Gakkou Gurashi! – 07

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Mii-kun’s friend Kei was fond of the author/poet/essayist Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216), and his serene masterpiece An Account of My Hut (Hojoki):

The flow of the river is ceaseless, yet the water is never the same.

The girls of the School Life Club travel that river; the river of life. Even holed up in that room at the mall, Mii-kun was like a leaf drifting atop the surface river; living but nothing else. Now she has encountered other leaves on the river; now joined in a clump, they travel along the flow together. Sometimes the currents are arduous, but they’re stronger together, both in body and mind.

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The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not long in their duration. So, too, it is with man and his dwellings in the world. They are the blink of an eye.

How true is that statement in the world of our club: one moment life in their world is normal, the next, everything has changed. A great number of bubbles in that foam popped that day, and continue to pop, but the girls’journey continues.

Those who are powerful are filled with greed; and those who have no protectors are despised.

The “powerful” of Gakkou Gurashi are the zombies, who are the embodiment of greed (they want only flesh…no doubt including brains). They prey on those who have no protectors. Rii-san, Kurumi, and Mii-kun protect each other, as well as Yuki and Taroumaru.

Possessions bring many worries; in poverty there is sorrow.

You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, eh? The girls’ possessions are few, but those they retain—from Rii-san’s hot plate; Kurumi’s shovel; Mii-kun’s Discman; Yuki’s hat; to the materials for letter-writing and distributing to a mysterious key that belonged to Megu-nee—as well as the friendships they share, bring them worry every day. Their greatest poverty is being the only living humans they know about, even as they assure themselves there are others out there.

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He who asks another’s help becomes his slave; he who nurtures others is fettered by affection. He who does not, appears deranged.

Mii-kun is only a “slave” as a result of being saved insofar as she has agreed to nurture Yuki’s illusions along with Rii-san and Kurumi. Rii-san, the mom of the group, is deservedly admired and loved by the others.

Wherever one may live, whatever work one may do, is it possible even for a moment to find a haven for the body or peace for the mind?

The club lives in the school, which is both a haven and a prison. They must ration food to keep their bodies alive, and they must kepe Yuki lucid and happy so that her smile can keep their minds at peace. Yet Mii-kun remarks this can’t go on forever; they ask too much of Yuki.

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It is a bare ten feet square and less than seven feet high. … I laid a foundation and roughly thatched a roof. … I have added a lean-to on the south and a porch of bamboo. Along the west wall I built a shelf for holy water and installed an image of the Buddha. The light of the setting sun shines between its eyebrows. … On the wall that faces the north I have built a little shelf on which I keep three or four black leather baskets that contain books of poetry and music and extracts from the sacred writings. Beside them stand a folding koto and lute.

The school by any other description; a shelter of modest dimensions and modest appointments, but full of thought and love and care. Solar panels, desk barricades, designated sleeping and eating facilities…

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Outside the hut is a fenced garden to the north and a rock pool to the south with a bamboo pipe draining water. The woods are close, providing plenty of brush-wood, and only to the west is a clearing beyond vines and overgrown valleys.

The garden where the club grows vegetables to supplement their packaged rations is on the roof of the school. The “woods” are the devastated, potentially lethal city beyond the school’s walls; the “clearing” is the schoolyard where the zombies roam much like wild animals; predators to be respected and avoided, but ultimately to coexist with. They too flow within the river, only they lurk below it, having drowned.

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Knowing myself and the world, I have no ambitions and do not mix in the world. I seek only tranquility; I rejoice in the absence of grief.

The club members could easily lapse into a state of hermitry, never venturing too far form the school or too long in the woods, where they know they could meet their death. Yet Rii-san, Kurumi, and Mii-kun all purport to have ambitions vis-a-vis the world. Things won’t be like this forever. It is a dream they will one day wake up from. That hope keeps them going.

Meanwhile, Yuki rejoices in the absence of grief; inadvertantly refusing to fully acknowledge the real world. She is the ideal of tranquility and peace of mind no undeluded person in this world will ever hope to achieve. There’s a close call when Yuki thinks about who was in the car after rescuing Mii-kun, but a few white lies and she finds Megu-nee right where she should be.

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The dew may fall and the flower remain, of the flower may wither before the dew is gone.

The girls, Yuki excluded, face their mortality every day, see places and things that may, and in all likelihood will, outlast them. The choice they face is whether to despair at their seemingly inevitable end, or to embrace the relative beauty and peace of their present. situation.

The fact that Hojoki, words written by Chomei eight hundred years ago, is a testament to the fundamental truth of the ceaseless river upon which we only drift a short while. But hopefully Rii-san, Kurumi, Mii-kun and Yuki will see many more evenings together.

The question is, will Yuki ever emerge from the hut of tranquility her mind created, where she currently resides?

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 06

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Miki wakes up in school to find Yuki standing over her, and then introduces her to “Megu-nee”, someone Miki can’t see, handing the invisible person a bottle of water that just falls to the ground. Miki wonders if her horrible experience at the mall was all a dream, but once Yuki shows her the music room—bright and clean to Yuki’s eyes but trashed and blood-stained to Miki—she realizes it was no dream.

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Miki’s arrival means a disruption of the School Life Club’s routine, and also a potential disruption of Yuki’s presently stable condition. After being with Yuki for a while, she understandably has lots of questions for Rii-san and Kurumi, and she’s not entirely okay with “playing along” with Yuki’s illusions. That’s when Rii-san breaks out her threatening face, but it’s not played for comedy.

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To Rii-san, Miki doesn’t fully understand the situation yet, or know Yuki well enough, to decide that it’s time for Yuki to “wake up.” Indeed, without access to profesional help or drugs, the way things are with Yuki are probably for the best (as long as she doesn’t descend too deep into fantasy). It’s not ideal, but it’s the best they can do.

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More than that, though, to Rii-san and Kurumi, Yuki is more than just the crazy girl who sees things (like their dead teacher Megu-nee) that they have to keep an eye on and take care of. She also represents their beacon of hope, something crucial in their particular situiation.

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Rii-san, Kurumi, and Miki can’t escape from the despair of their daily lives the way Yuki can without trying. And because Yuki is convinced the school is just fine and they’re in a club, she and she alone comes up with ways to break up the monotony of survival, like the mini sports fest this week, or the trip to the mall last week that led to the discovery of Miki and Taroumaru.

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When she first arrived, Miki probably figured a good way to repay the girl who saved her was to help her “get better” from her illness, rather than accept and perpetuate her illusions. But now she realizes the three people who aren’t seeing things need Yuki there, seeing the people and places they can’t, reminding them of the world that was, and maybe one day will be again.

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Understanding this, and that again, this situation is not ideal (ideally, Yuki would get professional help), but it’s better than simply living day-to-day not dying and fearing death. So she joins the School Life Club, and to her surprise, Rii-san welcomes her with an open hand, which may just be the first time Miki has embraced a girl’s hand since her friend Kei pulled away from her to go search for help.

Kei may be gone, but Miki is no longer alone. And she’s very glad about that.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 05

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There’s no getting around it: these past two episodes, as fantastic as they were, had their peril somewhat dampened by the fact this is all happening in the past, and we know everyone will survive these events. They actually wouldn’t have made a bad first two episodes to GG!, but considering the shock the actual first episode delivered by delaying the story we get here (and feigning normalcy), I was more than willing to suspend my belief and dive into a good zombie mall episode. And it’s a good one.

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This episode is less about its inevitable destination (Yuuri, Kurumi and Yuki meeting Taroumaru and Miki) and more about the journey it takes to get there. The mall is dark and eerily silent, but Rii-san tells Yuki it’s because there’s a concert in session and they have to be quiet. Malls are usually so noisy with crowds and muzak, so in addition to visual impact of the trashed mall, there’s an aural impact from the white noise so unusual in such a place. And despite knowing she’ll be okay, watching Kurumi dart through the darker stores with her flashlight really does a good job isolating her in a hostile, threatening place that isn’t secure.

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I also liked how the girls spend a bit of time simply shopping like high school girls do, because that’s what they are. If they don’t want to be defined as simply survivors, they have to do more than just survive, but have fun when they can. Of course, that fun is cut short by a sound and their new ward Taroumaru’s yipping, indicating someone is near.

Because they’re on the fourth floor and the zombies have trouble climing steps, they consider the possibility it’s another survivor, but then Kurumi calls off the search when she peeks in a previously-barricaded theater packed with zombies. The wide shots peppered with quick close-ups and those horrible zombie noises accentuate the peril.

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The girls, led by Kurumi, blast through a gauntlet of zombies and hide in what looks like the child care room, which is apropos because Yuki is listing, exhausted from all the unexplained running. She also gets a couple of square looks at the zombies, and, at this point in the timeline, she’s still seeing partial flashes of what happened in her classroom the day of the fall, including an image of a blurry Megu-nee with a bloody arm, suggesting her teacher was infected.

As they rest, Kurumi thinks about the theater full of zombies—many of them kids—and shudders to think how their lives as humans ended, and how scared and alone they must have felt, before they were infected one by one. And in another unsettling juxtaposition of cheery high school girl life and the apocalyptic scenario, Kurumi makes Rii-san pinky-swear not to hesitate to kill her if she gets infected.

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Miki, meanwhile, has been sitting in her miniaturized, stifling little world, until she hears the yips of Taroumaru and is convinced they’re not in her cabin fever-addled brain. She braves the mall beyond her shelter, and immediately gets surrounded. She’s literally ten seconds from zombie lunch when Taroumaru, followed closely by Yuki and the others, come to her rescue.

Miki’s leaving the room and getting rescue shows her that survival isn’t just something to grasp  or hoard alone in a dark, stuffy room, but a gift to enjoy to its fullest, preferably with others. Before everyone piles into the Mini, Miki asks if the others saw anyone else, but it’s left up in the air what became of Kei. With Miki leaving the mall, it will be much trickier for them to ever reunite, but I for one hope she met a better fate than those kids in the theater, or Taroumaru’s owner.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 04

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GG! has taken on a LOST-style narrative, in which the present is constantly being informed and updated by the pasts of its characters. This week it’s Naoki Miki’s turn. While helping Yuki with a hand-drawn yearbook, Yuki asks about one of Miki’s (very good!) drawings of her in a bookstore with another girl. It’s Kei, a good friend of Miki’s from before The Fall.

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An ordinary day at the mall turns into a life-upheaving nightmare for both of them. This is handled with the show’s usual deftness, with particular care taken to lighting, background sounds, camera angles and focus. Miki and Kei manage to hide from all the zombies and gain the puppy of an elderly woman who became one. Survival supersedes processing what the fuck is going on.

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They manage to make it to a safe room, where they hole up in a room with ample food and water. But Kei almost immediately grows curious about the outside world; about what’s going on, and worries that if they stay, they’ll never be found. Miki, on the other hand, is content to stay put and wait for help to come to them. Enough times passes that Kei’s patience runs out, and even Miki’s maneuver of tenderly taking Kei’s hand isn’t enough to keep her.

Kei promises she’ll be back with help, but right there and then, she’s abandoning Miki, who is too scared to leave the mall, or even that room. Her life has shrunk into a miniature, but she’s intent on holding on to what life it is, not risking it on the unknown beyond those walls. When Kei up and leaves, it’s a gut punch, but we knew it was coming, for no other reason than Kei doesn’t exist in the present.

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Meanwhile, at this time, Yuuri and Kurumi and Yuki are off on their own, having not yet met Miki (or Toromarou; we now understand a little more about why he’s a little standoffish with Miki in the present). Yuki spontaneously comes up with the idea for a school trip, using a loophole in the club rules prohibiting leaving school grounds by saying it’s a school function. Yuuri tells her to get Megu-nee’s approval, and she gets it, but we don’t see her get it, indicating Megu-nee isn’t alive at this point either, but just a delusion of Yuki.

That fact is reinforced when Kurumi volunteers to drive Megu-nee’s car. She and Yuuri are willing to maintain the Megu-nee delusion for Yuki’s sake, and must resort to loophole of their own (Megu-nee hasn’t driven in a while, and Kurumi insists she’s better, despite later confessing she only played racing video games).

Kurumi’s journey to the faculty parking lot, through a phalanx of vicious, but thankfully slow and dumb, zombies is breathless in its presentation. I know this is a flashback, but Kurumi still felt so vulnerable out there, especially when her trusty shovel was flicked away. But she gets to Megu-nee’s MINI Cooper, fires it up, and picks up Yuuri and Yuki (Megu-nee only appears in the car once Yuki’s in there, like anthropomorphic Hobbes).

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After a little bit of sliding around the schoolyard and hitting a couple of zombies for good measure, the car bursts out of the front gates, and all of a sudden the saturation of the episode intensifies, as if we were watching a visual manifestation of freedom itself. A quiet, gorgeous, haunting piece of music plays as the Mini drives through the desolate, ruined city, made beautiful by the vivid colors of the setting sun. It feels like a movie. If only it was only that, and they could walk out of the theater into a world where they didn’t have to fight every day for survival.

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That piece of music playing turns out to be on the Discman Kei left Miki before she left Miki. It wakes Miki up in that same room she’s been holed up in, and the contrast between her self-imposed captivity and the freedom being experience by the others isn’t lost on me. Nor is the open transom that indicates Toroumaru escaped, leaving Miki alone, though the dog may well be the one who unites her with the others.

The song plays through the credits, accompanied by black-and-white imagery from the episode. So lovely, mellow, soulful, and sad. This show just keeps getting better.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 03

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In the first two episodes, Sakura Megumi or “Megu-nee” was treated at turns like an apparently deceased teacher/semi-comic relief whom only Yuki, in her delusional state, can still see, hear, and interact with, and whom the other girls play along with so as not to further disturb their already disturbed friend. This episode goes deeper into who Megu-nee is, or rather who she was, by taking us back to the day Everything Went South.

Like the first two episodes, this third one expertly juggles normalcy with abnormality, with dread lurking just out of sight or in the far corner of the frame, at least early on. A perfect example: Megu-nee noticing an abnormal number of sirens while on her normal drive to school in her cute Mini Cooper.

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The normal day proceeds, with Megu-nee getting warned by the vice principal to maintain an appropriate emotional distance from her students. That morning, Megu-nee’s Mom expressed a similar worry with her daughter’s ability to “cut it” as a new teacher.

Yet when, say, Kurumi comes to her and is able to talk about her dilemma with the boy she likes, Megu-nee proves she actually is cut out to be a teacher, in that she’s a trustworthy, approachable nurturer of minds and an open ear or shoulder to cry on.

At the same time, she’s willing, nay, determined to go the extra mile for students in need of extra help like Yuki. It’s confirmed she was never a great student and had problems focusing.

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Interestingly, it’s Yuki who suggests she and Megu-nee head up to the rooftop to try to finagle some tomatoes from the gardening club member, namely Wakasa Yuuri, whom Yuki meets for the first time. This action essentially saves both Yuki and Megu-nee, because it isn’t long before everything goes to hell both in the school below them and the city beyond. The vista of just-out-of-focus students feeding off one another as buildings burn is another one of GnG!’s awesomely chilling images.

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Megu-nee takes a chance on opening the door to let Kurumi on the roof, with her beloved senpai in tow. This scene gives us the whole picture of how she came to kill him with a shovel, and we see that Yuki witnessed the whole thing and in fact grabbed Kurumi to stop her from whaling on an already-dead body. Yuki’s fear and disgust at watching a fellow human being in full-on, vicious Survival Mode, is another likely contributing factor to her eventual mental break.

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I like the fact that Megu-nee isn’t just an invented figment of Yuki’s imagination; she was a real person who, for a time, at least, did what she thought was her duty as a teacher, doing everything she could to protect the remaining students under her care at the school, even in a Zombiepocalypse. But while much of this episode is told from her perspective (with a grainy-film framing device), the fact remains, in the present, she is no longer alive, and exists only in Yuki’s head.

Even so, Kurumi, Yuuri, and even Miki let Yuki keep believing she’s still around, and I think it’s more than just humoring their troubled friend (and let’s face it, in a world like this, they’re all troubled). I also believe they take some comfort in the idea of Megu-nee still around protecting them.  Hell, five’s better than four.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 02

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After watching the first episode a second time (man was that creepy!) and now this one with full knowledge of what’s going on from start to finish, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for GG!’s ability to show us one thing in the center of the frame while something slithers on the edges, and I mean that both visually and thematically. As the show’s point of view shifts to more aware characters, the dark imagery is far more overt, but remains just as effective and creepy.

We start off inside the head of Yuki’s friend Kurumi, who is dreaming of the time the guy she liked (and joined the track club for) suddenly…turned, and grabbed her while on the rooftop, enjoying the sunset. Just when she was wishing that time would stop in that moment, she’s thrust into to a purgatory far darker and harsher than she’d bargained for.

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That purgatory is, of course, the school, where only four girls remain alive and uninfected by whatever malady turned the rest of the school into zombies. Kurumi, Rii-san, and Miki not only struggle to survive, but also take care of Yuki, who still believes the school is the way it was. She even believes the club advisor, Megu-nee, is still alive, if she ever was, of course.

The show does an exquisite job placing Megu-nee in the clubroom at angles where it’s clear Yuki sees her (and even an extra meal at her seat), but the dialogue of the girls carefully makes clear Megu-nee is not there. But they don’t let that on to Yuki, or about anything being amiss, lest she suffer another, even more severe mental break. As Rii-san says, they’re not experts, so it’s best to wait and see.

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Thankfully things don’t seem to be that dire as zombie-surrounded schools go. Part of this is that the zombies are slow and dumb, as demonstrated when Kurumi uses one of the box of ping pong balls that fell on Yuki last week to distract a zombie that’s come close to the desk barricade. With it’s back turned it’s an easy kill for Kurumi, but she catches a glimpse of her still-charged cell phone, and has to re-steel herself to finish it off.

And she has to believe they’re “its” now, despite some evidence to the contrary: the boys still “play soccer” out in the yard; and most of them leave school around nighttime, as if they’re headed home. Is this behavior explained by the fact they still harbor a piece of their memories? The girls don’t know. All they know is, they can’t let them touch them.

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When Yuki unilaterally announces there’s to be a test of courage one night, Rii-san uses it as an excuse to brave the area beyond the barricades to make a supply run. Everyone stocks up on Nummy Sticks in the school store without incident, but when Rii-san and Yuki enter the library, Rii-san encounters a zombie in there, in a sequence that’s pitch-perfect for dread, atmosphere, timing, and intensity.

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Here, as was indicated on other occasions, Megu-nee serves not as an endangering ghost on the side of the zombies, but as a guardian angel: Yuki’s common sense and survival instinct given human form only Yuki can see and hear and even touch. 

Yuki is clearly dealing with quite a few delusions right now, but Megu-nee is one of them that provides some peace of mind for the others. If Yuki tells them Megu-nee is near, they can rest assured she’ll be okay on her own for a while, as we see when she stays put so they can lure the zombie to them and take it out, all without Yuki noticing anything amiss (she also assumes they’re playing up the test of courage.)

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Though back behind the safety of their barricades with no harm done, Kurumi can’t escape her nightmare of the guy she likes suddenly turning and grabbing her. We see more of the dream the second time round, as she falls to the ground and, in a moment of terror, grabs the object closest to her—her now-trusty shovel—and swings as hard as she can, taking the guy out.

She wakes up in a panic, but then we see the value of having Yuki and her unique perspective around despite all the extra work taking care of her involves. The half-asleep Yuki wants to repeat her third and final year together with Kurumi, which gives Kurumi comfort.

Yuki phrases it this way because her grades suck and she’s believes she’s at risk of repeating her final year of high school But I’m sure Kurumi doesn’t want this to be the final year of their lives, and thus “repeating” the year—a year in which they’re alive and well-fed and most importantly, together, is something she and the other two can get behind.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 01 (First Impressions)

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For two-thirds of its first episode, Gakkou Gurashi expertly lulled me into a false sense of security, looking every bit like another bright, colorful, perfectly pleasant and innocuous moe school slice-of-life, starring a Kaname Madoka look-alike voiced by Hestia, with friends who like cooking, reading…and shovels,  are members of a silly club, and spend much of those two-thirds chasing a puppy.

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And yet, by the time the final third of the episode had come and gone, it was an entirely different show altogether—and a damn intriguing one, to boot; one that made me want to watch it again to see if there were any other clues as to what was really going on before the overt symbol of the just-out-of-focus rooftop grave. 

Things like Yuki saying her teacher “doesn’t stand out much”, Miki being so brazen in interrupting classes, and the fact the puppy is allowed to run around, and Yuki and Miki able to chase after him without any repercussions, all come to mind as other subtle clues.

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Then, all of a sudden, when Yuki returns once more to her class to chat, and Miki comes in after her, everything comes crumbling down. The school is abandoned and full of gloom, death, and decay. The “students” outside appear to be zombies; giving a grim irony to the “school life club” and introducing the premise of a school of the dead/undead having such a club.

And then, perhaps most disturbing of all, is the fact that Yuki doesn’t see any of this. All of the happy life at her school full of living people (other than her three club-mates) was all in her frikking head, and from the look on her face as the episode fades to black, it would seem those illusions are persistent.

How did the school get this way? Did Yuki suffer a mental break and is now in a dissociative state? Are her underclassmen protecting her as she wanders around blissfully unaware of the perils of reality? The mind races at the possibilities. This was a damn good start!

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