This article contains spoilers for episodes 1-8 of Zombie Land Saga.
If you don’t make it a point to watch comedy anime, you might’ve skipped Zombie Land Saga when it started airing earlier this season. It’s understandable, from its first two or so episodes ZLS very much seems like a wacky comedy series in the vein of something like Chio’s School Road or Asobi Asobase from earlier this year (or, indeed, Nichijou, to give a slightly more timeless example). Something that ZLS recognizes though is that it’s hard to make a comedy tick if you don’t have anything else going on. If all you’ve got is jokes, you might as well just do stand-up. It’s not surprising then that around halfway through its run, Zombie Land Saga took a turn for the dramatic. In every episode since, ZLS has managed to wring genuine emotion out of its screwball sensibilities to increasingly rewarding effect, without ever actually dropping the zaniness that attracted viewers in the first place.
Let’s back up just a touch. If you’re not familiar, Zombie Land Saga’s novel premise is that it centers around seven girls who died at various points in Japanese history. They were brought back by manager-slash-mad scientist Koutarou Tatsumi to be an idol group called Franchouchou and, if he has his way, also revive the local fortunes of the Saga prefecture. If you’re wondering how the show could ever possibly get from that to meaningful emotional depth, well, never underestimate an anime’s ability to catch you off guard.
ZLS has brought out a couple different emotional left turns so far. Mostly, these relate to us finding out how the idols died in their pre-zombie lives. The fate of our nominal protagonist Sakura is no secret (she’s hit by a car about a minute into the first episode) but the others that we’ve been told about so far are two things: 1. Really quite sad, although as might be expected the show mostly presents them as dark comedy, and 2. Surprisingly well-considered, being directly relevant to their personalities. Sakura herself is something of an every-girl, so her death is unglamorous, the kind of thing that could happen to anybody. In episode 6, we learn that Junko, who was an idol from the 80s in life, (the first “golden age” of the J-pop idol industry) died in a plane crash – the kind of tragic fate associated most with politicians and maybe even more famously, Buddy Holly. Ai, an idol popular during the mid-2000s, at the dawn of the social media age, dies in front of her audience, struck by lightning mid-concert.
Again, all of these are played as dark jokes, because that’s the kind of show that ZLS is. But, crucially, they’re not jokes at the expense of the characters. It’s a very fine distinction. And it’s by maintaining it that ZLS is able to tackle its most ambitious thematic tie-in of all, that being the backstory (and of course, death) of Lily Hoshikawa, the youngest member of Franchouchou.
In almost any other series, Lily’s focus episode (the 8th) would be downright hard to watch. At a fan-meet event, Lily’s father (a very large, intimidating fellow built like a pro wrestler) shows up, struck by the young idol’s resemblance to his late daughter. He causes a bit of a scene and is escorted off the premises, but the episode folds into a flashback, wherein Lily recounts her own backstory, and again, in any other show, this would be played purely for tears–which is not to say that it’s not plenty sad here, too.
We learn that Lily was, in life, a pretty young child star. The show doesn’t dwell on the details, but Lily’s desire to get into the industry is shown to have stemmed from her relationship with her (single) father, who she spent a lot of time watching TV with. It’s a cute detail, and utterly believable for someone as young as she is (some quick math using the official dates provided on the ZLS website tells us that Lily was only 12), and it makes what happens next all the sadder. There’s a bit of a time skip in her flashback, and we see that several months later Lily’s incredibly busy schedule, and increasing neglect from her father, have driven her to the point of serious stress. The two have a pretty intense argument on opposite sides of Lily’s bedroom door, and it’s here where the show reveals what is probably by now its best-known twist; that Lily is transgender.
It’s hinted at (pretty unsubtly even) throughout the episode. Both with Lily being addressed by her deadname Masao in the flashback and in what is either an astounding coincidence or some of the most peculiar foreshadowing ever, Sakura wearing these shorts, which are in the transgender pride flag colors.
None of that makes the reveal hit any less hard. As Lily argues with her father about whether she can keep presenting as the small, cute child star she’s been up until now, her dad says the wrong thing, ”You won’t look like that forever”. Lily notices a hair growing on her chin. The combined stress gets to her and she promptly dies of shock, to the horror of her father.
Again, quite a lot for a goofy comedy series about zombie singers to tackle. Yet we have to really commend ZLS’ writing here yet again because managing to make a trans character dying a joke without making the fact that she was a trans person who died the joke. It’s not something that’s easy to do and really the presence of a trans character in a fairly mainstream otaku-targeted anime to begin with is pretty remarkable on its own. Again, the mode of death relates to the character, and in fact the relationship is closer with Lily, I think, than any of the others. It is a tragic fact of life that a lot of transpeople die young, some very young. I’ve seen Lily occasionally criticized as poor representation under the premise that the show is suggesting that it’s better for her to have died than to have kept living and transitioning while doing so. I understand that complaint but fundamentally I disagree with it.
If we buy that Zombie Land Saga is capable of writing its characters (trans or not) with this much nuance, I think the intention is clear; Lily, like all of the other girls in Franchouchou, died tragically young, and is being given a second shot at her dreams, one of which is simply to be a girl. If anything, it’s almost wish fulfillment, and while ZLS is still airing (and in fact another episode has aired since Lily’s focus episode) meaning its ultimate conclusion is still up in the air. However, the series has proved its writing chops several times over by now that I think we can safely say that this is a show that knows exactly what it’s doing, and what it’s doing is being remarkably intelligent, empathetic, and well-considered. It’s an unexpected turn for a series that’s derived a lot of comedy from the manager character yelling very loudly, and that spent most of its first episode pretending to be a horror series, but if 2018 in anime has proven anything, it’s that the medium’s capacity for surprise is endless.
Zombie Land Saga can be streamed on Crunchyroll