When a series is this good, you want it to go on forever. But if we allowed that, our girls wouldn’t be able to graduate. School must end, the wider world awaits, and so we have the ending the School Living Club deserves.
The first thing this finale succeeded in was not drawing out Yuki’s solution to the infestation of the undead. Her gradual, tender embrace of reality last week would have been undermined had she had another giant obstacle to overcome. Instead, we saw her – or rather heard her – spill out her soul and sum up everything that defined her character and all its tosses and turns over the series. The best thing was that making Yuki the one to give this kind of speech, and take control of the reality that the girls’ home was still a school to the zombies, gave her character a final, certain dynamic; she’s like the infected. She’s been blindly clinging onto the ideal of high school life just as much as they have. In fact, since the strange haze around them has completely disappeared now, I think we can say that she understands them because she finally fully understands herself, and that’s why she can drive them away. She’s on top of her love of school now, rather than buried underneath it. It’s an inner victory that really does deserve a certificate of graduation.
What’s more, having Taroumaru save her from the horde showed a flipside of her own escape from the illusion – Taroumaru, embodying the spirit of school life, was also able to escape from sinister mundanity and stay true to the love and devotion that defined his doggy days. The parallel between Yuki and her beloved puppy, which I’ve been feeling frequently over the whole series, has been captured in fullness. Love of school is an instinctive part of youth, because school brings young people together, to help, protect and understand each other. Even through the corruption of the bioweapon, the natural desire for community that school life brings still penetrates into the hearts of the undead. It’s not just the girls that have been ‘living at school’ – every member of our cast has, from beginning to end, whether they’re keeping alive the spirit of the place or being kept alive for that very ideal, as in Megu-nee’s case.
I’m sure the Manga Master Race will have some gripes with the extended focus on the dog, who I’m led to believe hardly featured at all in the source material. But Lerche’s use of the poor pooch’s death gave me more than the most intense feels I’ve had in a while. The unexpected passing – the first in a long time that’s caught me by complete surprise – reflected so well how parts of school life die suddenly as that era comes to a close, even if you think you can keep them alive. The notion that we have to accept the sadder things in life (echoing Inside Out’s psychological take on youth to some extent, I might add) was sold tremendously by the briefest flash of Miki’s potential for having the same delusions as Yuki. But in order to graduate and ‘grow up’ – in order to reach the wider world – we have to be able to leave things behind, whether they’re dead (Taroumaru) or possibly still alive (the puppy the girls talked about, but never went to search for). It speaks of the sense that we’re naturally inclined to treasure things forever (which, from a Christian point-of-view, is how God originally made us), but have only transient possessions and relationships on this world.
All the things that Miki clung to as the apocalypse began in the Mall have now left her, and it’s a mark of fantastic development towards maturity, the kind Yuki gained over the series too. Her wish that she could have thanked Taroumaru back can be manifested in the life she can now lead, just as a dog’s gratitude is best expressed through the devotion they have to their master. Of course, Megu-nee offered her own boon to the girl’s growth into adult life – as all teachers do, she gave them guidance and options as to where to head from now on. It resonates strongly with me because I’ve had many teachers do the same thing after they’d stopped teaching me – ‘dying’ like Megu-nee did, but establishing remaining to establish ways of helping me further. This episode surprised me more and more with just how much Gakkou Gurashi! portrays school life in such an incredible way, which is refreshing considering how much negative press educational establishments seem to get in the Western world.
Of course, the graduation of these girls, as foreshadowed regularly for the past few weeks with shots of the writing on the whiteboard, was the farewell I’d been hoping for. Yuki and Miki playing around with their norms of speech felt like such a natural but clever way to blend them together into a singular development experienced in two very different but beautiful ways. Miki writing to Kei was an even further step than the one she’d taken in episode nine – an answer to Kei’s challenge back in the Mall, which Kei may read one day even if she has been infected (since she’d be drawn back to the school just like any of the dead). Writing it on the blackboard makes it feel even more significant as being what she’s learnt through all her time at the School Living Club.
With Yuki and Miki, mostly through Taroumaru, taking most of the finale’s attention, I’m glad the show doesn’t begrudge the other half of the Club a proper conclusion. Rii-san remained in charge of the club to the end, and beyond, calling out names for the ceremony and driving them into the future. Kurumi’s survival alone stands as a testament to the strength of the club as a whole in saving her, denying the bioweapon – and whatever it symbolises most – by breaking through all barriers, fears and delusions, which was really what Kurumi had been doing herself all along. Her strength is now being shared more among the girls, and it makes me terrifically excited to see what might happen if a second series in greenlit, a possibility the post-credits scene teases beyond perfectly with the memory that these girls once set their dreams afloat – now, away from school, will the catch up to them? Or will those dreams bring reality crashing down upon them?
Final Final Thoughts
It’s weird that I catch myself before I write ‘I can’t believe it’s done’. For this show, I can believe it. I’ve loved and feared for these girls every week, especially Yuki and Miki, but the finale has enabled me to say farewell to them – for now – with the happiest heart, while knowing that I haven’t really said goodbye at all. The progress of these girls has been so well-contained in this single cour, and I haven’t wanted anything more from their time at school. Yet, now I’m left wanting to see every step they take in the wider world. This is how I wish every series could end – complete fulfilment from what’s happened, and complete desire to see what follows.
It’s simply wrong to think the moe slice-of-life elements that were ‘added’ to the show took away from its substance – they gave the Club an incredible layer of meaning interwoven into the girls’ stories and struggles in order to make this adaptation a success that can stand on its own. I’ve heard many viewers denounce certain scenes – whole episodes, even – for focusing too much on the cuter aspects of the story, but Gakkou Gurashi! was all about them from start to finish. It’s not just an ‘edgy’ effect to go from light to dark; both the lightness and the darkness have cool significances that stand alone and interplay with each other. I’m going to enjoy going back over the series and picking apart what’s being said about school and youth, but I doubt anyone who brushes away the gentler moments will even get started with that gold mine of meaning. Gakkou Gurashi! is certainly one that pays to watch without an iron set of prejudices.
All in all, I think the greatest success of this Anime of the Season is that we became as much a part of the School Living Club as the girls were. We lived at school, contained in the confusing time of youth, fearing the unnatural horrors that penetrate our stronghold and vying to hold on to the delusion that nothing has changed, while also steeling ourselves to hope that we can make progress and move onwards in this strange kind of ‘life’. Even though Yuki was our protagonist, I think we were most often in the mind of Miki, usually looking on at Yuki and thinking about that deluded girl in the same ways Miki was over the series – first misunderstanding her, then accepting her as the lifeblood of the Club, then needing her to embrace both her love of school and the reality of the place in order to save what we cared about just as much as all the girls did. We may have been impatient with her at times, and her salvation of the Club couldn’t save one of the greatest things we’d treasured, but we shared Miki’s bond with her at the end. Yuki may have been confused over how Megu-nee could have fitted into that car a while ago in the series, but there’s no doubt that, as they drove off, we were somewhere in the backseat with them.
And yet, we’re also outside the car, floating like the dreams of the girls above the end of the narrative to see more questions than answers: What was going on with Taroumaru’s grave? Was that the dog, or the aforementioned puppy? Was that Kei picking up Yuki’s drawing, or someone else? And where did the balloons land? And where will Taroumaru go now? If there’s any way to sum up how confusing it can be to watch people you’ve known grow up and enter a new era – or to be those people yourself – this is it. We’re as excited and terrified of getting a second season as the girls are of entering this next stage of their lives.
Gakkou Gurashi! isn’t a new Madoka – it’s in a whole different league, giving psychological horror a feels-y and fulfilling edge that it’s hard not to fall in love with, and impossible to say goodbye to. The girls’ life at school should resonate with everyone’s thoughts on that time, past or present, as their memories of how they struggled and graduated are a beautiful accompaniment to mine.
I’ll never look at a shovel the same way again.