably skeptical of School-Live‘s ability to deal with its protagonist’s regression into childhood and total break with reality, convinced it would either uphold her worldview as a healthy one or rip it apart and devolve into Suffering Girls: The Anime. Fortunately—and impressively—School-Live does neither of these things, instead finding a careful balance between the validity of escapism and the necessity of leaving it.
All of the other characters are, to some extent, troubled by Yuki’s inability to face reality, but they allow her to exist in her fantasy world because they need it as much as she does. She’s able to come up with fun, ordinary school events like a sports festival or a pool day, giving the girls brief moments of normalcy and bursts of childhood that allow them to not only survive but (as the title suggests) to actually live.
Utilizing its horror setting, School-Live shows that the realities of adulthood—not just daily responsibilities like work or bills, but the greater awareness and understanding of the world beyond ourselves that comes with true maturity—can seem and sometimes are pretty frightening. In order to deal with it, there are moments when we need a break from reality, to slip into some form of escapism, whether that’s a day at the mall with our friends, a soothing piece of music, or a silly comic book. School-Live understands this and recognizes it as a valid coping mechanism.
At the same time, though, it acknowledges that Yuki’s refusal to leave that fantasy poses a danger to herself and others. She doesn’t know when to keep quiet or be careful, at times putting the other girls at risk, and her tendency to shut down when presented with a truth she can’t ignore means her friends have to constantly keep an eye on her. Escapism is all well and good in small doses, but School-Live knows we shouldn’t stay there forever. Eventually, in order to truly live, you need to face the adult world and graduate.
In the end, School-Live makes a strong case for the validity of escapism—and particularly the cute-girl genre itself—without falling into the trap of idealizing it. This is a great suspense series and has some moments of genuine humor and heart, no question, but it also has something worthwhile to say and says it pretty darn well. It’s even gotten me to reevaluate my feelings about the cute-girl genre, as I now have a greater understanding of why a lot of people enjoy it and can better empathize with that. And any day fiction can get you to adjust your worldview is a pretty good one in my book.
School-Live was, if nothing else, a reminder of why I watch every single premiere, even the ones that look downright awful on paper, because stumbling across that happy surprise is sometimes even more rewarding than when a show lives up to the hype. Fortunately School-Live is much more than that “nothing else,” as it’s also a well-paced, frequently tense coming-of-age series that, while occasionally slipping into banal fanservice or sappy cliches, by and large provides an emotionally honest survival story and a smart exploration of both the values and dangers of escapism. Not too shabby for a show I was ready to write off as “another cute-girl puff piece,” huh?
Series Grade: B+