Chihiro Furuya is obsessed with zombies, to the point that he is only interested in zombie girls. Rea Sanka would give anything for the chance to be a normal girl away from her stifling, abusive upbringing.
Be careful what you wish for.
While testing a resurrection potion on his deceased pet cat, Babu, Chihiro encounters Rea, who has run away from home. She steals some of the potion in an attempt to commit suicide, which fails ... but then dies in an accidental fall, and is brought back to unlife by the potion. Now Rea is a zombie, and Chihiro takes responsibility for her well being, while she enjoys the freedom she never got in life, while knowing that her days are numbered.
How good can a "zombie girlfriend" show possibly be?
Long-term readers may be familiar with my aversion to the horror genre, but while there's certainly a fair bit of gore and a bit of suspense, that's really not the point of this show. What we get instead is a surprisingly genuine, sweet romance between Chihiro (Ryōhei Kimura - Shōma Takakura in Mawaru Penguindrum) and Rea (Maaya Uchida in her first major role), which is rendered all the more poignant by the emotional trauma brought on by her incredibly abusive upbringing and the physical trauma of her being, well, dead. Fortunately, Rea (for now) maintains her personality and free will thanks to doses of the potion's key ingredient, hydrangea, and proves more interesting than the typical "yamato nadeshiko" in personality (it doesn't hurt that, as a zombie, her brain limiters are off, so she is now unnaturally strong), while Chihiro is hardly a mere fetishist, showing uncommon bravery at several points in the show.
Even with the suspense of Rea's zombie nature potentially taking her over, there's also the factor of her father Dan'ichirō Sanka (Unshō Ishizuka - Jet Black in Cowboy Bebop), whose smothering, borderline incestuous treatment of Rea manages to be light-years creepier than all of the actual zombie scenes combined, being highly reminiscent in many ways of Nabokov's unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert in Lolita. What doesn't help that he's apparently rich beyond legal retribution even for manslaughter and attempted murder, having inherited some sort of family fortune (my bet's on coffee). His neglected, pitiable wife Aria (Mayumi Asano - Haku in Naruto) proves to be equally abusive and creepy for very different reasons ... needless to say, psychological trauma is a recurring theme in Rea's childhood, and it's ironic that it takes Rea's death for her to truly learn how to live. In contrast, Chihiro's family, though a bit odd (we get senile grandpa Jogorō, temple priest dad Doon, and ghost-obsessed little sister Mero (Yuka Iguchi - Index from Toaru no Majutsu Index)), are loving and supportive (with more irony in having a zombie girl find refuge at a temple, where death and impurity are clearly taboo). They welcome not just Rea, but Chihiro's cousin and childhood friend Ranko Saōji (Sayuri Yahagi - Haruna Sairenji in To Love-Ru), who wants the oblivious Chihiro to herself.
The key to Sankarea's success is character development. Chihiro initially comes off as an incredibly immature pervert who fantasizes about zombie girls ... and then finds out the hard way just how difficult and dangerous it is to actually be responsible for one. Rea goes from being the idealized dream-girl of every teenage Japanese boy to something of a nightmare: not entirely in control of her actions and emotions and strength, and straining to keep her personality intact, which is hard enough to do when you're a horribly psychologically scarred fifteen-year-old who has been driven to attempt suicide, but unfathomably harder when you've actually died and been turned into one of the undead. Her constant desire to "live a normal life" is incredibly ironic and tragic, and yet here you have Chihiro working his butt off trying to make that happen, somehow, some way. There is a great deal of that very beautifully Japanese ethos of mono no aware in this: it's compelling because it is so inherently ephemeral and the odds so slim of them even hoping to succeed.
On a technical scale, Sankarea stays about high-middling, with good art direction that sometimes-mediocre Studio Deen hasn't managed to spoil - this is definitely closer to their A-list material like Hakuouki than, say, the often-forgettable visuals of the first season of When They Cry. The music is effective, and the themes very likable. Director Shinichi Omata seems to have let the material develop at its own pace, though this means that less than half the available manga storyline made it onto the television series by the time of its conclusion. This would be fine if there weren't any filler, but there is one "day-in-the-life-of" episode featuring Chihiro's little sister Mero that feels a bit more egregious than others; there's also the highly questionable fanservice-driven decision to have Rea deliver a very important character-defining speech while wearing a bunny outfit, which is actually the fault of the creator as this is lifted almost verbatim from the manga. Mitsuru Hattori clearly enjoys his fanservice as much as he enjoys his nearly constant shout-outs to previous zombie fiction creators, but here at times the fanservice feels almost at odds with the story, particularly when "kissin' cousin" Ranko shows up at Chihiro's house for the umpteenth time forgetting to put her ample boobs away. At other times, though, shots that would normally be considered fanservice shots are actually incredibly effective at establishing the gravity of certain situations -- ie. Rea's loss of humanity and the risk she poses to those around her -- and instead of being titillating, the effect is sobering or even haunting.
Between the filler and the fanservice, it still comes as a bit of a surprise when the climax seems to hit an episode early, leading to an extremely sudden cliffhanger ending that has viewership heavily divided. Frankly, I'm not sure even now whether I'd consider the ending well-handled or not, though given the intended genre (remember this is still a zombie horror series), it's certainly food for thought - this was clearly intended to be left wide open for a sequel series, which, while as yet unannounced, should be a no-brainer.
Sankarea has found its stride in an unexpected way: this is a shockingly skilled slice-of-life romance drama cleverly clothed with horror-suspense and ecchi comedy elements. It's a good deal more thoughtful and interesting than virtually any previous "zombie anime" due to its individual, character-heavy take on the zombie phenomenon. While I'm not always on board with this title's directorial and creative decisions, I found myself enjoying the leads immensely and really rooting for them, and while I'm generally lukewarm about zombies and would never categorize myself as any sort of horror fanboy, I did appreciate the nods to Romero, Fulci, and Argento, but more importantly, I really enjoyed the use of these tropes as the backdrop to a truly unusual love story.
Sankarea's constant tightrope between gentle slice-of-life drama and zombie suspense earns the respect and admiration of this normally horror-shy reviewer. People expecting a fanservice action series may be disappointed; conversely, people who are even less tolerant of gory material than me may give this a pass. Drop a star if you need every series to have a clean, cut-and-dried ending because you won't get it here. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: Rea's death scene is really graphic, and while the worst of it was censored off broadcast, it's still pretty gory. There's several bloody scenes throughout. There are also a fair number of nude scenes, though nothing explicit, and oddly enough, more pitiable than titillating. Ranko's cleavage is pretty much always on show every time she's around. Far more disturbing than the violence and fanservice is the treatment of underage characters by adults (plot-important), including highly inappropriate photography and two attempted seductions (one successful). There are also two kidnapping attempts upon minors (one successful). This was marketed to teen boys in Japan, but I would advise parents in the West (particularly in the US where folks skew stricter) to really be careful with this. Older teens only.
Version(s) Viewed: FUNimation stream, Japanese with Engliish subtitles
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Sankarea © 2012 Mitsuru Hattori・Kodansha / Sankarea Production Committtee
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