The year was 1961. Dr. Martin Heidegger, one of the great existentialist philosophers of our time, had just finished teaching a class. Shuffling through his papers and preparing to take some questions and then leave, he was approached by one of his pupils.
“How do we live more authentic lives?” asked the young student, anxiously expecting the world.
With a pause, the old philosopher turned and said bluntly:
“Spend more time in graveyards.”
Death is an eerily mysterious concept. We witness it in the world around us all of the time, yet will only have the opportunity to experience it once in our lives. We rationally understand it, like the approach of some abstract void. But, when we try to wrap our mind around our inevitable, irrevocable destruction, it returns blank. Most of us will end up expiring on a hospital bed in a few decades. If we’re lucky, the room is filled with friends and family. Or perhaps, no one answers the call. In either case, the void swallows us. The clock fails to tick; time, space, and everything in between vanishes. We will be no more.
These are some thoughts that strike me when pondering on death. And, if you’ve ever lain in bed staring at the ceiling late into the night, you may recognise some of them. Unlike you, however, my reflections come from an unlikely source, cute-girl anime. Zombieland Saga is a 2018 moe idol anime following the misadventures of Sakura Minamoto, a young girl who died in an accident in 2008 before being revived as a zombie. She meets her ‘group’, a troupe of dead performers named ‘Franchouchou,’ and embarks on a quest to ‘save saga prefecture,’ as her manager puts it. And no, the irony is not lost on me. It is utterly absurd that I’ve gained any metaphysical perspective from a slice of life idol anime. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition between the show’s cutesy aesthetics and existential message create an oddly engaging philosophical experience. It extends its themes on the undead beyond an interesting plot-point made to facilitate goofy SOL antics into something more. Zombieland may be an idol comedy in name, but more than this, it is a meditation on death.
The zombie figure, since its inception as a trope in the Night of the Living Dead, has often acted as a metaphor for deeper fears held by society. Writers use the visceral, even existential horror that the undead offer as a container to package more uncomfortable truths, whether that be the fear of nuclear annihilation or the rise of political extremism. Yet, in Zombieland, this choice is extremely on the nose. In a paradoxical way, the representation of zombies in the show is framed around the existential crisis of death itself, and I think this stands as a testament to the quality of its writing team. The reason zombieland’s approach is so effective in this matter is largely because of it’s characters’ status as undead. Through their resurrection, the characters have the ability to reflect on their own deaths, find meaning in the aftermath. While the rest of us make weak ascertations about our futures and the values of our lives, the cast of ZLS can only look backwards, forced to reconcile with their own histories.
It is precisely this dynamic, a zombie suspended in time, grappling with the anxiety of it’s own legacy, which lends itself so deeply to a philosophical inquiry. What do we build? What do we leave behind? Many of the characters in the show struggle with these questions. Ai Mizuno for example, a former superstar, attempts wildly to follow her internet fan pages and memorials, only to despair when she sees that the world has moved on without her. Perhaps more tragic is the case of Sakura, a starlet killed before she could even attempt to soar. Yet, despite Ai’s momentous rise and Sakura’s unfortunate fall, they both find themselves clawing backwards within (or perhaps through) the confines of their idol group. The ultimate lesson being that no legacy is immune to the void. Death comes for all; no one knows when the reaper will knock.
The most salient lesson that we can prune from Zombieland is death’s imminent unpredictability. Death is unknown yet absolute, a cruel entropy, a cutoff. Ai, for example, dies in a freak accident when lightning strikes her in the middle of a performance; Junko is killed when her plane falls from the sky; and Sakura perishes under the wheels of a badly-timed lorry. Death shows us that there is no happy end. For all the organisation, all the planning, and all the potential, we can claim no real control over our lives. In the end, all the walls and barriers of meaning and normalcy come crashing down. This nauseating randomness is what philosopher Albert Camus might call the ‘absurdity of life,’ an absolute concept which governs our random existences. Even the great thinker could not escape his own teaching; Camus once said that the most absurd way to die was in an automobile accident. He was later killed in 1960 when his car veered off the road, only 46 years old.
Death philosophy has a great deal to do with change. In fact, death might be seen as the ultimate arbiter of change, a catalyst to entropy. As humans, we are constantly in a state of flux, whisping through time and space in both a physical and metaphysical sense. In some Eastern schools of thought, our current bodies might be compared to a temporary stepping stone as our immortal souls climb towards an enlightened state. We are born, grow up, grow old, and die; and yet the world moves on. Tragedy can unfold when we attempt to fight this, and Zombieland Saga also understands this notion well. For example, Lily dies of shock when he learns that he is entering puberty, scared that he will no longer be cute enough for TV. And, while he may be happy to ‘live’ again, undying and unchanging, this comes at the cost of a brokenhearted father who is stuck living through the change that his son’s death catalyzed.
All stories are a tragedy if allowed to run their natural course. Yet, despite this state of chaos and absurdity, the members of the Franchouchou idol group troop on. This, in my opinion, is where Zombieland‘s quiet meditations on death shine. The show dwells upon tragic events, yes, but it refuses to fester. It’s writing is filled with levity and comedy, its songs with joy, and its idols persevere, confront their pasts, and try to move forward with a hop, skip, and a jump. Reflecting on death, the show’s writers posit that if we had but one chance to return from the grave, we should run back into life with happy abandon. This is Sakura’s ultimate arc, the main drive of the story, and perhaps we, its mortal audience, might learn a few things from it. We have only one chance to live our lives, and it’s too short to ignore the inevitable. So, like Heidegger alluded, let’s take the time to meditate on death. Shake off your bad faith and save a moment to reflect on your own limited time. Because, unlike the zombie idols, we don’t get to sing a second song.