Gakkougurashi! (School-Live!) was a surprise for many viewers of the 2015 summer season lineup. With a 1st episode that threw all convention out the window, it didn't take long for it to garner buzz within the anime community. While I entered with some second-hand knowledge of the involvement of zombies in the show's plot—due to the inescapable whispers coming down the grapevine—I assumed that the subject matter would have merely been treated as a backdrop for cute girls to get involved in silly, tension-less slapstick; with the overbearingly cutesy aesthetic that it was sporting on its cover photo being used as my basis for assessment. ... I was expecting something along the lines of 2015's Re-Kan, where the supernatural elements were just treated as a mere comedic gag, rather than anything integral to the narrative.
And while the deceptive(troll) opening theme and most of the show's 1st episode run-time had me duped into believing my assumption, that premature assessment was quickly shattered with the show's ominous reveal towards the latter end of the episode. Of course, there were a few foretelling signs with the way some characters were acting and visual cues scattered throughout the episode, but I was still fooled nonetheless. With that being said, to get the most out of this title, I highly suggest you refrain from doing any research on it beforehand and just watch it blind. So unless you've already watched the show or simply don't care, I advise you to stop reading this review any further. And with that warning in place, for everyone else, on with the show.
The juxtaposition of "cute girls doing cute things" to zombie apocalypse was certainly an odd departure not often seen in anime. In fact, I don't recall anything going down that specific route at all. The closest point of comparison is magical girl shows that take a darker turn as it progresses (Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica), or shows that use sickeningly cute characters and slice-of-life moments before venturing into a bone-chilling bloodbath (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni). But as far as anything that follows directly in Gakkou's footsteps, I'm drawing blanks. At the very least, I can say it's a unique experience.
While the "cute girls doing cute things" formula is omnipresent throughout the show, it's the moments that it skews into a more unnerving, sinister tone that really makes it stand out. Like the hunting technique practiced by the Angela fish, Gurashi baits the viewer in with a warm, radiant glow surrounding its material, helping lower any defensive walls that might have been set in place. And in this brief instance that you're lulled into a carefree disposition, Gurashi proceeds to pull the rug from under you, as the illusion of comfort fizzles away into something more visceral and disturbing. Gurashi's ability to toy with the viewer's response goes beyond a simple bait-and-switch, it's a sleight-of-hand trick that not many storytellers are capable of executing well. While some of the tonal shifts throughout the show doesn't always transition to the best of its ability (due to improper cohesion between the polar opposite genres being played with), it still manages to keep you on your toes when "shit hits the fan."
And perhaps the best illustration of this technique in motion can be seen when discussing the characters themselves.
Yuki Takeya, our main lead, is a person only tethered to sanity thanks to the willingness of her friends to walk on eggshells in her presence. With such a fragile PTSD mindset that's standing at the edge of rational thought—the likes of which could be toppled with the slightest nudge; a great deal of the show's appeal comes from essentially watching a human ticking time-bomb that could be sent spiraling into madness at any given second. She's Gurashi's central focus and rightfully so, as she not only stands as a psychologically disturbed individual but more importantly, an embodiment of this very delicate duality between escapism and the harsh reality that this anime will come to be to known for. This topsy-turvy mental state was brought to life with visual cues that demanded the viewer's attention. Brightly lit hallways and classrooms teaming with jovial faces are singed away for dilapidated structures and bloodstained walls. We're forced to commandeer Yuki's point of view, watching the murky line between the happy past-life she chooses to embrace as her reality, while the actual truth she rejects—the bloody aftermath of what was once a loving school environment—be the reason that her mind is slowly being torn apart. The subconscious of a girl where only two options exist: either carry on living in denial or be permanently broken if made to face the truth of this post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world—the ultimate catch-22.
And while Yuki's involvement brought the necessary intrigue needed to hook audiences in for more, I can't say the rest of the characters boasted the same ability. They were given episodes dedicated to fleshing out their backstory, but their personalities, from beginning to end, were rather one-note. At best, they had the basic requirements covered to carry the narrative but nothing noteworthy beyond that.
But for everything that Gakkougurashi had going for it, there was a clear misunderstanding of the essentials needed to craft its content into a great show; more specifically, where to further its concept from being more than simply a novelty act. Today, we'll discuss the two major issues that prevented Gurashi from reaching the inner-circles of universal critical acclaim that it so desperately desires.
The 1st major issue that quickly became apparent with each passing episode was the way the show handled Yuki's mental state. When dealing with a mentally disturbed individual, proper psychoanalysis and character exploration is needed to make the broken person's psyche believable. Without it, we're simply given a gimmick that's only viable on superficial terms. With Gurashi, we see the events that trigger the mental breakdown of the character, but it's never explored beyond face value. There's no actual introspection given to justify the way the character is presented. And sadly, because of this, it's reduced to only being used as a ploy for shock value and generating easy-to-consume entertainment. It may have been intended to be more than just that, but it just wasn't detailed enough to get that point across. Since all of the characters were already cookie-cutter stereotypes and no visible effort was shown to develop or add dimension to them, the show, as a result, often felt shallow.
It didn't have the finesse of something like Perfect Blue, where we get a 1st person perspective into the mind of our protagonist as we experience her gradual breakdown between what's real and imaginary, playing out through the narrative and in her mannerisms. Nor was it like Abenobashi, where the internal strife of the main character was externalized into a visual metaphor for further inspection, while also dedicating time to flesh him out as a grief-stricken teen going through a phase of denial.
"Show, don't tell" and "shock and awe" were something Gurashi seem to struggle to distinguish between, which was ultimately the reason it was kept off the pedestal with those that did do this kind of character breakdown right. Simply put, it was a case of style over substance that became painfully obvious when the gimmick of the character's mental state was recycled every episode for entertainment value instead of thematic relevance.
The 2nd major issue was the story progression itself, or should I stay, the lack thereof. If viewed as a character-driven narrative, it fell short of the mark (noted by the aforementioned problems I discussed), and if viewed as a plot-driven narrative, it was a monotonous dribble that repeated the same shtick every episode. It was "moe" antics followed by dark, demented slice-of-life on constant repeat. The reason this worked for shows like Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica and Higurashi no Naku Koro ni was because of the commitment made after the plot twist. Once it revealed the major tonal shift to its viewers, it gradually leaned and stayed in the "darker" territory. There was no flip-flopping back and forth between cutesy and dark, which in turn added poignancy to the central conflict at hand. It kept moving forward to its inevitable destination and was never back-peddling. This was Gurashi's fatal flaw and ultimately what placed the final nail in its coffin. It simply spun its wheels in the mud, thinking it can depend on the same trick to carry it from beginning to end. And because of this, the show was always stuck in a state of stagnation. The only episodes that tried to break this cycle were the final ones, but by then, the damage was already done.
Had Gurashi dedicated the effort necessary to make Yuki more than just a circus act for our amusement, or placed more effort in its narrative to avoid meandering in circles, it could have been one of the best highlights from 2015. But like many shows with an exciting premise, Gurashi just didn't know how to deliver in the end.
While the plot twists and shock factor moments made the show a fun spectacle, I couldn't help but feel a lack of engagement. The moe aesthetic and sensationalized depiction of Yuki's damaged state stopped all chances of the severe moments of Gurashi from really having a firm grip on me. This was also the problem I had with Higurashi and Madoka Magica, despite their more successful rendition of this kind of storytelling. They too succumbed to this trigger-happy depiction of cuteness meet sinister. It's just something I can't see beyond an entertaining party trick. And since Gurashi kept jumping back and forth between lighthearted moe and demented slice-of-life, after a while, the novelty that had won it so much attention had quickly faded away; something that's made all the more self-evident from the lack of staying-power it's had among anime enthusiasts. It was enjoyable at times but only on a surface level, and in the end, left me more underwhelmed than satisfied.
Gakkougurashi had the potential to make something that subverted the typical formula associated with the "cute girls doing cute things" setup but ultimately did nothing to capitalize off of it. Sadly, it's yet another case of a good premise underutilized and poorly handled. The right ingredients were there but at the end of the day, what was served up was a lukewarm dud.
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Synonyms: Gakkou Gurashi!
Spanish: School-Live!: Gakkougurashi!
Status: Finished Airing
Aired: Jul 9, 2015 to Sep 24, 2015
Premiered: Summer 2015
Broadcast: Thursdays at 21:30 (JST)
Licensors: Sentai Filmworks
Duration: 24 min. per ep.
Rating: R - 17+ (violence & profanity)
Score: 7.621 (scored by 202724202,724 users)
1 indicates a weighted score.
2 based on the top anime page. Please note that 'Not yet aired' and 'R18+' titles are excluded.
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