Review: "Is This A Zombie?" Is a Delicious Genre Stew
Let’s be real for a moment. It’s 2013, and zombies and zombie humor have become so culturally rampant that even complaining about their over exposure is itself a bit trite and played out. So, if you’re in the “not another freakin’ zombie-related thing” camp, just leave. In fact, if you can’t handle healthy dose of just about every possible popular trope from the past few decades without going into a Comic Book Guy-like fit, you should skip Is This A Zombie?, because everything exploitable gets it time to shine. The cooldere? Yes, and she’s so cool that she doesn’t even speak, she just writes demands on a notepad. The tsundere magical girl? Yes, and she’s so tsun she cuts the Zombie male lead in half with a pink chainsaw in the first episode. A vampire ninja girl? Yep, though at least she doesn’t sparkle, though she adeptly fulfills the role of resident cast jerk. Well, the first vampire ninja girl does at least. Crossdressing? Well, the zombie male lead steals the magical powers of the magical girl, so yeah, it’s trap o’clock and I’m not talking about T.I. or gLAdiator. So, yes, abandon all hope of non-mash-up-based originality, and strap in.
Our story begins with Ayumu Aikawa, your typical, hapless, disaffected, Japanese high school boy. Everything was going as good as one could expect, until he happened to be killed by a serial murderer. However, he is brought back to life as a zombie thanks to a rather cute and mute necromancer by the name of Eucliwood Hellscythe. We join the story as he seems to be getting used to his unliving arrangement wherein he uses his new found zombie strength at night to chase after the person who killed him, while struggling on as your average high school doofus by day. However, one evening, he runs into Haruna, a magical girl from another world who is in the midst of fighting some kind of bear demon. Ayumu gets mixed up in the fight and ends up stealing Haruna’s powers (yes, just like Bleach, though there is a certain Tsukihime flavor as well) making Ayumu into a magical girl(boy) zombie.
End episode one.
That should be an incomprehensible train wreck, but somehow the show manages to breeze a long with an ever heightening stack of references, nods and out right theft from other shows without every lamp shading it. Episode two introduces Seraphim, a ridiculously sassy vampire ninja girl, goes into Ayumu’s zombie origin story, and manages to wring character development out of the entire main cast. From there, we get a never particularly unsurprising, yet somehow always endearing slice-of-unlife as the other mysteries unfold. Balancing an episode wherein the paranormal harem plays everyday board games with a supernatural, fan service saturated twist, only to go out bowling and then run into Ayumu and his anti-suave best bro, should seem like a mess. That episode should be even more confused when they try to then transition into a relatively dramatic third act that develops the serial killer sub plot. However, through all of that weirdness, the pacing hangs together like a good live-action sitcom during the comedic moments, and feels like a light BBC drama when it’s more serious. Shoot, the second half of the show grows the harem even further, with the addition of the perfectly tom-boyish, ninja-vampire Yuki Toronori, and yet it’s natural and familiar without feeling tired. Really, it shouldn’t work, but Is This A Zombie? holds perfectly at hilariously surreal and deliciously self-referential, and never over-reaches into being just plain awkward or over-dramatic.
The execution and delivery of the story is quite good. The episodes manage to bounce adeptly between goofy comedy, extreme action and heartfelt drama without ever losing the impact of any element, and ultimately seem to have a rather natural flow given the surreal plot points. I’ll note that I can’t speak to the quality of adaptation, but the quality of the show suggests the animators either started with great material or they took it to a great place. At the very least, it’s not annoyingly and unnecessarily talky, unlike many other light novel adaptations. Yes, the actual dialog and delivery sometimes feels a bit a stilted in places, but it’s usually on point and it’s never needlessly verbose. The referential aspects of the humor are largely subtle unlike many other anime comedies that tend to cram in those call outs awkwardly. Yes, a plethora of anime and manga gets little nods, but they aren’t interrupting the flow the show. In fact, they even back-end pack a pile of classic harem situations to ensure the story never loses momentum. FUNimation even manages to match that subtlety most of the time, and the additional nods to classic US zombie titles are definitely welcome here. There are certainly a few moments of FUNimation’s comedy re-writing that could be dialed back a bit, but ultimately I feel like their VA for Ayumu sounds much more like a teen than the relatively gruff Japanese VA. For the most part though, it’s a good story with a nice script and great voice acting in either English or Japanese.
Visually, it’s a surprisingly good effort from the oft-maligned Studio DEEN. Ayumu makes some incredibly novel of use of his combination zombie/magical girl powers, adding a really unique and unexpected flair to the fights. Even clichéd fighting moves, like pulling a sword inward to draw in your opponent, are flipped with a radical and fresh style here. The scale and choreography of some of the battles call to mind hyperactive romps like Gainax’s FLCL and Re:Cutey Honey, and really, to have pulled off in a late night TV show what is normally the domain of classic, high-budget OVA series is outstanding. When the show finally goes into gore-mode to put an end to the show’s big bad, it reaches almost Gantz-meets-Deadman Wonderland levels of blood and guts, yet it manages to ease the viewer into that visual shock rather drive them away with it. As a TVMA series, I expected a more fan-service driven chunk of visuals, but given the copious amounts of steam and glare over anything juicy, it’s obvious the MA comes mostly from the gore. Truthfully, the show does such a good job with everything else I wouldn’t have cared if the fan service wasn’t softened, but since it’s even steamed over in the Japanese Blu-Ray release, clearly the show wasn’t meant to be quite that sexy. Yes, there are a few really screwy moments of stiff animation and some questionable 3DCG, but it’s largely composed of great movement and fun eye-candy when the need arises.
The DVD release itself is pretty good. While I still tend to prefer the Japanese 2.0 mixes for my personal viewing, the 5.1 English is quite cinematic, as one would expect from FUNimation. The video itself doesn’t appear to suffer from any major compression issues from what I can tell, but I still feel a little odd about cramming so much on to 2 DVDs. It begs for trouble. The menus are quite well done, and while it’s not particularly extra heavy, the actual physical release is quite awesome. The box is sturdy (though for 2 DVDs, perhaps a single case in a slip case would’ve sufficed,) and the box art is really quite eye catching and fitting. That said, it is a DVD only release, and as the Panty and Stocking Blu-Ray reissue has shown, a few months of patience will eventually yield a fancier release. Plus, with the entire series up on FUNimation’s website, you can assess whether you want to wait for a sharper copy or not.
Obviously, though, it’s light entertainment at the end of the day, and it’s really nothing new. Anyone looking for something smart, original or progressive here is out of luck. However, if you can forgive the fact that, sooner rather than later, this will be reissued on Blu-Ray, and probably for less money, I think there is no good reason for the average otaku to not give Is This A Zombie? a shot. It’s a really charming anime, and in a era of genre mash-ups, it combines all of the right elements brilliantly.