Wait a second!!!
Gakkou Gurashi! is best read knowing as little as possible going in. I don’t mean “the twist of chapter 1 must not be spoiled!” or anything, just that, seriously, the less you know the better. It’s a series that really gets you thinking a lot, and you don’t need my thoughts getting in the way of yours. In light of that, right here is gonna be a mini-review for anyone skeptical as to why I’m recommending the series, while the rest of this article is for those who remain unconvinced, or for people who are already reading the series. Gakkou Gurashi! is a zombie apocalypse/slice of life psychological and survivalist drama manga that I seriously consider to be a masterpiece…for a good while. After that while, it isn’t as good (to put it lightly). I really think everyone should read “part 1” of this series, though, because it’s beautiful and so good in so many ways. After you do? Read it again, closely, and then if you still want more, cautiously step beyond. If all you need is my word to try a new manga, go try it out now. Whatever you do, though, don’t watch the anime. Don’t even look it up; it’ll actually ruin a few things for you.
I have a real love/hate relationship with this manga. Gakkou Gurashi! (がっこうぐらし！, School-Live!) is, like I said, a mix between slice of life and zombie apocalypse with an interesting examination of survival — particularly the survival of one’s sanity under extreme stress, and no that doesn’t only relate to the main character of the series: the girl who is delusional and thus believes that nothing is wrong at all in her present hellscape. Anyway, this is an author/artist duo series, with Kaihou Norimitsu (紀光海法) of Nitroplus (a fairly well-renowned visual novel developer, best known for Saya no Uta and Steins;Gate) doing the writing and Chiba Sadoru (千葉サドル) doing the art. The art is so strong in this series throughout the whole thing, while the writing is incredible…for a good while. I’ll get more into those aspects later.
The first “part” of this series is a very careful, very subtle story that really flips your expectations around. Is it like a normal zombie apocalypse story? No. Is it like normal slice of life? No. Is the drama the characters experience normal? No. There’s also a kind of mystery element throughout, and usually it’s hard to be sure how things are going to turn out or what will happen next. It’s also deeply emotional, and it pushed me to tears several times on my second read through. I’m actually a zombie apocalypse fiction nut, and I tend to like cheesy zombie bullshit no matter what, but Gakkou Gurashi! was completely special. It’s paced so well and explores core themes of zombie apocalypse stuff that I absolutely love to think about (how people cope with the world falling apart) without falling into zombie cliche. It’s amazing. It’s really amazing. I paged through the series’ first part for review thinking “wow, this is amazing”. But you know, I did say first thing that I have a love/hate relationship with this manga. It doesn’t last.
The manga takes place after the apocalypse hit. It’s been some months and no help has come. Takeya Yuki is a third year (that is, senior) student at Megurigaoka Private High School who is seemingly endlessly cheerful. The first chapter initially tried to trick people in the magazine it ran in because until the end of that chapter, the manga seems like a typical slice of life series. Yuki is a member of something called the “School Living Club”, which seems to be a club about living at school?? And there’s a quirky but cool character who really loves shovels, a bumbling teacher who advises the club, and a mature, eyes-always-closed club president who organizes everything. The first volume, as you can see, wastes no time letting you know this is an apocalypse series. If you don’t know what it is going in, though, the first chapter is actually rather effective. Even if you do know, it’s interesting seeing Yuki run around all hyper while the other characters seem a bit serious as she leaves.
So, why keep reading then? Basically, rather than reading this for the gimmick of “slice of life in the middle of Hell” you’re probably going to read it to try figuring things out while also enjoying the lighthearted times. There’s something strangely nice about the fluffy stuff that continues to exist despite all the horror. But still, why are the other three characters entertaining Yuki? It might be all well and good to allow her to be crazy in safe zones, but what will happen whenever they have to go beyond those? If she’s deluded, she’ll be a hindrance. Heck, before even that, why bother playing along with a crazy girl when you know the world is doomed?
Kurumi (shovel), Megu-nee (Megumi, the teacher), and Rii-san (president) do not actually give straight answers for this. They kind of talk around it, and this is where you, the reader, come in. Okay, why do they allow Yuki to act like school is still going on normally? Well, why do you think? I don’t actually remember what I thought at first, as it’s been a while since I first read the series, but I do know that I definitely didn’t particularly care about Yuki. I didn’t dislike her, but “happy go lucky” sorts don’t tend to click with me. I wondered what exactly Megu-nee was doing as the only adult, what exactly had made Yuki break, and why the school was so well-equipped for an apocalypse scenario — I wondered about them and came up with theories, but I don’t know if I could reason why everyone kept Yuki as she was.
There is a reason, but it only really becomes clear later on. I kind of want to say why it is here because people really don’t praise this aspect of the series enough (although it’s basically THE reason the series works as well as it does), but I’m a little apprehensive. I want you to read this without my input, after all. Basically, coming to an understanding/realization on my own was an eye-opening experience that really elevated the series in my eyes. So, here’s a second plea to go read the series (or just the first part of it) yourself. Continue on if you want my thoughts on Yuki.
Still here, huh? Aight.
Yuki is easily my favorite character in this series and she continues to be a shining beacon of hope into even the latest chapters. Although she definitely must have regressed after being overburdened with trauma, she is on some level if not entirely aware of the situation. Though she may not completely comprehend the situation, she knows that it’s taking its toll on her friends. So, she tries to be happy. Her delusions are not actually her attempt to make others happy — her delusions are her own shield, but she is basically determined to be endlessly optimistic solely to improve the morale and mood of her friends. Ultimately, this actually makes her the mentally toughest of the entire lot and basically like a goddamn rock throughout everything that happens. Beyond that, her awareness and quick thinking are invaluable in that she’s actually quite aware of supply limitations and such, but will recontextualize excursions as club activities to make the trips less dour. So basically, although she seems like comic relief or a complete doofus to begin with, Yuki is actually the club’s true leader. She tends to make decisions, takes care of others, reinvigorates those who are wearing thin mentally, and puts on a strong face even when things are looking grim, because she knows there’s value in simply being strong when it’s very hard to do so. She’s…awesome. Like, damn: I’m genuinely impressed.
Yuki is actually legitimately a hero and displays heroic qualities, but she’s entirely unique and I can’t think of any other character I’ve ever seen quite like her — one whose biggest strength is their will and leadership, except they aren’t explicitly a leader.
What makes her all the more interesting is that she isn’t…actually strong. Or rather, it’s not as if nothing fazes her. Make no mistake, a lot does; what makes Yuki so amazing is that for the sake of her friends she’ll reaffirm herself and soldier on. There are like…countless moments Yuki does something incredible, even when it’s something as simple as calming somebody else and not quivering herself. She’s scared, no doubt, but she regularly adopts a “now isn’t the time to be scared” mentality. It’s very likely that the cat hat she always wears is an intentional design choice to refer to the Japanese expression “to put a cat on one’s head” (猫を被る, “neko o kaburu”). This expression refers to being seemingly bubbly and happy and sweet while actually hiding your true personality, which in her case would be that of a strong, but terrified and likely depressed girl.
The other characters are all great as well. Megu-nee has it rough, being under stress herself but also needing to be the adult for the kids. What was done with Rii-san near and just after the first part really impressed me and had me reacting in ways I very rarely do. Kurumi is just plain likable, and her shovel gimmick and overall design (she’s even got a fang!) make her quite cute and cool.
The series features many moments I’d call stunning. Like, it’s well “directed”, I guess. And when things aren’t stunning, often they’re subtle, demanding you to really pore over the details and consider the implications. The slice of life segments also serve to make the hard parts hit harder, since you don’t want to see anything bad happen — but it’s zombie apocalypse, so of course bad things will happen. It hurts even more because most of the “damage” the characters sustain is mental as opposed to physical. Physical wounds can heal, but a true hit to one’s sanity is almost damning. Seeing the girls fall apart is torture for the heart. And God, the expressions that Sadoru gives them in their darkest moments: they’re poignant.
Now let’s talk about the bad.
Part 1 of this manga ends beautifully, after which we get a short period that I wouldn’t call a “part”, but an interlude. It also isn’t actually what I’d call bad until the end of the period. In fact, some of my favorite stuff is in this interlude. That said, after this we get a long detour into a largely useless arc.
The interlude has a unique vibe that separates it from part 1, and it’s also different from the next part. I believe, for a moment, Kaihou-sensei had something here. Basically, there was potential for an episodic format that could have gone on for a while instead of the “story” format of part 1. It’s a different mix of relaxation and desperate survival, and characters have changed significantly since part 1 so things are more interesting.
Then, we meet a whole bunch of other characters.
In and of itself this is not a bad thing. What’s bad is that with the introduction of these characters, Gakkou Gurashi! turns into The Walking Dead. I’m not praising it, of course.
I’ve enjoyed TWD, actually, but that’s beside the point: TWD is not Gakkou Gurashi! — they have completely different ways of doing things. TWD is in large part about human drama, while Gakkou Gurashi! is about keeping hope and contending with waning sanity, with slice of life thrown in to serve those themes. As we enter the next big arc (which seems as though it’s ending very soon, thankfully), we’re immediately greeted to aggressive human characters. Then, we must deal with what I frankly consider to be contrived drama between human groups.
I like zombie fiction, so even when human drama is contrived in it I tend to eat it up, but Gakkou Gurashi! had earned my respect by not even touching those things with a ten-foot pole. It was nice seeing an apocalypse scenario where everybody got along and the biggest enemy was the encroaching despair of a truly awful situation. I didn’t need human enemies, let alone ones that just seemed to be completely irrational bastards. There are flashes of what once was in the latest arc, but with myself and many other Western readers, at least, Gakkou Gurashi! has severely fallen out of favor. It really did not have to be this way, since as I said: the interlude is different from the original format while still being very good, but this latest arc is different and irritating.
I loved the first part of this series so much that I am still sticking with the manga despite about two years of “god, I hate this” material, hoping against hope that it returns to form and becomes awe-inspiring again. I want to believe that the current arc was just an idea that didn’t work well, and I suspect that it is since the series still concerns itself with mental problems, it’s just that many of those problems belong to the new characters, who are hard to care for. I dunno, it feels like…I know there will be bastards in an apocalypse, but for God’s sake this series was free of bastards and AMAZINGLY GOOD. It didn’t need any jerks!
And that’s all I have to say about Gakkou Gurashi! I loved it, once, and I wish to love it again. Will I? I really hope so. Regarding the anime series: as I understand it, to people new to the series, it works fairly well. That said, seriously, don’t watch it or look it up — just read the manga. The anime shifts events in time around severely, so things that originally happened later in the story happened BEFORE episode 1 all of a sudden…which is really damn weird. There is nothing wrong with how the manga’s story plays out. Far from it, really, and yet the anime spoils crap in the promotional material. The anime also has the addition of a dog that is anime original and who actively ruins pretty much everything good about one of the characters. Great. Please just read the manga — the first part of it, and perhaps the interlude.
I actually bought this series in English, this time! I’ve only done that for World Trigger so far. I wanted to see how the official translation compared to the scans I was reading. To be honest, compared to the volumes that are out in English, the scanned translation is mostly about the same as the official one, though I noticed that a few scenes were very different. I like the official translation, and believe you should support it. Also, when volumes 7, 8, and so on come out, I’d really suggest buying the volumes instead of reading scanlations. Coinciding with volume 7, the original scanlator stopped, and the rest of the series is done from low-quality images with text translated from Japanese to Korean to English. Is it a coincidence that the hype died with the new arc and anime? No.
Sorry about getting this out a day late again. Busy life, so busy, busy… Also, sorry for being so negative about this series. I do highly recommend reading it, it’s just that a lot of the later stuff really bums me out in the wrong way.
I’ll try to see you again in two weeks. Thanks for reading, buh bye.