It's a zombie romance, with a dead girl and a zombie-loving boy. I really like it. It's a million miles away from one's expectations of anything with "zombie" in the description, being a gentle, character-based piece that's full of subtle, sombre notes.
Firstly, a story summary. Chihiro Furuya is a zombie nerd who avoids going outside, interacting with other human beings or anything else that doesn't involve watching zombie films. He also looks like a cat. (A reference to the nine lives thing, perhaps? His first reanimation will be his pet cat, Babu, for what it's worth.) Chihiro has a cousin (Ranko) with big boobs and a ton of personality, who's sufficiently keen on him that she's made herself a fan of zombie movies... but no, Ranko's too alive for Chihiro. (It's hard to imagine someone more vividly alive than Ranko, in fact.)
Rea Sanka (i.e. Sankarea if you put the surname first, in Japanese style) is a poor little rich girl. She has a daddy, a stepmother, lots of maids and a suffocating lifestyle. It's been like growing up in a petri dish, not a home. She's not allowed friends. Anyone who gets close to her tends to disappear. Daddy's overly possessive, you see, and has a habit of forcing Rea to do things that in the West would warrant a call to the child protection services.
One of these people is going to die. Now, the problems.
Problem #1: the fanservice. The show's good enough that I'd love to be able to recommend it to female friends, but that's hard when the camera's leering at boobs or up someone's skirt. Why did they bother? Don't the producers have confidence in their own show? Haven't they realised that its tone is subtle and delicate enough that it's: (a) more than enough to carry the show without otaku-pandering, and (b) going to be vandalised by this kind of fanservice?
Ironically, there's not even much of it. It's only here and there, but I still found it jarring. Nudity's great, in principle, but here the tonal clash makes it like interrupting an opera with football fans singing drunkenly on the train. That said, though, if you're buying the R1 DVDs, FUNimation's first and hastily recalled release accidentally used the censored Japanese TV prints. I presume no one wants to see bowdlerised exploitation? Also, apart from anything else, this is a zombie series. Censoring the gore is even worse than censoring the boobs. Rea's death in particular is more shocking in the home video masters.
One might also argue that the fanservice is, in part, artistically justified. The show's most important triangle involves Chihiro, Rea (timid and dead) and Ranko (explosively alive). Sexuality is an obvious point of contrast there, especially when you take into account Rea's creepy father. This is a show where male sexuality means objectification and unhealthy fixations, at least until Chihiro grows as an individual. (There's no shagging, but this is not a show about normal, healthy men. Even Chihiro's annoying girl-crazed school friend is a continuation of this theme, in that he's fixated on the abstract idea of girls rather than actually getting to know any of them.)
Thus for the show to use Ranko as a sex symbol is, arguably, to underline what she represents and to remind us of what Chihiro's rejecting when he stays with Rea. I could continue... but, to be honest, I don't really believe it. The panty shots are, at the end of the day, just panty shots. The show's enjoying its lapses into fanservice too much for me to be able to believe that it's not trying to pander to a sad male audience.
There's a similar ambivalence about Chihiro. He's another socially inadequate protagonist, of a kind that I get the impression is becoming increasingly common in anime lately. Is this another way of targeting the dysfunctional otaku audience? You can take Chihiro on a car journey and he'll just get out his laptop, put on his headphones and ignore everything you say. He's rude. He hates going outside, loves his bedroom and loves zombies... and, what's more, he'll say so, regarding that as a sufficient defence of his behaviour. However, that said, he does get dragged out of his shell over the course of this series and he's close to having the strongest character development of anyone, including Rea. He learns about responsibility, even if his manners remain unpolished. He starts out as a freak with a sexual fetish so stupid that you could say he's resigned from the human race... only to learn that having his dream come true is dangerous, unpleasant and hard work.
Is this subtle storytelling or just otaku bait? (Social lepers are our heroes!) Or, perhaps, both?
Problem #2: the plotting. There are people who think this show loses it in the second half. They're wrong, but I know what they mean.
This show can be split into three parts: the first half, the second half and the OVAs. (There are twelve TV episodes and three OVAs, numbered 0, 13 and 14. Episode 0 is a prequel, of course, but that doesn't mean it's the right place to start watching the whole series and I'd tentatively suggest putting it at the end with the other OVAs. It was actually released between episodes 10 and 11 in broadcast order, but as a flashback there's no requirement to put it anywhere.)
The first half has a compelling story. The central idea is so alarming and most of the characters so lonely and broken that you can't help but want to watch the next episode. What's zombie Rea going to be like? Will she bite people? Her relationship with her father (and her miserable, desperately unpleasant stepmother) is also extreme enough that it's hard to look away.
That fades away when the show finds a status quo. Chihiro works out how to stop Rea from rotting or turning feral and the show softens into, basically, just another boyfriend-girlfriend story. They're tentative. Chihiro has trouble admitting things and Rea is short of self-confidence. They also have the problems of Rea's body, which can't heal its injuries and will go bad in the sun like any other dead meat. However she was resurrected so quickly that she looks the same as before (apart from red eyes) and for the most part she's just a girl with extreme health problems. Being her father's daughter is capable of being a bigger problem than death. She yearns to be an ordinary girl, but that's because she was never allowed to live while she was alive.
Plotting's thus less important in the second half. I think that was inevitable, though. There is still a story arc, but it's often put on hold for episodes that dig deep into individual characters. Personally, I loved these. I see the whole show as an exploration of its characters, so I don't mind the lack of plot urgency. The second half's every bit as haunting as the first, but it's less gripping.
Then, after that, come the OVAs. These are, by definition, filler. The TV show's second half still had resolution of conflict and a dramatic finale. The OVAs are a prequel, a sidestep into "what-if" fantasy and an episode about Babu (apparently a parody of the Japanese novel, I Am a Cat). I like them, but watching them one after another makes one feel as if the show's officially abandoned any idea of an ongoing story. (There's a threat at the end of episode 13 that the rules might soon revert to brainless biting zombie-dom, but I wasn't too fussed. It's just a ticking clock. Rea needs medical help. We knew that. This just raises the stakes and throws a bone to season two, should the producers ever make one. The original manga's still ongoing, by the way.)
Problem #3... no, that's it. No more problems. Well, I suppose perhaps Chihiro's immediate family aren't as interesting (i.e. messed up) as the others. Grandad and Chihiro's sister Mero are familiar anime types (although I quite like Mero), while dad is so peripheral that it's debatable whether he's a character at all.
Those are the problems. They're not fundamental, though, and for me they're outweighed by the things the show does superbly. I love Rea's stepmother. She's mean-minded and horrible, yet my heart breaks for her. She didn't want to be like this. She wanted nothing more than to be a normal wife and mother, but unfortunately her husband... yes, well. She's handled the situation appallingly, yes, but it still hurts to see her.
I like the way that the anime doesn't sugarcoat Chihiro's problems (being rude and, in episode eight, kind of creepy with that video camera), while also giving him unexpected admirable traits. I really like the Rea-Ranko relationship that develops towards the end, which refuses to go for knee-jerk rival conflict and instead allows them intelligence and lets them be themselves. They're both very aware of what the other has that they don't, but they're also both kind people who want to help and encourage each other. There's darkness there, but they're sweet.
Note also the irony of Chihiro's family living in a temple.
Random observation: if you pause episode 13 on the English-language zombie report on the plane, you'll see some regrettable spelling. Couldn't someone have run that past an English-speaker?
I also like the simplicity of the opening title sequence, by the way. It looks elegant and really nice.
Footnote: I have a hypothesis that the fanservice might be just the anime being faithful to the manga. I'm just guessing here, not having read the latter, but what I've heard makes it sound less highbrow and more formulaic than the anime. I can imagine it. Thus, if so, I'd actually regard that as a semi-valid defence. I admire fidelity in adaptations, even if (as here) too much respect for the original can have a cost.
When it's at its best, I'm crazy about this show. It's not perfect, of course. It has that fanservice and the decelerating-to-zero plotting (which bothers some people). Personally, though, I think it's a haunting, delicate piece of work and I'd be delighted if they made a second series. They haven't finished exploring grandad's secrets and the hints about Mero and Chihiro's mother, plus of course there's the question of what's going to happen to Rea in the long term. (Is it just me, or is it slightly creepy to see her claiming to be happy with her abbreviated un-life expectancy.) This is an elegant and disturbing show, mostly in good ways, and admirable in how it handles potentially show-wrecking material with Rea's father.
It's wonderful. Cheapened by occasional fanservice and ever slower and less urgent as it goes along, but still wonderful.