It's fascinating and different. It's taking a hackneyed genre and making it fresh again by cross-pollinating with cute fun-loving Japanese schoolgirls. There's something unique about its combination of darkness and light.
Warning: big spoilers are lying in wait for anyone trying to discuss this show. I'm going to have to spoil the end of ep.1, since otherwise it would be impossible to say anything at all, but I'll stay spoiler-friendly for everything else. If you're interested in watching this anime, stop reading now. Go watch ep.1, then return afterwards. Alternatively, for maximum effect, find a friend and tell them nothing except that you're going to watch an anime together. Ep.1 will look like empty-headed nonsense with cute girls doing cute things at school... well, for most of its duration, anyway.
There are five main characters, plus a dog.
1. Yuki is pink-haired, bright and perky under all circumstances and loves thinking up fun activities for the School Life Club.
2. Kurumi's favourite accessory is a shovel.
3. Yuuri is the club president and something of a big sister to the other girls, but also the blandest character because she doesn't seem to have any eccentricities.
4. Miki is quiet and a year younger than the other three.
5. Megumi-sensei (also pink-haired) is the club's teacher. The girls generally forget to call her teacher, instead regarding her more as a big sister, and she's a bit insecure about being too nice and mild-mannered to do her teacher's job properly.
Those are nice people. Nothing particularly special there, but they're nice. Had the whole show been like ep.1, I don't know if I'd have kept watching, but as it happens circumstances will bring out other sides of everyone's characters.
I think that's enough spoiler space.
Right. Ep.1 is as follows. Yuki is our viewpoint character and we follow her bouncing around all the classrooms, disrupting classes and talking to all her friends. Ater twenty minutes of this, though, we discover that Yuki has suffered a mental breakdown and that none of what she's been seeing is real. Almost everyone is dead. The school is a disaster zone, with barricades on all the entrances. Our heroines are the survivors of a zombie apocalypse and it's probably just a matter of time before the undead kill them too.
That's an unusual genre crossover. Cute moe girls vs. zombies. What I think is special about this show is the way it avoids horror. It's playing its zombie apocalypse completely straight, indeed doing so more faithfully than you'd expect from an actual zombie movie these days, but the protagonists' roles in this story are unusual enough to count as a genre subversion. They're not action heroes. (Kurumi's the group's combat girl, but that doesn't mean she's Rambo.) Our heroines aren't bickering, backstabbing each other or demonstrating the shallow membrane that separates civilisation and savagery. They're not even really trying to stay alive. Well, obviously that's not true and our heroines aren't suicidal or anything, but what I mean by that is that the ever-present threat of horrific death again isn't the story's focus.
No, what it's all about is psychological. There's no day-to-day threat, since the barricades are pretty good and the school contains everything the girls need. (For the time being. At some point they'll run out of food, but at least here they have solar panels, running water and a rooftop garden.)
Instead it's about hope vs. despair. It's a cute schoolgirl slice of life series, after all, as well as zombie survivalism. Theoretically the girls have every reason to despair, but Yuki's madness makes her the mascot to help keep everyone going. She's goofy. She loves the School Life Club and she has fun all day every day. She's always saying stupid things that make you laugh. She'll also come up with mad ideas for "club activities" and it's a rule for the other girls to go along with them. (These suggestions won't always be safe, e.g. a day trip outside.) It takes Miki a little while to come to accept everyone's willing cooperation in Yuki's delusions, but in fact Miki owes her life to them.
Yuki's also quite perceptive, underneath the madness. When she says "the sports clubs are sheltering from the rain", that's because at some level she's noticed that the zombies are drifting indoors to avoid getting wet.
I really liked all this. It's quite an emotionally sophisticated study of something we've seen in a million films, but tends to get played for cheap gore or action. This show, though, isn't really horror. It's absolutely 100% committed to the reality of its setting, but generally not with the aim of trying to scare you. Obviously it's possible for everything to go apocalyptically wrong and I won't pretend that things never get bad, but it's about its characters rather than the simple question of "is X about to get killed?"
Even the opening titles are part of this. The song ("Friend Shitai" by Gakuen Seikatsubu) is bouncy, fun and has lyrics like "we're having fun 24 hours a day" and "we have dreams for the future".
The show even characterises its zombies, inviting us to empathise with them because that's what our heroines will occasionally be doing too. These are traditional old-school zombies, not hard to dodge and capable of being distracted by music or ping-pong balls. One on its own is more sad than scary. What makes them dangerous is simply that there are billions of them, they'll never give up and you only need to make one stupid mistake to become another victim. There are also indications that there's a dim level of motivation underneath the mindless bloodlust, in which they haven't completely forgotten the things they used to want in life. They keep coming to school, for instance.
It's metaphorical, as with the most classical zombie stories. Our heroines don't dare leave school, but one day they know they're going to have to graduate and go out into the real world. Ep.12 plays this metaphor very, very straight.
The English title is more meaningful than the Japanese one, by the way. "Gurashi" means "live" only in the sense of "to dwell or reside". In English, though, "to live at school" creates other meanings.
The show has some clever, chilling twists. It has bleak ironies. It has anti-romantic undertones, with Kurumi having had to kill a boy she liked and Miki being flagged up very clearly as lesbian. (This doesn't lead to cute relationship hints, though, but instead to bittersweet additional depth. She'll occasionally ask another girl to get dressed, for instance, with the implication being that she's not very comfortable with them sitting around half-naked.) Also, importantly, the girls are genre-savvy and avoid forehead-slapping stupidity. You don't have to make allowances for them being fourteen years old, even though of course you're all too aware of exactly that throughout.
Its sweetness has a special flavour for being played against an apocalypse. It's not horror, except when it is. It's ghastly but inspiring. I admire it and I'm thinking of buying the manga.
"Today they're playing soccer again."