As stunning as last episode’s ending was, life goes on for Yuki and the School Living Society. A test of courage through the lower school leads our daydreaming heroine into moral danger, while Kurumi wrestles night and day with an unsettling past.
Gakkuo Gurashi! has quickly settled into the kind of show last week left me hoping it would become; in less capable hands the cross between moe comedy and horrific tension could become stale, but Lerche have proven already that their direction is going to bring out the best from our characters. I loved how the girl I’d become the most interested in – Kurumi – featured so prominently this week, as though the show wanted me to look forward to the back-story I was going to get. Her nightmares clashed perfectly with Yuki’s sweet dreams just as the empathy I had towards her was a completely different affair. But once again, mixed emotions reigned supreme; while I felt fulfilled knowing more about Shovel Knight, I also felt a great deal of her agony, and questioned again, as the show is already questioning itself, whether I should be wanting to delve into ‘reality’ or enjoying what’s on the surface. Kurumi’s development went hand-in-hand with Yuki’s, just as the characters ended the episode hand-in-hand in bed. Ah, symbolism.
It helps that they do a fantastic job at making the horror of this mauled-apart-moe-blob series enthralling. The feeling of Kurumi’s senpai reaching far further than he should have been able to put me right in her head, seeing her pretty world get torn apart into a shadowy blur of terror that threatened to consume her too. The interspersed fragments of that scene throughout the episode furthered the effect, as we remember our own pasts in short fragments as they day soldiers on. When we finally got to see her retaliation I was shocked by some symbolism that I never thought would be linked to her back-story – the shovel. The first and last weapon she will use against the dead, but also one she uses to give them proper rest, considering the positioning of the zombie she’d killed clutching its phone to its heart once more. It was a beautiful touch to an already well-developed character, and hope the series keeps this up.
It was also an unnerving pleasure to see the show complicate its monsters immediately. Zombies are always at risk of being a generic enemy, but the combination of their animation and the dialogue concerning them makes me still think of them as human beings, as the cast also are, adding an emotional element to every dangerous scene. The show’s fear factor continues to be psychological in this sense – Kurumi was not horrified by the gore of the zombie, but by the phone it carried that bore reference to the dead girl’s past love, and how that resonated with her own nightmare. The sight of her running and roaring at the zombie in the library emphasised how much she detests this post-apocalyptic world for taking away her paradise, and the show encourages us to be both excited and afraid of where she will go in her battle against the undead. It’s the kind of disturbing storytelling that Madoka nailed, and considering Gakkou Gurashi! is another subversion of a genre, it’s no wonder it’s also working so well here.
Yuki’s also been developed into having a more dimensional relationship with the rest of the School Living Society. Seeing them go scavenging with Yuki on her ‘test of courage’ brought to mind how they must be depending on her just as she depends on them. Her inability to accept reality is surely prevented them from getting engulfed by it while also giving them something important and wonderful to protect – a last bastion of innocence in their small, annihilated world. I don’t always laugh at her silliness (the running joke with Miki getting Taroumaru is going well though), as it often becomes tragicomic in context, but it’s certainly something I’d want if I was a survivor trapped in a school that would only bombard me with memories of my previously normal and beautiful life. Her insanity would keep my sanity going strong.
The greatest extension of Yuki’s personality, however, came in the form of Megu-nee. It isn’t a spoiler at this point to talk about her as a dead girl that Yuki’s clinging onto. The show is a little more deliberate in its hints this time – she isn’t in the ED, she’s the only one not eating a Nummy Stick, she’s always getting left out of conversations, her chair just vanishes after Yuki leaves the club room, and she’s the only other character who could possibly be in that grave we saw on the roof last week (since, according to Chekhov’s Gun, someone has to fill it). I’m happy the show is clearly trying to make the viewer realise this rather than keep it back as a ‘plot twist’, since it’s something a lot of viewers would have discovered even sooner. Accepting that Megumi is dead is much more helpful to us in how it keeps us more in Yuki’s head; she acts like the subconscious mechanism she has that keeps her out of harms way, like a good adviser for the club should. She leads Yuki to dismiss her summer vacation ideas that would take her out of the school, and she gets her to safety in the library while the zombie is on the prowl. The question is, did Megu-nee become a zombie, or was she killed by one?
One thing some people are complaining about so far is the censorship of gore. Shots of the zombies are blurry, violence is off-screen, but all these directorial choices only add to the sense of not being able to fully accept the reality of the zombie apocalypse. I think we should only see the violence and horror for what it truly is, if we’re ever allowed to, when Yuki has to see reality for what it is as well. Else, we’ll lose the combined effect of being connected to Yuki’s illusions and Kurumi’s desensitization to violence that this censorship creates, a veil of unease that the alternative meaning to the lyrics of the OP and its dramatic visual changes this week further. Those small examples of symbolism (here’s another) are what make me engage with this show even more – Lerche certainly know how to make every detail matter. I only hope they continue to use censorship in a powerful way even after Yuki has to face the facts. In horror, secrets are far more powerful than what we see.
With these things standing out this week, there were some that hid themselves away as the show likely intended them to. Miki’s back-story emerged for a moment, and it implies something grim that we’ll likely see in the next few episodes. Who did she lose in the mall? Could it be… Megu-nee?
The plot is strong and unsettling, the characters endearing but evolving, and the living and the dead are raising more questions that I can count. Gakkou Gurashi! is already a feels-ridden show fantastically infected with the psychological depth of its cast, giving it the potential to be one of the main reasons I’ll remember this season.
Let’s just hope Yuki doesn’t want to play soccer with the zombies – there’d be more red than just what’s on the cards…