This is why you never drop a series halfway through an episode.
Yuki Takeya not only loves school – she lives there, the cheeriest and most enigmatic part of the ‘School Living Club’ that does likewise. But all her bumbling and crashing through a happy-go-lucky day, chasing after her runaway dog with her friend Miki, is but a bittersweet illusion to the horrible reality that surrounds and permeates the school. The School Living Club don’t just live in the school – they’re the last ones in the establishment alive.
I’ll be honest. For the majority of Gakkou Gurashi’s first episode, I was bored. While the show quickly established the idea that something wasn’t quite right with Yuki’s daily life, with scrawled notes replacing the usual signs around the school, the overload of moe humour – not all of which I found funny – and her seemingly plotless adventure to catch Taroumaru lulled me into taking off my thinking cap and thinking, wrongly but rightly, that this was the way things were for now. Wrongly because my expectations – that the ‘horror’ element of the show (which I’d read in detail via the MAL summary) would typically break in to interrupt this happy existence, the outbreak starting and such – were both incorrect and poorly informed. Rightly, however, because the show clearly intended to lull me into that false sense of security (the episode being deceptively titled ‘beginning’ when the horror has already begun) in order to shock me at the end. What started feeling like the OVA to a series already ended became, in just a few incredible moments, like Fight Club with feels.
The fact that I became irritated at the length of the Taroumaru chase is what makes this episode a nightmare to criticise. On the one hand, that boredom meant the episode – in terms of what was in-the-moment – was largely a chore to sit through. On the other hand, the boredom contributed in the end to a fantastic, heart-breaking clash of emotions: the feeling that I’d been waiting – wanting – for the show to reveal its ugly side, right alongside the realisation that the reality I’d wanted was horrible and the questions I posed to myself regarding why I would want her happy life to be a sham. I think I would have still had such ambivalence if I’d enjoyed every second of her illusion, though. Being stuck inside Yuki’s mind for the episode was a fantastic trick of direction, but could have been even more effective without its use of slice-of-life gimmicks that meant newcomers looking for the ‘seinen’ and ‘horror’ side of things grew tired. But again, perhaps that will help us want Yuki to break out of her trance even more; by sacrificing some of this episode, Gakkou Garashi may have augmented its entire series.
Aside from the Plot Twist of the Season, the best thing about this opening was the number of gems scattered around the slice-of-life reverie that implied something far deeper and disturbing. We saw Miki reading Steppen King’s ‘Standard’ (a reference to another post-apocalypic tale in Stephen King’s The Stand), a few signs that their food consisted of survival rations, some foreboding words on the blackboard, the significance of dead end of desks, the symbolism of her slice-of-life antics smashing-up the clubrooms that must already have their equipment devastated, the leftovers of Goth girl and the teacher in the flashes of the reality of the classroom, and even a gravestone which I can’t help but relate to Kurumi’s shovel (also in shot) – do we not step on the crops because they too are graves?
With Yuki’s antics moving so fast, fitting for her hyperactive character, I didn’t give these snippets of a darker reality much thought during my first watch, and I’m glad I didn’t. It made going over the episode in hindsight a joy, further connecting me to Yuki’s mental struggle and how much the truth must already be creeping into the paradise she loves. Then again, her closing the broken window, and having the camera stay on her face as the wind continues to hit it, reinforces the fact that this illusion isn’t going to be childsplay to crack.
Considering all of this, it feels right that the rest of the cast don’t get prominence and blur together as the one great mass of school life Yuki loves collectively. Yuki’s illusion is purely a matter of the surface, loving the interactions she clings onto, so the rest of the cast shouldn’t feel fleshed out yet. We see her get as entertained as much from her dog as she does from everyone else. That being said, Kurumi – who is already being aptly titled ‘Shovel Knight’ – already stands out as the potential source for a lot of the facts Yuki will one day have to face, with her shovel foreshadowing a major role she has in relation to those that are dead, while Yuuri (‘Rii-san’) seems like the bedrock that’ll keep the School Living Club’s relationships steady, and Miki, aside from fulfilling the gender-bender slot, looks like the one who will be challenged by Yuki’s development towards (and/or against) revelation the most. I’ve also already got my money on who the gravestone belongs to I (though maybe it’s too obvious), so I’m sure many more emotional twists involving this suitably small cast will arise in episodes to come. Maybe even Mii-kun’s rejection by Taroumaru will have a deeper meaning to it.
Finally, the small glimpses we got of the undead after the dramatic twist bolstered the psychological hook of the show, putting some horrific meat on its unnerving bones instead of just the overwhelming level of cuteness I’d previously (though somewhat happily) been bombarded with. I’m overjoyed to see a psychologically-challenged girl who isn’t a ‘yandere’ take centre stage, but viewers coming to the show to see violent, terrifying action will surely find their thrills too. Other artistic features – like the sudden change in lighting and tone that came before the twist, and how out-of-focus some of the nuggets of foreshadowing the episode had were – contributed even more to my hopes for this show. Gakkou Gurashi seems to be conscious of its design and what it can do to stand out in a sea of shows that celebrate the lifestyle that Yuki will have to one day give up on. It’s rewatchability is already building on multiple fronts, and it will certainly be memorable if it can maintain its incredible use of musical and cinematic features at just the right times, working in tandem with characters that I’m confident will be just as complex as the touches the director has given to this striking first episode.
It may be a show where most of the supporting cast are dead, but Gakkou Gurashi has unforgettably come to life this week. The series’ greatest weakness will certainly be spoilers, but they won’t make it any less of a great prospect for this summer. As long as the clash between the slice-of-life illusion and the horrific reality remains strong, we’ll be in for one hell of a psychological and emotional ride. I look forward to future episodes shifting the focus on other characters who I’m dying to see fleshed out in contrast to Yuki’s oversimplification of them.
As for the reality that we’ll be seeing a lot more of, this show is airing on AT-X – just how intense are things going to become? I’d love to see the same kind of no-holds-barred brutality that shows like Psycho-Pass and Kill La Kill have already delivered for me. Whatever Gakkou Gurashi plans to do with its remaining shock value, I just hope it says as meaningful as the end to this incredible establishment of a premise was. Let this horrible monster of a moe anime commence.
Maybe I’ll need a shovel too, to bury my feels so they don’t overpower me and prevent me from writing these reviews. ;_;