Reviews are subjective things. A reviewer is drawing on many things when they write their review. Besides technical things such as story structure, character development and art, a reviewers personal preferences and experiences can affect their feeling about a book. And sometimes, even their gender can make a difference as to whether a book gets a good score or bad. In the following discussions, reviewers Alex Hoffman and Lori Henderson will look at different books and examine the similarities and differences they have over each of them.
Lori: It’s been a while since we’ve been here, eh Alex? The holidays and RL hit me pretty hard. How did it go for you? Are you ready to get back to work?
Alex: The holidays and even the entire month of January has been crazy for me, but I am glad to get back to our talks about manga. Let’s get right down to it with a synopsis of the series.
High School of the Dead is the story of a zombie apocalypse. An outbreak occurs at the local high school, and the two main characters, Rei and Takashi have to survive the onslaught of the undead as the horde grows with every passing second. We have all seen the premise before, so I will spare the full details of the books, but Rei and Takashi team up with a group of resourceful students, including a sword-wielding upperclassman, a nurse, a self-proclaimed genius, and a gun otaku. While many zombie classics use the idea of zombies as a representative of the consumer vs the individual, I don’t think High School of the Dead has such high aspirations. What are your thoughts, Lori?
Lori: Really? There are zombie movies that have taken that stance? While I don’t see High School of the Dead leaning that way, and I wouldn’t argue that it’s aspirations are high, I do see some potential. This series is more about how flimsy the foundations of society are. In a mere twelve hours, not only does society break down, but in the name of survival, the main characters can go from civilized to savage. I find this commentary interesting not only for its implications on modern society, but also human nature itself. Are we just animals bound by society’s rules, or is there really something fundamentally different about the human race?
Alex: It’s an interesting argument, to be certain, and I would say that High School of the Dead could argue that society shackles the animal that is human, to some extent, but that there are those who can overcome their base desires to do what is right. I use the word could to explain what is going on here because I don’t think that is the intention of High School of the Dead as a work of fiction. I feel that High School of the Dead refuses to make any statements at all, actually. Instead of creating substance to reflect on or debate, I feel that the series instead panders to a hormone-engorged hunger for battle and sex in its target reader base – the junior high and high school male.
Volume two is a great example of this: on one hand, we have this gritty, brutal violence, and all the politics of a world in crisis, with some really basic concept work on figures of authority, the idea that might makes right, and all the things that make martial law interesting for a 14-year old boy. Kill or be killed! Live by the power of your own hands, et cetera, which is to say, it’s all fairly mind-numbing machoism.
And served up as a side to our main course of machoism is as much T&A you can cram into 160 pages of comics. If there is a page without some form of perky breasts or long-shot images of one of the girl’s thighs or butt, I haven’t stumbled across it yet. Volume 2 contains 4-5 pages of full frontal nudity and “shower games” with all the girls in the series, and even when clothed, the artist makes sure that skirts and shirts rip at the appropriately sexy places.
The other thing that makes me feel as though this comic was written exclusively as a service to the egos of 14-year-old boys is the rampant sexism throughout the first three volumes. Even the most powerful female figure in the books is prone to saying things like “The man’s word is final” and “protecting a man’s honor is the very source of pride for a woman,” while she slices zombie heads off with a katana. Obviously, I find this disgusting.
Where stories like The Walking Dead are written to explore the ideas of crisis and survival amongst the most dangerous of enemies, they also can celebrate human life and dignity amongst the backdrop of that human crisis and ask deeper questions. High School of the Dead is content to roll in the muck of sexism, voyeurism, and violence.
Lori: It’s hard to argue many of your points, mainly because I agree with you completely, especially about the pandering and T&A. There is so much of it that it becomes overwhelming at times. I really wanted to disagree with you about the portrayal of females. On the surface they appear to be strong and independent, for the most part. All of them, save the nurse, take up weapons and get right into the fight. There aren’t any shrinking violets among them, who whine and hide behind the men. Even the scene you mention didn’t bother me, as I chalked it up to her being raised in a traditional household, where those values would be taught. Being a character from a well-known dojo, I would almost expect her to have that attitude. Though I will point out, even though she exposes about “protecting a man’s honor”, it’s still a woman doing the slicing.
But as I think about it more, there are small scenes that nag at me, but can be easily explained away. Is Rei really dependent on Takashi, or can it be that she’s still likes him, since they had gone out previously? I think it’s obviously Takashi still likes her. Saya does spend a lot of her time hiding behind Hirano, the gun otaku, but she’s more of a brains than brawn type, though she’ll fight when she has too. I can’t completely see these things as being sexist. I see a lot of it being natural reactions of characters thrown into an impossible situation. One thing that really did bother me was how it looked like this might turn into a harem story, with Saeko and Saya possibly starting to have feelings for Takashi as well. Rei makes sense. The other two not so much.
But I want to be an optimist and believe that there really is a story here, and all the pandering is just to get those 14-year-old boys who wouldn’t normally care about a story with social and political commentary to read it.
Alex: I do think you have a point when it comes to how all the female leads seem to be falling for our hero (or, maybe more appropriately, our reader stand-in). I think that this again is a good supporting point to my argument that the series is mostly designed to feed the ego of that 14-year old reader.
I don’t believe that High School of the Dead has a point (other than to titillate), but it certainly does have a story. The plot lines are fairly standard, but well executed. One section in the second volume that I think resonated with me the most is when Takashi sentences the thug with braces to an untimely demise. This is when we get a good dose of the “premise” of High School of the Dead, that, in the destruction of the normal society, those with power (i.e. mind control or weapons) will quickly make the new rules. This could be said to be the case in any catastrophic situation, such as a plague or bombing, but High School of the Dead explores this idea to a much greater extent than other manga in the same genre.
Lori: And it’s that potential that will keep me reading for at least another volume or two. I want to see if the story has the strength to keep a non-14-year-old, non-male reader engaged.This series has been such a strange one for me. I should be repelled by all the pandering and bloody violence, but instead, like a train wreck, I’m strangely drawn in. For every bath scene that pushes me away, there seems to be a scene such as the teens banding together to reaffirm their humanity and save a young girl. The scales are still balanced for now, and that merits the series at least a few more volumes before a final verdict from me.
Alex: And I think you can kind of assume where I stand with the series. While there are some small elements that could have made High School of the Dead an interesting read, overwhelmingly I feel it is one of the worst reads of the 2011 season.
Lori: And you are certainly not alone, and I would agree with you 100%. Maybe it’s my love of bad movies that makes this series easier for me to stomach. I have some of the worst movies ever made sitting proudly on my DVD shelf, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I can keep reading really bad manga.