Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 04 – Undeath Metal Girls

Sakura does her level best to cheer Junko up, but her head is still out of it, during another musicmaking practice I can’t help but think is far too quaint against the likes of Iron Frill. She doesn’t even realize her hula hoop has fallen to the ground! Shiori’s harsh and under-informed opinions about Franchouchou build on Junko’s building lack of confidence in any scenario without Ai.

If Shiori, the center of the country’s top idol group, says they’re trash, then they must be. But in believing those words, Junko creates artificial limitations. It’s less about Ai being too good for Franchouchou than Junko not being good enough. When Junko and Ai cross paths, Junko asks if Ai enjoyed being in Iron Frill more.

The way Ai responds by asking why Junko is worried about that when she should be worried about the show just rubs Junko the wrong way. For one, Ai doesn’t even attempt to humor or reassure her she’s happy where she is. But that’s less Ai being insensitive to the moment as Junko being hyper-sensitive to anything that confirms her anxieties.

Junko runs off to cry on the beach and scares the shit out of the local cop (who is never not hilarious in his buffoonery). Koutarou, no stranger to wailing at the waves, confronts Junko back at the house, armed with his trusty old red axe. As he creates wind with some sick chords, he considers it to be his lodestar, as as long as it can keep making music, he can keep moving forward.

He sees that Junko is standing still, unsure if she can go forward, and can see the false limitations she—not Ai ort Shiori—created for herself. Handing her the guitar, he tells her if there’s something she really wants—in this case to keep performing with Ai—she has to keep shining, strumming, and moving forward.

The pep talk not only snaps Junko out of her funk, but gives her the idea Franchouchou needs to create the necessary impact tomorrow. True to their tight-knit family cohesiveness, everyone (even Tae!) waited for Junko to sit down before tucking into Yuugiri’s sumptuous pre-concert feast.

They’re all happy Junko looks more focused. The day of the show, Shiori is disappointed to learn Ai isn’t even going to be on stage, because without her Franchouchou is nothing but “a bunch of nobodies.” Of course Shiori is ignorant to the generational talent Koutarou assembled, just as she’s not aware that Number Three is the Eternal Center Mizuno Ai. Regardless, Ai warns her not to underestimate Franchouchou, a group that’s always striving and evolving.

Shiori agrees to give them a chance, and she’s probably glad she did, as we finally get to see the group’s quaint musicmaking pay off. Tae is given a high-end drum set to start things off with a sick solo, followed by Junko on Koutarou’s red Strat. As I had hoped, she decided to draw upon her talent and ability to enchant with a guitar in her hand.

The group’s top two fans are delighted that the Death Metal Girls are back with a spicy, almost Beastie Boys style rock-and-rap number (I’m told it’s more of a piece with the likes of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park).

As usual for the Revenge sequel, both the singing and dancing animation, the lighting effects, the camerawork, and of course the song itself all look and sound fantastic—a serious upgrade over the previous season’s more-than-adequate production values.

I especially liked how Junko finishes the song by smashing Koutarou’s venerable guitar into a million pieces. How’s that for impact?! Her performance moves Ai, watching proudly in the stands, and reminds her of when she’d watch old videos of Junko performing—the very thing that got Ai into the business.

Ai, who at this point understands full well that her resemblance to Frill’s old center wasn’t why Koutarou kept her off the stage. Now that he achieved what he was hoping for, Ai runs to the stage to join her companions. Only it’s quite a leap to manage, and when Junko grabs her arm it starts to come off! When Junko corrects by leaping towards Ai, they both hit the deck hard.

No problem, this just shows Junko that, as zombies, they can deliver a performance living human group never could, by injecting themselves with electricity and literally shining. As they perform a slick autotuned techno remix of “Awaken Returner”, the girls themselves put on a beguiling Tron-like lightshow. Shiori and Yui are suitably impressed, even if they have no idea how such special effects are being done. I don’t either…but they’re cool, so who cares!!

But it’s more than that. Yui told Shiori to be weary of recruiting Number Three due to her resemblance to Mizuno Ai, because as good as Ai was, she’s the past, while Iron Frill is all about the future. But Shiori never stopped being inspired by Ai, just as Ai never stopped being inspired by Junko. Even uif they weren’t secret zombies, Ai and Junko are timeless talents, and AI’s performance transports Shiori back to when she was just a little girl watching Ai on TV.

One of the many, many things Zombieland Saga gets so right is depicting how past generations help shape us. The past isn’t something you can turn your back on and forget about. It’s always there, and it’s why Iron Frill are who they are. Even Yui has someone who inspired her. This is why I believe Shiori decided to give a very particular shout-out to Franchouchou when they appeared on TV for a post-concert interview.

Shiori considers them Iron Frill’s top rival because they let her travel back in time to the genesis of her love of song and dance. That’s hard to do, and she knows she can’t rest on her laurels if she wants to have the same effect on the kids out there who dream of becoming like her, and Ai, and Junko.

Read Crow and Irina’s discussion of episode 4 here!

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 03 – The Legendary Center Cannot Hold

Saki may be the de facto leader of Franchouchou, but their center has always been Mizuno Ai. While the group now has a radio show and their schedule is starting to fill out, much of that remains odd jobs. Ai warns the others that they can’t be complacent just because they’ve had a little success. Watching videos of Iron Frill, Ai knows the gap between them is a yawning chasm, but the only way to close that gap is to keep grinding.

During that grind, it’s Ai who is most often called upon by the other members for her advice and guidance. Other than Junko, who performed a long time ago in what was a very different idol industry, only Ai has the pertinent experience to help the others. So it’s deeply frustrating when a Kotarou in full drill sergeant mode announces Franchouchou will be opening for Iron Frill at the newly opened Saga Arena…without Ai.

His worry is that her resemblance to Iron Frill’s former center—her—is too risky. The others push back, but he’s made his decision. Ai leaves it to Junko, the next most-experienced idol, to head up the group and whip them into shape. Ai even thinks it’s a good opportunity for Franchouchou to grow up a bit.

Koutarou books a bunch of solo gigs for Ai, while Junko expresses doubt they’ll be able to make an impression on Iron Frill fans no matter how hard they practice. After seeing Iron Frill’s new center Shiori on TV basically declaring war on the opening act, the others put together a dance with improvised instruments in order to make more of an “impact”, when just the night before Junko was trying to google “impact”.

Junko goes up to the roof to play a song to cheer herself up, during which the colors fade and the frame adjusts to 4:3 aspect ratio—a nice nod to the era she’s from. Sakura, who came up to check on her, is so moved by the song she falls off the roof, with Junko only managing to save her head from falling. As such, their lovely dramatic scene together takes place with Sakura in two separate pieces.

Junko is worried that all she can do is demonstrate her own personal appeal, without knowing how to make that performance pay off in a group. I was thinking that she should just do a guitar and vocal solo that the others can eventually join in on, but the two decide to ask Ai instead, noting that Koutarou didn’t bar them from talking. In the meantime Sakura does what she does best: praise, reassure, and encourage.

But in a bit of awkward timing, Iron Frill’s Shiori confronts Ai after one of her solo gigs before Junko and Sakura can approach her. Shiori takes her aside, and after noting how similar Ai looks to her Ai, is very blunt in her assessment of Franchouchou. Basically, she believes the others are holding Ai back, and Ai would be better served joining Iron Frill to meet her full potential.

If Koutarou won’t allow Ai to do solo gigs outside of Saga, he certainly won’t let her go to a Tokyo idol group…or will he? Was leaving Ai out of the Saga Arena show while also booking multiple solo gigs to spotlight Ai all part of a scheme to get her poached away? Has Koutarou decided that the others should no longer rely on someone who, due to her fame in her past life, simply draws too much of the wrong attention (i.e. those journalist guys, who return this week)?

It’s telling that Ai doesn’t immediately refuse Shiori’s offer, but it’s also devastating for Junko to hear what Shiori said, because it confirms her fears she doesn’t have what it takes to lead the group in Ai’s stead. Just when everything was starting to look up, Franchouchou’s two most idolly members are facing personal crises. Can Sakura and the others pull together to help both Ai and Junko find their proper places?

Zombieland Saga – 07 – A Truly Shocking Performance

(Apologies for the horrible pun that titles this post.—Ed.) Last week’s episode proved ZLS is far more than just a venue for Miyano Mamoru’s manic voice performances or a showcase for idol-dancing CGI. It can also do serious character drama. How would it resolve the generational rift between Franchouchou’s dual aces?

With Junko unwilling/unable to continue in this new and scary idoling world and holed up in one of the mansion’s many rooms, Ai commits to doing Junko’s part as the days to Saga Rock count down, even as the strain causes her head and limbs literally fall off (kudos to the foley artists for appropriately gross sound effects as the zombies move about).

Even Lily admits there may be nothing any of them can to to convince Ai to come back. Sakura asks Tatsumi for help, but he shouts her away. Even so, Tatsumi later breaks down the barricade Junko had built over the door and, surprisingly enough, provides the sober voice of reason. He acknowledges Junko’s fear of how things have changed in the last thirty years, but assures her the calling of idol is no less noble than it was in her time.

He also suggests something Junko didn’t consider a possibility: that if she doesn’t want to get so close to her fans…that she just shouldn’t. She can still sing and dance with the others while continuing to carry the Showa flag and live the life she’s most comfortable with.

He also reminds Junko that she’s not the only one with fears as a result of waking up a zombie in a strange time and place. He informs her how Ai died, and the weather forecast for the festival, and how Ai is going forward to face her fears. Considering she’s already dead, what harm would it do Junko to give this idol thing one last try?

With that, Tatsumi leaves Junko with her outfit for tomorrow’s festival…and a casual order to fix the door he busted (hey, this is still a comedy first and foremost). The next morning everyone waits as long as they can, but then pack into the van without Junko.

Just as they start off, Junko heroically leaps over the mansion gate lands in front of the van…which absolutely pummels her, in such a similar fashion to Sakura’s own demise it sparks a vague memory for her. Like a zombie horror movie, Ai slowly gets up…but not to eat brains; to join her fellow members of Franchouchou, all of whom but Ai run to embrace her.

Still, Ai decides to bury the hatchet as the group prepares for their show, promising Junko she’ll have her back. Tatsumi liberally sprays shoe waterproofing all over the girls so their makeup won’t melt in the coming rains.

The others join Ai as she watches her old group Iron Frill knock it out of the park (without anyone getting roasted by lightning). Why the more popular band would open for unknowns like Franchouchou, I have no idea, but that plot contrivance is only one of a long chain of them that, IMO, somewhat mar the group’s biggest moment yet.

While Iron Frill’s dancing and singing was 2D animation, the show breaks back out the smoother-moving but still far creepier CGI models of the Franchouchou members. I remain mostly unconvinced this was the best way to animate them performing, as it really pulls you out of the otherwise 2D world of the show.

Technical aspects aside, I liked how the storms made Ai so frightened she couldn’t sing properly, threatening to make their big break a disaster right from the start (the rain also forces much of Iron Frill’s crowd to flee, combined with the fact they don’t know who Franchouchou is). I liked Junko having Ai’s back even better, especially when Ai said she’d have hers. Junko may have nerves too, but they don’t relate to performing in a thunderstorm.

The idols regroup and finish out their first song strong, but the entire stage is suddenly destroyed by lightning, making real Ai’s worst nightmare: a repeat of the events that killed her. However, due to them already being dead and zombies (and perhaps the thick coats of spray Tatsumi applied), their exposure to lightning only makes them glow, and makes their voices distorted.

The group proceeds to perform their last song in “autotune” remix mode, their bodies providing the only light on the stage, and occasionally shooting lightning beams out of their fingers. This sequence of events represents a new level of preposterous-ness for the show.

While a show about zombie idols already demands one to suspend disbelief about quite a number of things, the piling on of absurd events culminating in glowing idols shooting lasers while singing autotune…was just a bit much.

The attitude that created this sequence seems to be: “So we carefully crafted a nuanced character conflict between Junko and AI rooted in generational differences…but SCREW ALL THATAnything goes when they take the stage; nothing has to make sense!” Never mind the fact that there were zero consequences for Junko not practicing with the group for weeks. I know she’s one of the best from her time, but no one’s that good!

All that criticism aside, the festival, ridiculous as it was, had the intended effect of getting Franchouchou much-needed publicity, as news of their “illuminating” performance at Saga Rock ends up published in a magazine. We’ll see how that translates into cash to fund their operation, but more importantly how it heightens their statute in the idol world, and how they’ll respond to that increased fame.