Beyond sympathy and sadness in Gakkou Gurashi!

I always struggle to explain why I like something. For example, I adored Space Patrol Luluco but only managed to write 1700 words about it. Even then, much of that review simply complained about bad reference humor. I couldn’t produce a clear, glowing endorsement. Meanwhile, I ranted for 3700 words about Hyakuren no Haou to Seiyaku no Valkyria, perhaps my least favorite television show ever (oh, and I was writing about just the first episode). I am simply much better at criticizing than praising. That asymmetry makes me a little sad.

When I want to write about a show that I actually enjoyed, I often disappoint myself. I waste hours of daydreaming, desk-warming time at work struggling to think of something, anything specific to praise and can only come up with something vague like “it was good because it was good.” It bothers me that I can exhaustively justify my dislikes but cannot apply the same rigor to my likes. I can easily describe distaste. But apparently, there is no accounting for taste.

With that said, I liked Gakkou Gurashi! enough to give it a try anyway. I will take this essay as a personal challenge to try to describe something I love without defaulting to criticism or conceding to the many negative or ambivalent reviews on the internet. Though the show has plenty of flaws (the deus ex …dog… could be ridiculous), the overall experience was one of the most emotionally and thematically engaging I have had with television in years.

(English: School-Live! I’ll drop the exclamation because really, who wants to type that over and over again? Also, why not translate it as a simple “School Life?” Is “live” a verb as in “IT LIVES!” or an adjective as in “LIVE FROM NEW YORK?” Questions with no answer… it’s just a hazard of Japanese English I suppose.)

Spoiler Warning:

Gakkou Gurashi is extremely sensitive to spoilers. The less you know about it before viewing, the better. The synopsis on MyAnimeList even says too much. For the remainder of the essay, I will assume that the reader has already seen the show. I’ll hide my thesis about the show’s themes behind the jump, because I worry that even that would spoil the whole experience.

Much of the criticism of Gakkou Gurashi seems to focus on the tonal inconsistency between its classic slice-of-life moe nonsense and its sinister post zombie-apocalypse setting. The harshest reviewers treat this tonal clash as cheap, edgy, shock-value at worst or an unoriginal Madoka Magica-esque genre deconstruction gone wrong at best.

I think these criticisms miss the point. Gakkou Gurashi is neither a cynical commentary on its genre nor a lazy “watch the cute lolis suffer” survival-setting cash grab. Instead, it is rich in thoughtful themes. Many reviews discuss Gakkou Gurashi’s themes but mostly focus narrowly on Yuki’s psychosis or PTSD. However, Gakkou Gurashi also has much more subtle things to say about leaving childhood and dealing with loss explored through compassionate, quasi-religious questions about what makes life worth living.

I am usually reluctant to ascribe religious meaning to Christian concepts in Japanese works. Though Christian images have become common in Japan (see the bizarre popularity of western-style weddings officiated by old, white priests), only about one percent of the country actually practices the faith. Christianity seems to primarily exist as a hip marketing tool to sell supposedly “western” products, much like American companies will slap a Buddha on a tin of tea to establish its exotic (or less charitably, orientalist) credentials. My favorite example of Japanese “Christian Cool” comes from the anime world: Neon Genesis Evangelion famously shattered a thousand amateurs’ analyses when the showrunners revealed that they had added the angels and crucifixes just to “look cool.”

Despite the prevailing trend in the industry, Gakkou Gurashi uses Christian imagery sparingly enough to likely have real thematic intentions. Megu-nee wears a cross and is “buried” under one. Though this could be a superficial detail a la Evangelion (once, I spotted one of my Japanese students wearing a cross. When I asked why, she just said it was “cute”), Gakkou Gurashi also sets Megu-nee down an aborted Christ narrative. Like Jesus, she died and was resurrected to act as the salvation of her students. But in a twist, she did not ascend. Instead, her lumbering ghost still lurks somewhere, and somewhere close. Megu-nee the person is gone, but that rotting, leaking, travesty of a body serves as a reminder of her sacrifice, similar to some of the more macabre Catholic traditions that emphasize Jesus’s physical torture (ivory crucifixes, ahoy!). Finally, at the end of the series, her ribbon slips away into the wind and she achieves a subdued sort of godhood. Though not so dramatic as the one son in heaven, she has become a symbol of hope for the four survivors that pray over her grave before they set off for the College of Saint Isidore as their probable next disaster shelter.

I doubt that Gakkou Gurashi seeks to comment specifically on Christianity. The cross imagery and Christ narrative are merely evocative of religion rather than some direct allusion. Instead, Gakkou Gurashi addresses the broad psychological function of faith.

Yuki’s delusions work a bit like a religion. Rather than accepting the fact that a loved-one has died, it is often easier to pretend that they remain watchful as spirits or angels or whatever. But in Yuki’s childish mind, the game of pretend goes even further: Megu-nee’s ghost is literally alive. More broadly, Yuki’s delusions form the basis of a religious doctrine institutionalized in the School Living Club. The club offers a rough outline of what the survivors should do with their lives. Much like religious ceremonies trace a life path from birth (in Catholicism, baptism) to adulthood (confirmation) to death (last rites), the club guides the survivors through a daily routine marked by special school events like the sports day and graduation. Though the details are arbitrary, the events create a framework for a “meaningful” life. The survivors have something to look forward to in the bleak apocalypse.

To the undeluded members of the club, Yuki then serves two purposes despite her uselessness in supporting the group’s survival. First, she acts like a mystical medium that allows them to indirectly converse with Megu-nee’s spirit for comfort and wisdom. Yuuri and Kurumi become complicit in a lie, but doing so helps them cope with their own grief and carry on living. With her constant half-motherly, half melancholy tone, Yuuri especially seems to pity Yuki’s condition. However, she also recognizes Yuki’s second role in creating the foundation for the “School Living Club.” Because the club provides some direction in their isolated, survival-oriented lifestyles, Yuki’s madness becomes a necessary evil to help keep the more productive survivors sane. Yuuri often seems uncomfortable using her sick friend as a coping tool, but worries that breaking Yuki’s fantasy would tempt a catastrophic breakdown. As a result, the survivors tip-toe around Megu-nee’s ghost and successfully insulate Yuki from reality, despite the brief hiccup when Miki first arrived.

Miki herself acts almost like the School Living Club’s first “convert,” demonstrating how even a skeptic could become sympathetic to faith without really believing in it. Miki’s life in the mall room became an existentially boring chore without the pretense of a meaningful purpose to support it. Though Miki herself did not seem to mind the monotony, her partner Kei could not tolerate the room any longer and left in search of any excitement beyond stagnant survival. Upon leaving, Kei suggested that such a static, aimless life in the room with nothing but a book, a CD player, and a dog was functionally equivalent to death. In this context, Miki’s final message to Kei, “I Lived,” is less a literal statement that she survived than a triumphant expression of her emotional thriving. After all, she likely would have remained biologically alive even if she had hid in the room. But only by moving to the school and joining a community bound by Yuki’s faith did she rise out of bland contentment and achieve flashes of happiness.

Like Miki, Gakkou Gurashi made me sympathetic to the psychological motivation behind faith even if I have none myself. Yuki has no ill-will in believing her delusions and Yuuri and Kurumi have no malevolent intent in supporting her. They all just need some way to cope with their sadness. Yuki’s mystical method of complete denial might have negative spillovers by burdening her friends with her safety, but the entire edifice of the School Living Club clearly benefits the emotional health of all of the survivors. Even non-believers like Miki can enjoy the purposeful routine and sense of community offered by School Living Club’s pseudo-religion. To offer a personal analogy: even if I have no faith, I can still enjoy Christmas, just as Miki could enjoy the letter-writing assignment despite having no connection to Megu-nee.

With that said, though Gakkou Gurashi explores strong themes relating to religion’s psychological role in generating a meaningful life, I don’t think that it exactly endorses faith. After all, Yuki is insane. Her faith is not rational. More importantly though, Gakkou Gurashi’s other great theme regarding “the end,” of faith and other things, often seems antithetical to most religious thinking.

The “End Times” in religion rarely seem to represent a real end. The old animistic faiths like Japan’s native Shintoism always offer a genesis but rarely an apocalypse (to my knowledge, Shinto cosmology has no world-ending myth). For a more dramatic example, the Evangelical Christian Rapture ends the Earth in a colossal dualistic war. But it does not end the universe: human souls just catch the next shuttle to heaven or hell and call it a day. Even “keyword: impermanence” Buddhism avoids hard endings. Depending on the sect, reincarnation constantly churns through 31-ish planes of existence placed inside a universe infinite in time and space. One temporal entity might fade away, but that process just transforms it into another ephemeral form that continues on the merry adventure (Philosophy, not a religion? Sorry, I can’t hear you over the roar of seven suns atomizing the planet before the universe regenerates. Eight, Nine, Ten, let’s do it again! Again… depending on the sect).

Religions seem hesitant to consider simple nonexistence and the disappointment that follows. They continuously rehash the same gods and souls through their cosmology, like next week’s comic book superheroes returned from the dead to fight the same villains for round two (or three or four or five or six or…). When the architects of the universe get bored (whether gods or publishing company boardrooms), they perform a hard reboot and let the whole process start over again (I suppose the biblical flood was just a soft reboot on Earth..?).

By contrast, endings are pervasive in Gakkou Gurashi. Human society ends, sports day ends, school life ends, Miki’s friendship with Kei ends, and Megu-nee and Taroumaru end. Each of these endings echo into the future, like Megu-nee’s memory motivating the girls or the zombies carrying on their routines in undeath. However, the originals themselves are irrecoverable. Nothing can bring Megu-nee back. Sometimes, things just end.

To me, the most interesting ending in Gakkou Gurashi is the end of childhood. The show is explicit about this, commenting on the post-high school choice between the workforce and university in the last episode. But it also raises a much more subtle, interesting question. What does it mean for childhood to end?

I think Yuki provides a satisfactory answer when she says “It’s okay to be sad… You don’t always have to be ‘fine.’” Conventional wisdom perhaps says that sadness is childish. Babies cry. Real adults would quit whining and bury all of that sadness nonsense with the rest of their childhood whimsy. But to Yuki, being sad marks her ultimate maturation without completely sacrificing her peppy inner child. Sadness meant abandoning her comfortable world of pretend and accepting Megu-nee’s death. It meant facing the reality of suffering. It hurt. And that was okay.

The sentiment reminded me of Peter Pan, with its famous opening line “All children, except one, grow up…” The mystical Yuki lived a fantasy like Peter. But unlike, Peter, no magic protected her childhood. Peter differs from normal children because nothing can damage his infinite innocence (even if that innocence is often feral and cruel). He never feels sad for long: if he feels down, he can immediately distract himself with some new adventure in Neverland. Yuki could do the same as long as her friends supported her life in the relative comfort of the School Living Club. But when disaster struck, she had to face her sadness and return to reality or die.

In her speech at the graduation ceremony (another end!), Yuki says “But all good things must come to an end… It’s sad that nothing can last forever, but I think it is better than way.” The moment is significant because Yuki accepting “the end” also means abandoning her belief that Megu-nee still lives. She does not entirely abandon her faith; in her final address to Megu-nee, she says “I believe we’ll meet again someday.” However, that little white lie will cause far less harm to her friends than her previous complete denial. She will no longer burden them by forcing them to tip-toe around her delusions and keep her safe from the zombies. The sadness is “better” than the fantasy because it gives her the tools to protect her friends, even if it means accepting a painful emotion and the end of her childish innocence.

Gakkou Gurashi has one final end: the conclusion of the show itself. I did not want to see that end. The suspense generated by the contrast between Gakkou Gurashi’s two settings, moe slice-of-life and zombie survival, made me intensely uneasy. As I progressed further through the series, I procrastinated the next episode more and more. I did not want the good times of the club activities to end. I did not want to witness Megu-nee’s death. But most of all, I did not want to see the characters leave childhood. I hoped they would live out an idyllic fantasy farming on the roof and collecting rainwater until the end of time like eternally youthful Hardy Boys that remain children forever despite a nearly 100 year long publishing window. Unfortunately, the realities of the setting made a happy ending impossible. The zombies were beating at the barricades.

When I finally reached the conclusion, I did not think I deserved the bittersweet ending. I had delayed viewing that final last episode for so long that I worried that the zombies would have eaten the girls in the interim. I expected to return to nothing but a static image of the characters’ lurching corpses. But the show kept drawing me back. I was afraid to finish it, but I knew I had to. As Miki put it after finishing her Stephen King book, “The ending is really painful to read though… but I finished it a lot sooner than I expected.”

I don’t know how to give a final verdict on Gakkou Gurashi. It made me so sad that I have trouble thinking and writing clearly about it. I am sure higher quality anime exist out there: when compared with the canon of all-time great shows, Gakkou Gurashi maybe looks a bit average. For example the excellent Haibane Renmei probably does a better job exploring religious themes like sin and death through its gorgeous allegory. But in my mind, Haibane Renmei was more of an intellectual exercise with clever depictions of difficult concepts like its “circle of sin.” I had sympathy for the characters and thought about their challenges. But I never felt sad or elated along with them.

By contrast, Gakkou Gurashi really made me feel just as the characters did. I have never been more emotionally engaged in a piece of media since Pixar’s Inside Out, a movie that made me want to cuddle with my childhood teddy bear and cease (And I was 20 at the time!). Something about end of childhood narratives and “its okay to be sad” messages always creep a steady melancholy into me. Even just an echo of Bing Bong’s theme or a rainbow glimmer of his song-powered wagon across my memory makes me tear up. The thought of a soft, pink imaginary friend slipping into non-existence is just too much for me, whether that pink friend was a cotton candy elephant or a Japanese school teacher.

Like the characters in the School Living Club, I desperately did not want Megu-nee to end. Even as a viewer separated from the action behind a screen, I did not think I could cope with that reality. I consciously suppressed the many obvious hints about her death and could not believe what I saw when it was revealed in a flashback. “Surely the show is lying to me… She can’t be dead…” I thought. Despite knowing the honest truth, I still preferred to believe that I had just witnessed some lazy nightmare dream sequence instead of the real deal. I wanted to live in Yuki’s fantasy. I was jealous of her faith.

The handling of Megu-nee’s death was masterful to evoke such an emotional response. Maybe that extreme reaction is some quirk of my own psychology that many other viewers will not relate with. But to me, it is strong evidence of Gakkou Gurashi’s innate quality. Gakkou Gurashi’s greatness is the difference between empathy and sympathy: it manages to elevate itself above merely identifying the characters’ emotions by actually evoking those same emotions in the viewer (or at least, this one viewer). For that, Gakkou Gurashi lands a place among my all-time favorite anime. And despite making me so sad, that makes me awfully happy.

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