Serious Psychodrama: School-Live!

Okay, I wasn’t impressed with the School-Live! anime. At the same time, it’s one of my favorite manga.

I suspect those two things are related. It’s like when they make your favorite book into a movie: if the movie isn’t a perfect representation of the book, then the movie stinks, no two ways about it.

Starship Troopers, anyone? And if you want to get Harry Potter fans into a fight…

Anyway, the School-Live! manga impressed the heck out of me because of the attention they paid to having their characters have realistic psychological responses to a mind-blowing disaster.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, the main characters of School-Live! are among the few survivors of a zombie apocalypse. They are all high school aged girls who have formed a “School Living” Club – meaning that the club members live in the school – to disguise the fact that they can’t go home again.

School-Live! Cast

From left, Yuri, Kurumi, Yuki, Miki

There are four of them, but I’m going to leave Miki out of this. As I’ve mentioned before, the three original girls, Yuri, Yuki, and Kurumi, form a stable triad of characters, and when Miki is added to the mix, she gets co-opted by the other, archetypical roles. We’ll say that Miki has her own problems – survivor guilt, for one – and leave it at that.

Anyway, the zombie apocalypse comes and spoilers may follow. One “spoiler” is that our girls survive it, or at least they have so far, but that’s not much of a spoiler since it’s obvious. In response, they develop a working society among themselves, but they also develop obvious symptoms of stress response, or PTSD as it’s commonly called.

The most obvious disorder belongs to cute little Yuki with her pussycat cap. (Yeah, she’s supposedly a high school senior, but she wears a pussycat cap.) Yuki’s response to the disaster is to enter a fugue state so severe that she cannot see the real world, only the fantasy her mind has invented to protect herself. She literally does not see zombies; what she does see is their teacher, Megumi, standing over them and watching what they do. IRL Megumi was a pretty tough lady who forced herself to lock herself up alone to protect her students when she was infected with zombieism; she’s a heck of a role model, but she sure as heck isn’t there, except in Yuki’s mind. Hallucination. Fugue state.

Kurumi’s response, as the physical one, is the simplest. She becomes cold, clinical, emotionless. She becomes a killer, armed with a shovel she wields like an axe. The zombies might once have been people, their friends, but now they are just targets. On one of their forays to find supplies she finds the body of one of their teachers who has hung himself in guilt and despair. Is she horrified? Nope. “Coward,” she thinks.

SEMI-SPOILER: This make perfect sense in context. As an athletic girl Kurumi joined the track team to be near a boy she had feelings for. After the disaster he became a zombie and Kurumi had to kill the boy she loved. And so her response is to cut herself off from her feelings.

Yuri’s response is the most interesting, I think. She develops a wicked case of survivor guilt, much worse than Miki’s. She was at the school and protected, but her family, particularly her baby sister Ru, was not. Later on the girls find Ru, now traumatized and mute and Yuri takes charge of her. Ru finally starts to speak and to join into the lives of the girls until things blow up in their faces. Many things happen…it’s a turning point in the meta-plot I won’t spoil for you, but one thing we find out is that Yuri has been projecting. The “Ru” they found was actually a Teddy bear. Yuri was projecting her guilt for not being able to protect Ru onto the doll, and since otherwise she was pretty rational, the others let her.

The human mind will engage in remarkable gyrations to protect the ego of its holder. This we know is fact. The writers here have done a terrific job of trying to explore exactly what might happen to a person thrust into a disaster.

For the record, the Ru/Teddy bear subplot doesn’t appear in the anime. Also, although the end of the story is open-ended, a new volume of the manga wasn’t released in Japan until June, after a 15-month hiatus. This does not surprise me; this story is going have to end in tragedy, or in some inexplicable (and probably incoherent) triumph, and that’s going to make it hard to figure out how to do it. The girls here are just girls; Coppelion this ain’t.

School-Live! is not an example of great narrative. As they stand now, both manga and anime are unresolved in terms of ending. But the psychology, ah, the psychology…That’s brilliant. Well done.

Afterword: I’ve just learned that School-Live! was listed by the American Library Association as being among the year’s best comics and graphic novels for teens two years consecutively. That’s what I mean by well done!

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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