Doing a full-on analysis of something like this is tricky, since I can’t expect someone who hasn’t seen it to read this without having something spoiled for them, so before I delve into what Gakkou Gurashi does well, here’s a spoiler-free recommendation to watch at least the first episode.
While it does start out very cutesy and lively, and that does continue throughout, the real drama becomes apparent early on, and depending on how you feel about it, will ultimately be the deciding factor on whether or not you feel the show is for you. But for the most part, it is cute girls doing cute things. Don’t let that be a deterring factor though, because the friendships between the characters and their strong personalities are endearing and enjoyable in their own right.
The character designs are great and help make the girls look distinctive from one another, with two of them being stylized and expressive enough to be memorable: Yuki and Kurumi. Yuki’s hat, pink hair and childlike persona all coalesce into a character that can either be interpreted as understandable (given the situation), or irritating depending on your disposition. Kurumi’s twin-tailed purple hair with scarlet ribbons, and a getup of a black choker-collar, and zebra striped arm-warmers together with her school uniform make her stand out from the rest of the characters. And her strong and energetic personality make her an endearing character to root for.
I recommend watching the show without reading into any of the tags, synopses or explanations. Though, it’s not dependent on its twists, you would be remiss in not watching it fresh eyes. As the series progresses, it alludes to more mystery and makes good on its impact, while at the same time balancing the nice and tender scenes with more somber moments that make the dramatic tension feel more potent and heavy.
Okay, now onto spoilers.
If you’ve watched Gakkou Gurashi, then you know why it’s difficult to tip-toe around spoilers and discuss the show without revealing them. Yuki and her three fellow club members live out their days in school as if everyday was a different adventure. But there is more to this show than meets the eye. Beneath her cheery surface, lies an unhinged Yuki who perceives a bright distorted interpretation of reality. But in actuality, things are morbid and horrifying for everyone involved.
Gakkou Gurashi is more than just a highschool anime about the lives of carefree high school girls. What separates Gakkou Gurashi from other slice of life shows is its apocalyptic setting, and how it goes about presenting its focus on the mental strain of its characters. Instead of it being action-heavy based survival, it goes for a more believable insight into the lives of scared highschool girls having to deal with the trauma of witnessing their classmates turned into zombies. And while zombies have felt overdone for almost a decade now, it makes excellent use of this setting by sparingly contrasting it with Yuki’s rose-colored, hallucinogenic view of things. This creates an odd tension, and adds to the overall experience of joining these girls in their day-to-day moments, as much as it lingers in the background as an omnipresent threat.
Blood and gore is not used to excess, but only when necessary and to an appropriate degree. The gruesome displays and obscured faces support the main focus by adding to the eerie atmosphere. What makes it stand out apart from its contemporaries is its thoroughness – from the characters to the story to the execution of its main concept, these details aid in the natural flow and slow build-up to the finale.
There is a great consolidation between the cute and grotesque aspects that transition effectively between one another. Going from carefree smiles, laughter and school fun to kick in the teeth horror, gloom and desolation offsets into a special harmony that helps accentuate and dramatize the tension, and makes the show feel real. The overly cute and happy approach is a stylistic tool used to contrast the darker, horror side of the story. Obscuring the zombies’ faces with dark shadows so that you never get a clear look at them is another creative choice in contributing to the atmosphere, because nothing is scarier than the unknown. So, when the girls are confronted with these horrors, it’s all the more tense.
What really adds to the the cognitive split the series offers is the gradual change in the opening of each episode. Some subliminal developments are made from the initial bright, cheery, and colourful opening through subtle visual changes that become more apparent over time through more details turning darker and gloomy. It’s not something you’ll notice on your first viewing, especially if you skipped the openings (like I did). But the real trick, is that they’re made to make you doubt your perception, and check again just to make sure you weren’t hallucinating.
Yuki acts as the catalyst between the two shifting tones, embodying the rose-colored, light-hearted side of the show, while repressing the post-apocalyptic horror situation they’re in. She’s the determinant whenever the audience sees the brighter side of things, and what makes her work is how totally understandable that mindset is to have in a bleak situation like this. It’s also an unknown how she would deal with the cruel reality if her delusions cracked and shattered. Which makes it an added piece of drama and tension for the audience, not knowing if it would be better for her to be aware of the grim reality around her, or to hold onto her false perception.
And that’s ultimately the glue that holds this show together – the idea that it wins you over with it’s psychological horror and makes you feel conflicted on what you want out of it. Because it’s easy to feel settled when things are colorful and happy, but also nervous at the thought of a beloved character being in danger. Yuki isn’t just there to help relieve her friends’ worries, but the audience’s as well. She’s there to lull everyone (including you) into a sense of security, making transitions back to the horror all the more powerful.
Gakkou Gurashi offers the idea that people will construct their own reality when confronted with an unbearable one. And it suggests this, not just with Yuki, but the others as well (given that they go along with her bright-eyed ideas because they need it almost as much as she does) – in that it implies the question of whether such a tool for combatting adversity is a good way of dealing with things, or not. It’s not overtly stated in the story, but it’s something to think about, should you wish to confront that reality.