“There’s a few components to survival. The will to live is obviously one of the most important ones; the physical conditioning, what kind of state of health you’re in when you start survival, sometimes, just even dumb luck matters a lot, whether or not you’re going to survive. But one element I always add, is your kit; if you got something in your kit to help you, it can make a huge difference as to whether or not you survive.” —Les Stroud, Survivorman
Prima facie appearing to be about the Yuki Takeya’s quest for fun and adventures in her everyday life at school, Gakko Gurashi (School-Live!, IPA: “lɪv” rather than “laɪv”, denoting “living at school”) in fact depicts the lives of four students in the immediate aftermath of a major pandemic, as they struggle to survive and come to terms with the disaster that’s unfolded around them. With Kurumi Ebisuzawa, Yūri Wakasa and newcomer Miki Naoki keeping an eye on her, Yuki spends her days with the School Living Club, keeping everyone in good spirits. Though Miki is initially unaccommodating and cold towards Yuki, she learns the truth from Kurumi and Yūri: after their instructor, Megumi Sakura (affectionately known as “Megu-nee”) succumbed to infection, Yuki lost her hold on reality and crafted an idealised world for herself, imagining things to be normal and appearing to be unaware of the situation. As Miki gets to know the members of the School Living Club better, this distance narrows, and together with the others, they discover the truth about their high school’s involvement in a government WMD project. For the artwork and initial tone, Gakko Gurashi is remarkably dark: in fact, this anime shares quite a bit of similarities with Puella Magi Madoka Magica with respect to the tone. Themes about mental health, survival, regret and promises are explored with each character: Yuki is grappling with the truth of her reality, Miki regrets the rift that led her and Kei to part ways and is initially unaccepting of Yuki, Kurumi struggles with the knowledge that she’s killed numerous of her old classmates following the outbreak, including her own crush, and despite doing her best to hold everyone together, Yūri suffers from her own doubts. In spite of all these issues (enough to require the DSM-V to properly explain), the girls nonetheless find ways to survive, day-by-day.
At its core, Gakko Gurashi is predominantly about the significance of togetherness in a survival situation. That Kurumi and Yūri continue to accommodate Yuki’s situation to keep her happy ensures one fewer difficulty to keep track of, allowing the others to scavenge for supplies and maintain their school’s defenses. When Miki joins the School Living Club, she is exasperated at Yuki’s machinations, but as they spend more time together, she comes to understand what led to Yuki’s condition. Later, when their school’s power supply is damaged during an electrical storm, the girls decide to move to a better location. These are survival topics that were explored in Les Stroud’s Survivorman: while the setting might be different, the techniques still apply. Stroud continuously mentions the importance of keeping calm and collected to ensure rational decision making, and to act such that one minimises their problems (in other words, sacrificing local optima for global optima), reflected in the girls’ acceptance of Yuki’s condition. Similarly, the girls’ decision to move to a different area is a gamble between risk and reward; Stroud calls this “proactive survival”, where one moves on to better areas to improve their odds of survival. While I doubt that Gakko Gurashi‘s author, Norimitsu Kaihō, watches Survivorman, that he’s able to have his characters follow reasonable survival decisions (for the most part) is an indicator that thought has gone into writing the manga (which is largely reflected in the anime), and in creating characters whose actions are consistent with those expected from pandemic survivors, Gakko Gurashi is remarkably effective at evoking emotional response from the viewers as they gradually learn more about what’s happening.
Screenshots and Commentary
- There is quite a bit I can say about Gakko Gurashi!, far more than can be reasonably condensed into the space of twenty images, but for brevity’s sake, this post will maintain the same formatting as all of the others. I realise that this won’t allow me to cover all of the moments in Gakko Gurashi, but it will be sufficient for a reasonable discusson. Following in Madoka Magica‘s footsteps, the first episode initially appeared to be quite ordinary, revealing only just what’d happened in the world at the episode’s end.
- When the illusions fell away and audiences see things through Miki’s eyes for the first time, rather than Yuki’s eyes, Gakko Gurashi suddenly took on a chilling feeling: there is something intrinsically discomforting about the notion of schoolgirls in haikyo, and the disjoint between Yuki’s environment and her attitudes show how far gone she is. A part of the anime is peeling away these illusions to illustrate what the world is like, and gradually, both viewers and Yuki see more of the truth.
- So powerful was the illusions and contrasts that, when I finished watching the first few episodes, I thought I’d seen a specter at my lab. After I’d taken my headphones off, I thought I saw a black shadow out of the corner of my eye and went to investigate, and almost immediately, ran into my supervisor. Granted, I’ve been quite tired as of late, and over the last few days, begun work on a conference publication.
- For the duration of this discussion, I’ve avoided making use of the term “zombie”; a zombie is a form of undead being, reanimated by mystical means and exhibits violent tendencies. Popular culture has reinforced the notion of a thirst for brain matter. However, in Gakko Gurashi, the infection arises from an unknown biological weapon whose destructiveness allows it to be classified as a WMD. Through unknown means and motivations, it is released in this region of Japan, resulting in widespread chaos.
- Kurumi kills her classmate with a shovel after he becomes infected, and since then, she’s wielded a shovel as her primary weapon. Each of Miki, Kurumi and Yūri struggle to raise a weapon against those who were formerly their classmates, and this becomes more poignant when it’s revealed that despite their infection, each victim still retains a vague consciousness not unlike that of Flood victims from Halo.
- The more serious moments are offset by more lighthearted ones that would not seem out of place in more conventional slice-of-life anime. One of the trickiest aspects to account for is Megu-nee’s presence (or lack thereof): the anime presents her as an actual character, challenging the audience’s notions of what is reality once it’s revealed that the real Megu-nee succumbed to infection in a last bid to protect Yuki and the others.
- Miki is saved by the others during their first meeting at a mall. It turns out that Miki had been at a local mall when the disaster began, and lived with a friend for a short period before the latter’s impatience led her to leave. When she realised that others were in the mall, Miki left her saferoom and encounters the others. Here, it is shown that the infected are susceptible to distraction by patterned audio, acting as the first clue that the infected are at least partially aware of their surroundings.
- Yuki’s suggestion to hold a sports meet is granted, and after a day of giving their all, the girls find themselves exhausted but reasonably pleased. While Yuki is not initially aware of it, her carefree, easy-go-lucky persona actually acted as a safeguard for the other girls; when they accept her requests for fun and adventure, they find that the small bit of happiness they gain is enough to sustain them and let them work out their next step.
- While the other girls are writing letters with the aim of sending them to the outside world, Kurumi decides to catch a pigeon for use to deliver said letters, going on a hunting quest using all of her cunning. Yuki expresses amazement that the feelings of a letter’s author are timeless and can be conveyed long after the original author’s passed on, which leads the girls to write down some of their hopes in letters.
- A lucky find allows the girls to fill the balloons with helium, making it possible to send their letters off. Apparently, the zombie apocalypse has motivated several research papers concerning the spread of diseases: assuming that an agent (bacterial or viral) capable of inducing zombie-like symptoms in individuals, and furthermore, is not a self-limiting agent, it’s speculated that such a disease would simply spread because of the difficulties associated with eliminating hosts for containment.
- Miki later discovers a key belonging to Megu-nee, and together with Yūri, decides to go hunt down what the key opens. While Miki and Yūri anticipated a dreary, long search, Yuki’s arrival lightens up the mood and leads to the discovery of a secret safe containing documents that confirm the girls’ suspicions about their school’s unnaturally complete collection of self-sustaining utilities.
- While the exact cause of the pandemic is not specified, that the girls’ school is prepared for such an eventuality suggests that the WMD was manufactured in Japan and intended for deployment elsewhere. The lack of external news in-universe does not specify whether or not the weapon was intended for a future or present war, and the probability of a modern nation intentionally using a WMD against its own populace is low, so my best guess is that the Japanese military was developing a WMD in haste for a current war, and an accident in processing or development led to the outbreak.
- Of course, such insinuations could lead to discussions well outside of the anime’s intended scope, so I’ll return the discussion to the following day in-anime, where Yuki catches a filthy Taromaru and decides that everyone should help clean out an artificial biotope being used to cultivate fish. Lacking maintainence, it’s absolutely filthy and overgrown with “green crap” (i.e. algae), but the girls’ efforts pay off, and everyone hops in for a dip.
- Kurumi and Rize are, for all intents and purposes the same character, merely in a different setting. Despite being voiced by different voice actors (Ari Ozawa provides Kurumi’s voice, while Rize is voiced by Risa Taneda), both characters have a very similar presence within their respective anime, being more versed in combat than their peers and sporting a boisterous personality.
- Gakko Gurashi‘s rising action begins formulating in the tenth episode: after Taromaru goes missing and encounters the infected Megu-nee, Kurumi goes looking for him and is herself infected after hesitating to cut down Megu-nee. With the symptoms worsening, Yūri recalls Kurumi’s request to put the latter out of her misery should she ever become infected, and readies a knife, but finds herself unable to comply, dissolving into tears. While it’s easy for viewers to rest in their comfortable chairs and make armchair evaluations on doing what’s necessary, such situations are always more difficult in reality.
- Kurumi is on the verge of full infection and Yūri is stuck at a crossroads, while Miki is trapped in the basement, cornered by the zombies. With Yuki regaining her sense of reality and becoming incapacitated, the Force Ghosts of Megu-nee appear to remind her that far from being a burden, she’s thus far successfully kept everyone in reasonable spirits. Spurred on, Yuki manages to reach the broadcasting room.
- In delivering a heartfelt speech about her love for school, her words appear to resonate with the infected’s subconscious and cause them to disperse, buying enough time for Miki to return to the clubroom with the treatment. The basement scenes strongly reminded me of the final missions in Metro 2033: Redux, sections of the game where I had picked the wrong loadout and was therefore forced to play carefully to ensure survival. The lone figure of Megu-nee suffering eternally alone is simultaneously saddening and frightening: the horror in Gakko Gurashi comes not from jump scares or scary faces, but rather, is implied through scenarios and outcomes of events.
- Kurumi makes a full recovery in the anime, to everyone’s relief. However, exhausted from his efforts and infection, Taromaru dies. The execution is remarkable, and the emotions the girls are feeling becomes quite tangible as they watch Taromaru struggle to his food dish, before dying in Miki’s lap. Numerous viewers who had read the manga first were quite dissatisfied with the anime’s depiction of Taromaru and Megu-nee, feeling that both had been given far larger roles than they’d merited.
- I finished Gakko Gurashi today with Waffle and Chix’s succulent and rich fried chicken poutine in hand. The last time I had a fried chicken poutine while watching an anime was Tamayura: More Aggressive, and it’s quite striking as to how much time’s passed since then, although the crunchy and juicy fried chicken remains as delicious as I can remember. Returning to Gakko Gurashi, I am satisfied with how the anime executed things; with only the anime to go on, I experienced a rather moving story, which means Gakko Gurashi was able to convey the feelings in the manga sufficiently despite its shorter length.
- Graduation with a small number of people always make me tear up because of the scale, which seems to confer a sense of melancholy: Angel Beats! demonstrated that quite nicely, and as with Angel Beats!, graduation symbolically represents taking a look back before taking a step into the future, which is filled with uncertainty. In Angel Beats!, it was the step that allowed the SSS’ members to move on, and in Gakko Gurashi, it symbolises the girls’ resolve to make it outside of their school. This is a fitting ending to Gakko Gurashi, and it represents a rather neat ending to the series, which lessens the possibility of a continuation. With that being said, Gakko Gurashi was an enjoyable anime that explored matters atypical of most anime in its class, and I would recommend it.
Another theme that’s present in Gakko Gurashi is the notion of what is reality: Yuki’s trauma results in her rejecting reality, and the other characters sometimes comment that their entire situation feels surreal. To exacerbate things, viewers are not initially given the full picture: this is especially apparent with Megu-nee, whose limited presence is viewed as a running-joke until the truth is revealed. In choosing to represent some things rather than others, Gakko Gurashi aims to capture the confusion that Yuki is experiencing and convey it to the audience. By the end, though, Yuki is able to come to terms with Megu-nee’s passing and accepts her reality when an epiphany leads her to understand what her role in the group is. While the anime has been said to take some creative liberties when compared to the manga’s resolution for things like how Yuki recovers (apparently, it’s explored in more detail and therefore, is more plausible in the manga), overall, Gakko Gurashi proved to be quite moving and provocative with its depiction of life in the aftermath of a pandemic. Like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Gakko Gurashi creates scenarios that push the characters’ mental health to their limits, but rather than yielding to Nihilism, the anime presents a more optimistic ending, as the girls employ proactive survival to see where it will take them. So, Gakko Gurashi is something that can be recommended for all zombie-apocalypse fans, as well as those looking for an interesting take-down of the rose-coloured anime about high-school life that nonetheless concludes on an optimistic footing. Given the manga is ongoing, a second season is a possibility, although given the resolution seen in the anime, I imagine that Gakko Gurashi‘s animated incarnation has reached a satisfactory stopping point and therefore, a continuation may not be necessary. With this in mind, if there is a continuation, I will almost certainly be watching it.