Sankarea is definitely a series that proved the old “don’t judge a book by its cover” adage (and MGX is certainly another). With zombies being all the rage inside anime and out, one might reasonably have expected something quite outlandish and silly like most of those other shows. With DEEN at the helm, one might have expected a generic, bland look and mediocre animation quality. None of that happened of course – this was one of the best-looking shows of the season, and while it certainly had its ups and downs it’s a series that packs a ton of intelligence and subtlety into its unusual presentation.
It can’t be said often enough that DEEN has shattered my expectations about what they’re about to do visually in their current incarnation. Not only was the animation fluid and lifelike, the character designs and backgrounds were lovely and even more, director Omata Shinichi consistently showed a flair for brilliance. Sankarea reminds of of a house where none of the rooms are square – everything is odd angles and curves, and nothing is boring to the eye. He’s always got an interesting way of shooting a scene or framing a face, and some of the stuff – like the shot composition featuring beautiful hydrangea flowers next to the fireworks poster (Japanese for fireworks display is hanabitaikai, which shares a root word with flower) was downright genius. It might be the most tasteful and attractive use of the SHAFT visual template I’ve ever seen, inside SHAFT or out.
Of course, along with all of that visual mastery came a fascinating story and (mostly) engaging characters, and a dizzying array of tonal shifts and mood swings that almost gave me whiplash at times. There were some odd narrative choices too, like the two-episode detour with Chihiro a prisoner at Danichiro’s estate. So the fact that Sankarea gave us basically a non-ending ending is to be expected. Whether this means there’s a strong expectation of a second season I don’t know – it’s always felt to me as a non manga reader than Omata was acting like one was on the way, and DEEN does love their sequels. I hope so, because if you were looking for closure you sure weren’t going to find it here.
Apart from that, though, the finale was an excellent episode – and that’s good, as the series has been on a relatively scratchy run of late (only the Mero episode struck me as really strong among all of the ones in the last month, and I’m biased there). Most of the ep was spent in the melancholic, reflective frame of mind that I think suits the material best. Chihiro was reflecting on what he’d taken on by taking responsibility of Rea, Rea was reflecting on her own impermanence, and Mero was… Well, just reflecting, because that’s what she does. I so badly wanted for Chihiro to give her a hug or show her some affection here, because it’s painful watching her try and understand her “Nii” as he slips further and further into a world she doesn’t understand (both in the normal and abnormal sense).
There were some interesting moments in terms of foreshadowing, but no real answers. In the first place, it’s my firm belief that Jogorou wasn’t shouting “salt!” because he wanted to flavor his soup. He was headed straight for Rea – and it’s my firm suspicion that salt is a key to preserving her body for longer than hydrangea alone would do the job. Let the record show, by the way, that there’s quite a bit of salt in human blood – though I’m not ready to make any firm claims – as well as in the sweat that Rea licked off Wanko’s boobs a while back. It was also interesting to note that she told Wanko that she was “
starting to feel pain all over her body couldn’t feel any pain”. Surely that’s an important change – though just what it indicates I can’t say. She seems more convinced than ever that she won’t be around long, and perhaps she knows her zombie body better than anyone.
The metaphor of the firework, burning brightly before dying out, is hardly a subtle one but it suits the mood – Sankarea still feels like a tragedy more than anything to me. What doesn’t suit so well is Wanko and the whole “rivalry” with Rea. Along with Chihiro’s school chums, Wanko just doesn’t fit in this series – she completely ruins the mood for me every time she’s on screen, and the whole notion of a love triangle just feels tacked-on and unnecessary. She wasn’t at her worst this time, but it’s still a different show when she’s in it, and not as good a show at that. That tendency for wild mood swings is one of the charms of the series, but it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes the change just seems bewildering rather than fascinating. But I suppose Sankarea wouldn’t be the show it is without that element of its makeup.
Happily the rest of the cast is very solid, full of odd and interesting characters who don’t easily fit into trope categories (or at least, prove to be outstanding examples. Chihiro’s weirdness is endearing, and there a core of decency underneath it that shines through despite his awkward social skills. Rea of course is a lovely, tragic figure – her story being one of the most genuinely sad of any series in recent memory. I have a special fondness for Mero with her slightly puzzled kindness, so mature and so fragile at the same time. And Babu is one of the best anime cats in recent memory – I think Fukuen Misato did a fantastic job here bringing him to life (after death) with just a few lines of “dialogue” to work with.
So what did that bite at the end mean? Who knows (besides manga readers, I mean). The obvious assumption is that hydrangea isn’t enough for Rea by itself, and maybe – alas – human blood is a necessary component of a zombie’s diet if they’re going to stick around for a while. Maybe that’s just how a zombie expresses sexual desire – after all, I don’t recall Babu taking any bites out of anybody. For now we’ll just have to add it to the pile of questions this series leaves unanswered, the most interesting of which for me are the ones involving Chihiro and Mero’s mother and her role in the whole zombie storyline. We have a second OVA coming up – perhaps it will shed some insight on the events of the TV series, or perhaps continue the mother storyline started in the first OVA.
This is another one of those series that’s been lost a bit in all the really strong shows this season. I could definitely see Sankarea being a highlight of many a season, but there were just too many really strong series for this one to stand out as much as it probably deserves to. It definitely ranks as one of the biggest surprises of the season for me – smart, stylish and unpredictable, the product of very smart writing and great direction. DEEN should be very proud of the work they’ve done here, and I hope this is a sign that we’re going to see more DEEN shows with these kind of production values. If Sankarea does indeed get a second season, I’ll consider that very good news indeed.