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Zom 100: Truly Living Despite A Pandemic
[SPOILERS For Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead]
[CW: Alcohol and Ableism]
As an immunocompromised person living through the pandemic with a severe distaste for capitalism, I've had complicated feelings watching Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead.
The anime's premise was brilliantly simple. Office worker Akira Tendo has spent three years having the life crushed out of him by an abusive company to the point where he feels like a literal zombie apocalypse would be "heaven" compared to going into the office. Then literally the next day, waves of zombies start overwhelming the world and he makes the choice to seize the day and live his happiest life. The show really caught my eye the moment where color literally returns to Akira's life as he realizes he is truly free from the shackles of capitalism. It was a masterful moment of animation in a show that was already visually stunning.
By the final moments of episode one when Akira writes "100 things I want to do before becoming a zombie" on that notebook I was caught hook, line, and sinker, just like so many others who were on the edge of their seats waiting for the next episode to drop. I was thinking that it might even be a serious contender for anime of the year.
But then episode two introduces one of the most powerful philosophical conflicts of the series. Akira wants to "loaf around and drink beer all day" but to do that, he has to risk his life going to a convenience store to get the beer in the first place. Upon arriving there he meets Shizuka Mikazuki, a woman clearly taking the risk of being zombified extremely seriously. When Akira asks for her contact information, she denies him while admonishing his behavior. "I can't see myself teaming up with someone who doesn't know how to analyze risk. I'd prefer not to lower my chances of survival."
At this point, I began to notice an all too familiar feeling of panic and dismay gnawing at the corners of my heart but I couldn't quite pinpoint why. So I pushed it aside for the moment to continue the episode. After Akira gets home, he sees that a couple he had run into that morning didn't make it. He sits down, drinks his beer, and says the lines that finally made everything click.
"We could die today... Or we could die 60 years from now. Either way, there's never enough time to do all the things we want. Life's too short to avoid taking risks... If I have to go on living without doing the things I want to do, I would rather be eaten by zombies."
As those subtitles ran across the screen, all I could hear was a cacophony of voices in my head. "Covid is not going away, you have to live your life." "Why are you still afraid?" "People can do what they want but I'm not changing my life." "I won't live in fear of Covid." All of those words are things every Covid cautious person is tired of hearing and could easily be summarized into what Akira was saying. To the people with this mindset, life is too short to avoid taking risks and if they have to go on living without doing the things they want to do, they would rather risk death or severe health issues to return to the "new normal."
For someone in a high risk category that could die if they catch COVID-19, it's one thing to hear words like this from right wing trolls online, but it's another to hear these words from friends you have held close for years as they decide maintaining that friendship isn't worth it because of your safety needs. But when your own family, hell, your own mother, the woman who literally birthed you, the parent you were always told would unconditionally love you, decides that not wearing a mask on her face is more important than keeping her literal child and those like her from death or devastating health conditions? From personal experience, that last one will break your heart in ways that are irreparable.
Hearing what seemed like similar sentiments from Akira, a character I had begun rooting for and identifying with, stung. I was already shaken from that moment alone, but the episode wouldn't make things any easier. In its second half we get to see the entire situation from Shizuka's point of view. We see Shizuka eying a sakura mochi at the convenience store but she chooses not to bring it home as it would go against her survival plans which include minimizing her sugar intake. She looks over some footage from a camera she had set up for safety and sees just how excited Akira was to get his beer. She then remarks:
"Who knew a single beer could make someone that happy in a state of emergency? Oh well... Maybe I should have grabbed that sakura mochi after all..." The show then pans over her computer screen with a list that reads: 100 Things To Do To Avoid Becoming A Zombie.
This does not mean Shizuka is meant to be an antagonist. At this juncture of the story, she serves as a juxtaposition to Akira's beliefs as the protagonist. But the series is already making it clear that Shizuka's desire to only focus on what keeps her safe makes her wrong, that the "hero" of the story is right, and that even Shizuka is starting to agree with him, just a little bit. It is made clear by the show that we're supposed to agree with Akira, our protagonist, and what he believes.
Everyone who continues to take precautions to keep themselves and others safe from COVID-19 has asked themselves a similar question: At what point is keeping this level of isolation and safety depriving me from living a fulfilling life? We see people go to massive conventions to interact with communities they care about in ways we cannot safely do. We have to watch friends and families gather for holidays while leaving us out. We must continue to exist in a society that shows all signs of not valuing our participation within it.
It is not an exaggeration to say that this series has been weighing heavily on me ever since I saw the second episode. How much I agreed with Akira's philosophy had a vice grip on my mind. Those who know me personally are keenly aware of all the wild adventures I've had in my life, how I have fought so hard to have unique experiences that leave fantastic stories to tell in their wake. As corny as it sounds, the words Carpe Diem have been a driving force of my life ever since I first heard them in Dead Poets Society years ago as a young teen. So by being Covid conscious, am I betraying my ideals? Were those people right? Am I wasting my one chance at life by being afraid for my health? By wanting to protect others? These are the kinds of questions that I've been constantly turning over in my head ever since seeing that episode.
It would have been easy to drop the series here, to ignore this inner turmoil brewing, but I'm glad I didn't turn away and kept watching because the show has a lot more to say than this simple black and white reading of its themes.
Fast forward to episode 5 when Akira is trying to fulfill another part of his bucket list, remembering his childhood dream, which turns out to be that he wanted to become a superhero. "To fight danger and save those in need in a kickass costume, without a reward... A hero of justice who saves people from zombies."
Akira and his best friend Kencho head towards the aquarium to find a shark suit to keep him safe from zombie bites, allowing Akira to become the ultimate superhero. Nearby, a group of people trying to get to the harbor have their bus stopped and are suddenly overwhelmed by zombies. Akira jumps in to save a girl before the zombies maul her, and helps lead the group running by to safety. A group that just so happens to have Shizuka among their number.
Akira tries to use this moment of heroism to talk to Shizuka when everyone is safe, but gets shot down for his antics right away. While she doesn't deny that he saved people, she points out he made a major mistake when she asks Akira, "Did you consider the danger to those truly important to you when you leaped into action to mollify your low self esteem?"
While the rest of Shizuka's arguments are played off comedically as being argumentative, even Akira admits that she's right on this point, that his efforts at being a hero put his best friend Kencho in danger. He acknowledges in that moment that there might be more to completing his bucket list than just selfishly fulfilling his own desires. It is his turn to accept that Shizuka's philosophy might be worth considering too.
This complicating of Akira's philosophy is examined even further as a wildly terrifying zombie shark with legs begins chasing after everyone Akira just saved by ushering them into the aquarium. It's only through Shizuka's knowledge of the aquarium, which she gained by studying its maps, that most of the group is able to get away safely. In fact, the theme that selfishly only caring about your own wants and desires being bad is hammered home even harder when a woman shoves Shizuka to the ground, ensuring her own safety while leaving Shizuka to die, which is portrayed as a villainous act. The woman is shown chanting to herself, "It's not my fault, it's not my fault." Many have heard similar words hurled at them when asking if people feel responsible for the deaths that could have been easily prevented by taking precautions against COVID-19. Those people refuse to believe it's their fault in any way that people are dead or are being left to die. The symbolism of this moment and how it reflects real life mindsets should not be lost on the viewer.
Later in the episode when Shizuka questions why Akira would selflessly save her, he blows her away with his response. "When you're hungry, you want to eat your fill. If you see a cute girl you try to get to know her. If I see someone who needs help, I want to be a hero." Up until this point, Shizuka herself has also been quite selfish, only focusing on what gives her the best chances of surviving without thinking of anyone else. Even now she's still questioning how she feels. "If you die, it's all over. Why do you go so far to go straight for the things you want to do?"
Once more, Shizuka proves her skills in analysis and risk management have their purpose as she scrapes together a plan to save them both. And she realizes it's a long shot and asks Akira if he wants to risk it. She is making sure that unlike how he treated his friend Kencho earlier, that Akira has a choice.
In the end, the day is saved. Akira, Kencho, and Shizuka are walking away from the aquarium. She admonishes Akira once more for putting Kencho at risk, and Akira apologizes to Kencho, bringing the point about people consenting to the risks presented in their lives back to the forefront once again. But Shizuka, starting to warm up to Akira, finally gives him her contact information.
In the next episode, Shizuka runs into Akira and Kencho once more. She wants to find a place that's safe and sustainable, if such a place exists. Akira and Kencho want to head back to Akira's hometown, Kanto's best kept secret: Gunma. Since their interests align and they all had the same idea that using an RV would be the best way to manage long distance travel, they pick an RV out and start traveling together.
This plan literally hits some spike strips when it turns out Akira's former abusive supervisor has started a colony of people that takes advantage of travelers to exploit their labor. Once again, someone selfishly serving only their own interests is presented as the villain. Hell, this very evil supervisor gets angry at Akira for trying to chill some beers as something kind to do for everyone. The good guy tries to help everyone around him, the bad guy only cares about himself and his own comfort. The show is drilling this theme home hard.
Akira falls into his old pre-zombie life habits due to the abuse coming from his supervisor and ends up being convinced he might actually want to just stay and keep working there instead of fulfilling his own dreams. He is once again saved by Shizuka with a rousing speech. She proclaims how it was Akira who opened her eyes and made her want to live for her own desires and not simply fold over to do what others want from her.
Things then take a sharp turn as zombies accidentally are let loose and everyone runs around in a panic. Several people climb onto the tops of trucks, desperately trying to keep alive. Akira sees his old supervisor being chased by zombies. He could simply leave him to die. He could take his friends and try to find a way to escape alone. But he refuses to do any of that and saves everybody he can, even his horrible supervisor. "Standing by while someone's about to be eaten by zombies isn't on my bucket list."
They manage to burn the zombies into a crisp due to Akira's wild plan to corral the zombies around a food truck before lighting the natural gas inside of it, causing a massive explosion. Then he and Shizuka have this exchange:
"Honestly, you're always doing something crazy."
"It wasn't that great."
"I wasn't giving you a compliment"
They both laugh, making this moment stick out to me as well. At this point, the show has repeatedly shown that Shizuka's point of view of wanting to focus on survival isn't necessarily wrong, that having those ideas to balance out Akira simply jumping into situations thoughtlessly not only keeps him alive, but enables the entire trio to keep doing the things that make them happy. The show repeatedly also condemns those who do things purely for themselves, painting those that are selfish in that way as obvious villains.
Zom 100 as a show does not agree with the thinking of people who are giving up any attempts at keeping others safe, selfishly pretending like life is "back to normal" when it's not. The show has made it abundantly clear that while it is important to do what makes you happy, it should not come at the expense of others. That if risks have to be taken, we should all be allowed to consent to those risks, not having those choices taken away from us by the selfishness of others. That even doing things to stay safe, survive, and protect others, is something we should actively be doing as it brings joy to our lives as well as theirs.
The trio eventually makes it to Akira's hometown, picking up a new friend to travel with them while having exciting adventures along the way. Gunma houses a group of people doing their best to bring others in, keep them safe, and foster a healthy sustainable community despite the dangers around them. This is the kind of thing COVID conscious people have dreamed of with plenty of them joking about the idea of somehow having a town and moving everyone there to form a community of people actively looking out for and caring about each other.
Gunma is upheld as the best of what we as humans can do for each other in the middle of a crisis. It reminds me of how at the beginning of all of this, people banded together to help one another, supported essential workers and those in healthcare, began serious discussions about universal healthcare, and more. How for one huge moment, despite the horrors taking place around us, hope swelled for the chance at a brighter future.
The villains of this arc are people who were outcasts in pre-zombie society that are set on getting revenge in some way by letting zombies into Gunma which would destroy the beautiful community being built. And that is where the series abruptly left us after episode 9, going into a hiatus due to production issues.
I'm writing and editing this as the CDC warns we might once again be forced to ration care to those who are sick. As 15,000 people per week are hospitalized due to COVID-19 in the United States with 1000 of them dying weekly. In a world where every one in five adults reports having long covid. All of this devastation is taking place in one country alone, the numbers become even worse when viewed globally.
These thoughts and world events have all been swirling in my head while waiting for Zom 100 to hopefully return triumphantly from its hiatus and finally air episode 10. It is not lost on me that this series has had massive production issues in an era where shows like Uncle From Another World and NieR: Automata Ver1.1a both faced production issues due to COVID-19. Was COVID-19 a reason why Zom 100 was delayed? We may never know because if you look at the comments online to NieR: Automata's announcement in particular, you can see just how many people said COVID was not a reasonable excuse. People selfishly saying their personal entertainment is more important than others being permanently disabled or even outright killed certainly puts that line of, "If I have to go on living without doing the things I want to do, I would rather be eaten by zombies" in a whole new context.
But that very cliffhanger the show has been hanging on is exactly like the precipice we find ourselves upon as we face this ongoing pandemic. I have not read the manga for Zom 100 and thus do not know how this arc will end, just as I am unsure what the future holds in the real world. I know what I hope to see happen in the story. I hope Akira and the gang will selflessly swoop in and do all they can to protect those they love, the community in Gunma, and all it stands for.
However, I cannot control how Zom 100's story will conclude just as I cannot control the actions of others regarding the pandemic. It is entirely possible this arc will end in such a way that leaves me with even more complex feelings and questions to tackle than ever before, just as the pandemic has left me questioning all I knew about the innate kindness of people while witnessing how I and others like me have been treated throughout it.
But right now, I want to believe in the indomitable empathy and kindness I know humanity is capable of. I want to believe if we all work together, we will prevail over those who selfishly wish to put their own wants above all else. I will choose to continue doing my best to protect myself and others while building community because that is what truly makes me happy, just like Akira would want me to. Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead has shown me how one person can inspire others to make great changes in their life to truly find happiness. I can only hope my words will inspire you the same way.
© 2023. All rights reserved. - Page last modified 2023.12.25 - The GrillOut was created June 21, 2023.