Spoiler Warning: this post contains major spoilers for the Anime Series “School-Live!” up through and including Episode 10: Rainy Day
My empathy does not confer with my logical half. It jumps from reality to imagination and abolishes the barrier in between.
When I read Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, I struggled to realize that Sarah’O’Rourke cut off her finger on that Nigerian beach; not me. I started Borderlands 2 with casual interest, and my hatred toward Handsome Jack drove me to finish the game without rest or reprieve; not until I shot him in the head. I feel the pain of nameless, random background characters that get slaughtered by trite Hollywood directors; and it doesn’t matter if I knew them not; I give them identity, story, sadness, and terror.
Habitual transplantation of character and feelings isn’t particularly new or odd -I think-, but I continually find myself struggling against empathetic recoil. It’s a defining trait to me, but it’s also core to Kurumi Ebisuzawa’s character from School-Live!, and I quickly identified with her and became attached to her.
And oh, the feels…
I identify with Kurumi. I admire Kurumi.
Like me, Kurumi reads the memories dressed onto individual zombies; she imagines the terrors written into fallen furniture, broken barricades, and pools of blood huddled into the corner; and then her empathy pulls lost love and terror out of the grave.
Unlike me, she persevered the zombie apocalypse. My default response to zombies is to end it all. It’s hard for me to even watch zombie media, but Kurumi’s courage became my courage, and she became my emotional anchor in School-Live! when I would otherwise flip out because of… well, zombies…
I loathe zombies. I hate the mouths, I hate death by gnawing, and I hate the one-bite-kill concept. I’m fascinated though by far more dangerous and visceral fictional enemies such as the Tyranids.
So why Zombies?
Because zombies weaponize the most vibrant of our emotions: Love.
A child gets bitten… her mother grabs her and retreats to those who care about the daughter; and those the daughter cares about. Love leaves her friends and family vulnerable. She bites them, and then they retreat to their loved ones… and the cycle repeats again.
Of all the characters in School-Live, Kurumi is the one most identified by Love, and the most affected. Her symbol in the opener is a heart. She was madly in love prior to the outbreak, and she’s haunted by the memory of killing her crush/boyfriend. When Kurumi, Yuri, and Miki discover the document that disavows individual love in favor of humanity’s survival, Kurumi reacts with rage. Love has driven her throughout the series, and in the presence of her friends, she takes on the front and charges into danger with her shovel.
Alone, she becomes vulnerable to the tragedy in her environs.
In episode 2, Kurumi shovels a zombie in the head and it drops a cellphone. On the phone is a photo of the-girl-that-was and her boyfriend. Kurumi becomes overwhelmed by the emotional rush and nearly gets bitten before double-tapping the zombie. This event revealed the impulsive nature of her empathy, and how empathy might serve as Kurumi’s fatal flaw.
School-Live! wrote Kurumi’s piece of the story with perfection. Episode 2 showed you her weakness… conversations foreshadowed that Kurumi would get bitten… the temperature of the series grew colder… and then you watch her stand there: shovel ready as her beloved teacher’s zombie approached from around the corner… and you knew she was going to hesitate to kill Megumi’s zombie: Megumi’s memory. And yet the traits that ultimately undid her… kindness, love, empathy… gave you hope, because she repeatedly displayed the strength it gave her.
But there’s a clear dichotomy:
When her friends are around, love becomes power. Her empathy draws on the fear and hope of her friends and she quickly reacts to protect those feelings.
Alone, her empathy draws on lost love, and it’s not a choice.
All the counsel, the comfort, and support Megumi-sensei had given to Kurumi became Kurumi’s opponent… and Kurumi faltered.
And just like it always does, School-Live! keeps hope alive with the pause of an episode, the promise of “medicine” and a cliffhanger.
Despite how much it hurt to watch episode 10, I’m thankful for School-Live!, regardless of how it chooses to end.
School-Live! flipped Moe on its head and gave it something substantial to stand on.
School-Live! told its story well. Bad story-telling is the failed crutch that repeatedly assassinates the anime and manga mediums; and so School-Live! has been a treat in that regard.
School-Live! also did something for me.
I’ve wondered for years why I have Neophobia, and School-Live! illuminated the reason. I’ve been stuck in that room for days as Kurumi screams, her blood boils, and the infection spreads from her arm. I drop myself far too deep into fiction and into my imagination. I bring back all the feelings -all the despair and suicidal thoughts I would be having in Yuri’s position as she contemplates killing Kurumi- and then my common sense has to fight to try and remind me that fiction is fiction.
I’ve been shielding myself from potentially dangerous empathetic recoils, but fictional trauma led me to write my first short story Stitched Angel, and once again it’s got me writing. Comfort is the last thing I need; perhaps it’s the last thing any writer needs.
So, thank you, School-Live!