By: S.P.Q.R (ghostwritten by Nomadotto)
I like horror movies, books, etc. By this, I mean movies, books, etc. that are actually horrifying, rather than gore-drenched slaughter-fests. Take H.P. Lovecraft’s Color Out of Space in contrast to, say, Jason. Death and the shock of surprise can be an effective way of causing fear, but, in my opinion, overuse of the above two tropes has led to a cheapening of the horror movie, anyway, that’s besides the point of this article. Instead, I’m going to talk about a specific trope in zombie films/manga, the zombie, and its use in two different works, Night of the Living Dead, and High School of the Dead, specifically, the intersection of politics and culture in these works, and the use of the zombie trope as a part of the political theme. Phew… afterwards, there will be a plain review of HSoTD and if you are all good, maybe some pretty pictures. Thus ends the preface and begins the analysis.
The zombie is an excellent menace because it combines the qualities of both human and non-human in a very interesting way. A zombie is very clearly human in shape, but, since zombies are, generally, shambling and thoughtless, they do not have human mental and emotional responses. They are, almost by definition, monsters in human shape, and, moreover, since they are mindless, you don’t tend to get the sorts of squishy, humanizing things that can happen to other monsters (Vampires, I’m looking at you). So, why is this interesting?
Well, in general, various types of monsters are usually associated with various types of fears, for example, Vampires are very related to sexual fears (they roam around at night, usually attack young women/men, are charming, and they recruit others into their “sin” by indulging themselves), Werewolves are related to fears of young men (they are seized by animalistic urges and run around (at night) killing people but are otherwise impossible to tell apart from normal people. They are much stronger than their hunters, and are, almost always, male.), Witches are related to sexual/power fears (women, especially the young, unmarried types, and old widows are generally marginalized and have little power, either socially or physically. Witches, on the other hand, have secret societies that operate outside the traditional centers of power, no interest in joining the standard social order, and secret, non-physical powers that they can use to kill or ruin honest men.), and so forth. You’ll notice that all of these monsters are more or less human-shaped and human-acting, because, generally, our anxieties are generally directed at other people, not the environment (which is why Lovecraft and a couple of other writers ARE so much scarier, because they are generally terrified by the world itself, rather than the people that make it up, and can convey that terror, which hits you unprepared, more or less).
Anyway, we can see that, as time passes, and the fears associated with them become less a part of the Zeitgeist, these critters get humanized, until, today, the werewolves and vampires are pretty much a part of the standard heroic mythos. So, what about zombies is so darn creepy, what sorts of terror do they embody, and why do they remain very much a part of contemporary horror discourse? Well, zombies of course have the whole “fear of death” thing going for them, but so do a lot of critters (vampires, skeletons, old people). In my opinion, the main thing that terrifies people about zombies is the whole “horde” aspect. In general, one zombie is not particularly scary, what people fear is the zombie horde, a huge mass of humanity, mindless except for a desire to feed. Those that fall are swept up into the horde, and become parodies of what they used to be, full, functioning human beings (in case you couldn’t tell, I loathe the undead).
With that bit of handwaving done, it’s time to turn to the fear that zombies act as projections for. A good place to turn is one of the great classics of zombie movies, Night of the Living Dead. Released during one of the high-points of cold war paranoia, a simplistic analysis might suggest that zombies are, actually, commies. Though there are a number of facinating red scare movies from around this period, including The Blob and others, I don’t quite correct. It IS a political fear though. Evidence for this can be found throughout the movie, as, at first, no-one understands the threat that the zombies pose, they quickly become the majority through aggressive conversion (bitin’!), everything falls to ruin, and the few people left run to the hills, and are slowly brought down, generally by those who value family ties/ friendship over an understanding of the nature of the threat etc.
However, the zombies are not communistic because they lack a couple of traits that are generally associated with communist infiltration, namely, there’s no Dolchstoßlegende (dagger-stab-legend) and the zombies seem to represent a simplistic, crude approach, rather than the artifical, perverse evil normally associated with commies in red scare flim. The Dolchstoßlegende (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolchsto%C3%9Flegende for some basic information about the original, German version of the concept) is an important part of the myth of communistic attack, as, to a large portion of the American public in the post-war era, the Rosenburg case, Sen. McCarthy’s list of communist infiltrators, and the general terror at so many people in high places (academia, Hollywood) with communistic leanings. Finally, and especially tellingly, there’s no use of religion. Especially in this case, the lack of religion as a tool against the invading, godless commies is glaring, especially since it was around this time that we Americans were busy setting ourselves up as a counterpart to the atheistic USSR.
So, zombies are linked to political fears, but aren’t commies. What specific political ideology they represent is a project for another day (and a different blog), but, with our newly developed ideas about the nature of zombie as horror movie trope, we move to HSotD. Avoiding the basic review of the manga (see below for that), the thing that struck me most about it was the fact that, by the second book, and definitely when you start moving into the (as of now) uncollected chapters, is that there’s a very strong Japanese nationalist (some would say right-wing, but I won’t, for reasons discussed below) tone to the work.
By Japanese nationalist, I mean those guys who ride around in black vans with the imperial chrysanthemum on them and glower at us foreign devils. Leftist college students are portrayed as stupid, shallow fools and are cut down by the police. Wild youth are portrayed as deviant thugs who assault hapless women, the modern family is portrayed as corrupt and solely concerned for their own safety, as they stab a poor guy trying to protect his daughter to prevent them from seeking shelter, of course there’s the standard “guns are awesome” stuff you get out of any post-apocolyptic work. Perhaps most tellingly, early in the manga, the students are forced to flee from the high school, and, then, from the rest of the students, who, manipulated by a teacher who uses the langauge of democracy (voting, fairness, etc.) begin to be turned into a more dangerous force than the zombies. Later in the series, the students take refuge in the home of a nationalist political leader, who is not only portrayed as a bad-ass, but who is also the father of the genius tsundere girl. As of this latest chapter, the “students for a democractic society” (the kids lead by the teacher) have just indulged in a huge orgy, thrown some guy off the bus, and are planning to attack the relative peace of the nationalist compound.
In a phrase, WHOA MAN. The zombie, the king of American political fear in the ’50’s, is now almost a sideline. The real conflict is between nationalists and democrats (in the sense of “people who like the idea of democracy”) with the nationalists as heroes. Some would be tempted to just say LOL Japan but I feel there is something going on here, other than just the co-option of the zombie archtype for use as a generic bringer of the apocalypse. After all, the simple choice would have been to use a nuke or the like (Japan is mad anti-nuclear) and go from there. Well, it’s hard to say this early on, but I would suggest that the zombie is still being used as a symbol for a political fear.
The reason for this is that the zombies are acting as the corrosive force that is slowly tearing apart society. Not only is there the constant reminder that they aren’t viewed as zombies (the consistant term used is yatsura: those (freakin’) guys), but there’s a scene that illustrates the corruption of even the heroes by the circumstances very well, in which the main character breaks open a cash register to take money, with the internal monologue that goes something like “this is the point at which I realized that everything changed, and I was glad.” The zombies, not the “misguided” democrats are the true enemy of the piece, as it’s their presence that allows for the lawlessness that was bubbling under the surface to come to the surface. At the same time, they allow for the heroism that lies under the surface of some people to emerge (Hirano, and, to an extent, the others). However, if my theory is correct, the characters (especially Hirano) will realize, at a fundemental level, that the change caused by the zombies is good for some and bad for others. Instead, the fact that they are heroes happened in spite of the zombie attack, not because of the zombie attack. Sure it’s cooler that they can now ride around in hummers, saving small children from the clutches of evil while shooting zombies, but, in the end, that’s trivial. What matters is that good people are dead, and other folks have fallen under the sway of fools and monsters. Well, that’s the idea, anyway; now, a review.
Title: High School of the Dead
Author: Daisuke Sato
Art: Shouji Sato (yup, they’re brothers!)
Runs in: Dragon age
Rating: 12 ( this includes a 1 point deduction for excessive fanservice, a 1 point deduction for ham-fisted politics, and a 1 point bonus for naming a fat loser after the author of Hellsing)
How much I’ve read: 2/2 volumes (unfinished)
Story: One afternoon, zombies. They’re everywhere, including Japan, where they rapid turn Tokyo from a huge metropolis to a huge graveyard. Our heroes are a group of high school students (one of whom, Kouta Hirano, is not only a fat military otaku, but is named after the author of Helling, Kouta Hirano) and the school nurse who managed to escape from the zombies attacking the school. The story isn’t very good from the horror criteria, as the zombies are quickly turned from primary antagonists to environmental threat, which kills the tension required for horror to work (in addition to the endless parade of tits and panties, which also kinda kills the dramatic tension). Instead, it’s interesting from a political angle, as there’s a lot of Japanese political thought, from a certain point of view, present in the work. Also, there’s a lot of references to other zombie flicks (Shawn of the Dead, Night of the Living Dead, maybe 28 Days Later) and other bits of cultural detritus.
Art: Pretty. The detail on a lot of the damage and equipment really helps the realism. This is one of the stories where iconic characters surrounded by realistic detail works, because, weirdly enough, the detail on the environment and, especially, the zombies, helps to make them seem more horrible, while the iconic nature of the characters allows for stronger identification. The character designs arevariable, with the male designs more or less working (even if they are a bit lankier than is good). On the other hand, the female designs are kinda…. yeah…. I’ll let the pics do the talking:
Ease of Reading: Fairly Easy. There’s furigana and fairly easy language, but a couple of sections with a lot of vocab that I didn’t know (guns and politics, mostly), so it’s a tossup.
Other comments: I don’t know why I’m still reading this, and waiting for the next volume. It’s not fantastic story or art-wise and even the politics angle isn’t exactly what I’m interested in about Japanese politics (it’s the whole culture of corruption/ politicians as contractors aspect that I find facinating). The breasts… exist, but I’ve already got a couple of other things I could read with more service, if I wanted to, so it’s not really a valid reason. It’s probably got something to do with the fact that I haven’t played computer games or RPG’s in a while and I’m looking to take out my anger on something, but that’s a story for another day.
Edit: Whoops, forgot the pretty picture: