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Zombieland Saga should have been some cash-in to stake a claim on the idol anime zeitgeist with a shtick slapped on to make it stand out but it's not. This show has hundred of times the effort you'd expect from such a wild premise.
The show balances humor with emotional nuisance very well. It parodies and acknowledges every aspect of the idol industry- the overworking, the abusive manager, idols needing to be pure (can't get any more impure than death in Japanese culture) rather than ignoring them and treating it as easy work. I think a big reason on why the show works is because the show puts a lot of emphasis on the characters adapting to the situation. When you have an insane premise and wacky plots, giving the characters human struggles keeps things grounded and brings in the audience.
But also the songs tho. They could have very easily gotten girls who sing in ways that are popular right now. Instead each character's singing style matches their era and offers a wide range of voices that are immediately distinct from one another where as most idol groups tend to stick with girls who have higher registers. They don't stick to just pop, but when they do it's still influenced by other genres. Metal, rock, jazz, showtunes, the fact that they change it up each time makes the songs so much more distinct.
I wanna keep going on about the voice casting, if I start talking about the characters I'd run out of review space. Special shout out to Junko's VA, Maki Kawase, her range is so big that for a long time I thought a second person sang her parts, she sings an ETS on another anime and it's so different you wouldn't realize it was her, wow. Junko solo for season 2, I beg.
But something I really appreciate is how some of the girls don't sound like how you think they would. Junko is the shyest and quietest meanwhile Saki is a brash biker, I think on most shows they would have made Junko have one of the highest voices and Saki the lowest and gruffest but on this show Junko has the deepest voice and is a powerhouse of a singer while Saki has a feminine voice which makes her speak pattern stand out.
Wow that's three paragraphs on just the singing. That's not even getting into the fact that this show was backed by Saga's actual government, the ties to history and folklore, and the fact that it's just really funny.
Im not normally for Idol Anime, but I was bored and decided why not. And by god am I regretting not watching this sooner.
The characters are all unique in their own ways rather than being stereotypical archetypes in Idol Anime, and theres plenty of good humor to be found, particularly with Kotaro being a Large Ham and Tae in general. I love all the main characters with one exception. Theyre all treated as multifaceted, having sides to them outside of their roles in the group, and are also presented with actual flaws.
And I love that it treats the issues the characters have with nuance, whether it be Lilys identity, Junko being shy, Sakuras depression, or Ai fearing being forgotten. Aesops arent tacked on, nor are issues easily solved. Hard work is a major theme, but the issues of overwork and repeat failures are covered with Ai and Sakura.
The show definitely has its charm. This anime is one of the few where I cry, mainly during Episode 8.
I do have some issues though:
1. Yugiri. Shes meant to be the Team Mom, but shes Out of Focus, and Sakura fits that more as The Heart. Her Running Gag, slapping someone as theyre having an epiphany only to say it herself, isnt funny to me. The second season looks like it gives her focus, so maybe I'll change my mind, but otherwise she seems pointless.
2. Ais fight with Junko. Ai acts like Junko not shifting to the current style is dragging the team down, and comes across as messed up. Kotaro puts it best: just because the era is different doesnt mean Junko has to acclimate. She can just be who she is, she just has to remember that Franchouchou is a team, and that she can open up to them and in turn be there for them. As good as the scene was, I feel it would have been better had there been one more confrontation with them, laying their feelings bare and then leading to Kotaros talk. Instead, Junko locks herself away, and Ai doesnt think about it and instead works herself to second death, which makes it look like she doesnt care about Junko.
3. While the depression is handled well, I feel the way its resolved is hamfisted. Yugiri slapping Sakura and telling her to get over it reads like shes calling an amnesiac with near suicidal depression out for not wanting to help out people she hardly knows at this point and being depressed.
I feel Kotaro and Tae had a much better approach, showing they wouldnt give up on Sakura while trying to tell her that she can do it without ignoring her issues. It would have made more sense had it been them to wear her down since their relationships were stronger than having the Out of Focus character slap and guilt trip her. You can keep Ais speech, just dont make it seem wrong for Sakura to have depression, make it Ai reassuring her that the others will be there to pick her back up. It would tie in to Kotaros talk with Junko and serve as a nice theme.
Still, I love this series, and am looking forward to season 2!
I don't usually care for idol shows, in part for their rosy depiction of the business and also because the cast, aesthetics and songs have a safe, samey feel. Zombieland Saga avoids these; this may have to do with being an original copyright sponsored by obscure brands, much like how many modern classics were B-films in their time: smaller stakes allow more artistic freedom. It feels like someone took the first episode of Love Live, the one ending with "I do! Live!", and decided to do the exact opposite. What is clear is that it had a lot of creativity, passion and a good enough animation budget.
It is not slice-of-life; episodes vary, some plots feel picked out of a hat, others are almost conventional for the genre. Above all it is a comedy, and the early episodes made me laugh out loud in a way very few things can. You haven't lived until you've see this lot improvise a concert with bare-bones preparation. The later drama is more hit-and-miss, the worst being the finale, but still gives the girls real depth and pathos. The songs are great, and in a wider repertoire than just J-pop. Some real problems in the idol industry come up, such as eating disorders, managers treating them as mindless minions, being forced to hide their normal selves from the public, and getting boared during training.
What makes the show work is the cast. Most idol characters are made to appeal to specific demographics, which badly narrows what they or the story can do. The girls of Saga are allowed all kinds of different attitudes and backstories (indeed several are former entertainers returning after lying low for years) with a lot of deep-running disagreements and tensions. It is telling that group shots, including fanart, usually gives everyone a distinct pose and expression; how many cute girl shows can this be said for? And like Konosuba, the animators revel in subverting their cutesy designs, making them look hideous when out of makeup, yelling at their producer, or falling to pieces on stage. So between their differences and their hardships, their gradual bonding feels all the stronger, and in contrast to calculated waifu-bait characters they feel deeply genuine, and truly alive.
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