Review of Zombieland Saga (2018)
Seen in 2018.
About ten years ago, a boy in high school lost his love interest in a car crash. Pretending to take as his mission to revitalize the waning prefecture of Saga on northern Kyūshū, Japan, the man resurrects seven girls as zombies to form a literally immortal pop idol group. They take the name “Franchouchou” because it sounds cute. Most of the girls are former idols or some equivalent, ranging as far back as a courtesan of the Bakumatsu period, but one was just a biker.
Comedy-drama dressed up as zombie horror, but there is no relation to Zombieland (2009). It’s about as awkward as you’d expect. The group’s songs play on the theme of resurrection (“awaken, returner”, “rise up again”, “you only live once”), but despite an undead dog named Romero, the show does not run on Romero premises. There are no zombies beside the dog and the main characters. Their hunger and need for sleep are unaffected by death, they don’t rot or propagate, they look convincingly alive and cute in makeup, all but one of them eventually regains intelligence and speech, etc. When asked to explain, the producer character says it works like a zombie movie. On average, Romero the dog looks a lot like Beck in Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad (2004) but cycles between more realistic and more cutesy modes of presentation.
Despite comedy having the upper hand in this pastiche, there is not a single joke about the Japanese pop industry being so vacuous that a brain-dead zombie could work in it. Almost uniformly, idols are portrayed according to industry canon: Uplifting, inspiring and pure. Their dashing producer, however, is a pretty good parody of his role: Loud, obnoxious, insensitive and vain, except for the dried snacks in his vest pocket, needed for distraction. The girls are also a little vain, occasionally sniffing themselves in fear of smelling rot, but apparently they never do. There is an interesting scene in episode 6 where the Shōwa-era idol complains about having to meet their fans for personal photo shoots. She points out that nothing so invasive of her privacy used to happen in her lifetime, but this is dropped without further comment and she gets used to the new era of exploitation.
The main reason for the girls to be zombies seems to be a common message in contemporary Japanese entertainment: to let go of your fears and learn to relax. Supposedly, the worst has already happened. There is a lovely twist on this for one particular girl: The youngest, at twelve. It turns out she died from the stress of gender dysphoria after seeing the first hair of her mustache. As a transgender zombie, no longer growing older, she feels perfectly safe that she will not continue to develop the sexual characteristics of a boy. She can pass as a girl forever, and this is not ridiculed. That conceit cleverly fuses idol cuteness with Peter Pan syndrome and LGBTQ awareness. Alas, the second most important reason for the girls to be zombies is to give them an embarrassing weakness.
In one episode, the group is struck by lightning, leading to a temporary and cosmetic laser power reminiscent of a magical girl show. More amusingly, the intro plays with sentai action. Needless to say, the music is terrible, including the first episode’s heavy metal à la Baby Metal, and the second episode’s rap. The major stage performances are done mostly in boring cel-shaded CGI, but the execution is otherwise good.
References here: Asobi Asobase: Workshop of Fun (2018).