Thanks to Monster Musume, the notion of a romance with a monster girl isn't as weird of a notion to manga readers as it was when this series first came out. It's a shame, as today's review is frankly a far more palatable take on the idea.
SANKAREA: UNDYING LOVE (Sankarea), by Mitsuru Hattori. First published in 2009, and first published in North America in 2013.
Chihiro loves zombies. It's not just that he loves zombie movies and memorabilia and such. He has a veritable fetish for zombie girls, and he's experimenting on his beloved dead cat to try and perfect a zombification potion. It's during this work that he discovers Rea Sanka, daughter of the girls' school headmaster, shouting her woes into a well. The two bond over their mutual secrets, but the bond is short-lived thanks to Rea's abusive, controlling father. She accidentally puts Chihiro's formula to the test, and the results are a success. Rea is a zombie, free at last to enjoy the world, but the beginnings of rigor mortis might put that to rest before it can ever truly begin.
If you had told me previous to reading this volume that I could find enjoyment in a shonen romance about a boy in love with a zombie girl, I would have told you that you were insane. Yet here I am, fully prepared to explain why Sankarea totally worked for me on a story level.
A big part of what makes it work is that our leading couple are a bit more down-to-earth than the usual sort who populate these sorts of stories. Zombie obsession aside, Chihiro isn't some nervous nebbish or unrestrained perv. That allows him to actually engage Rea like a person before everything goes to hell, much less the other wandering clichés that surround him. They actually get to have something resembling a connection, and it's sad that this is such a novelty. As for Rea, it takes longer for her charms to come through. That's understandable once you start to learn the sort of pressure and horrendously broken home life she has to deal with. The abuse she suffers would be enough to drive anyone to the brink of suicide. It's only after the accident that her charms start to truly shine. It seems like there's nothing like escaping a horrible home situation to bring out a certain giddiness in her. It's not just that she's getting to experience all sorts of otherwise mundane things for the first time, but that she savors the freedom her undeath has brought. At long last, she can go anywhere and do anything she pleases. When she's acting like that, it's pretty easy to see why anyone (much less Chihiro) would find her adorable.
It's a good thing that Rea turns out to be so charming because her backstory turns out to be positively Gothic. It's not just that she's practically a prisoner in her own home, there's also the fact that her father is obsessed with her in the unhealthiest of ways. It verges upon the incestuous at times, and it's bound to give you the shivers far more than the prospect of zombie romance. Like a Gothic villain, he's also incredibly over-the-top. The only strange thing is how swiftly he seemingly gives up once Rea dies and comes back to life. In comparison, Chihiro's life is quite mundane and his world populated mostly by a lot of clichés. We've got the pervy sidekick, the pervy old man, and an older-sister wannabe of a cousin who is mostly there so the readers can ogle someone. As things get more serious, they feel less like comic relief and more like the lazy, half-hearted space-fillers that they are.
It's not often that a shonen romance actually gets me invested in its own story, much less one with a premise like this. It just goes to show what a little time and care can do towards making the prospect of a zombie romance not just palatable, but something I would be willing to read more of.
Sankarea's art also wants to keep the focus on the romance and not on the horror elements...well, at least most of the time. It does indulge in fanservice from time to time. Most of the time it doesn't go beyond the odd gawk down a girl's shirt as she leans into frame, although sometimes it gets rather indulgent when it comes to the cousin. It's the only way I can explain why she's the one who ends up in ludicrous, coquettish poses or baring her boobs in a totally pointless bath scene. Otherwise the characters are perfectly ordinary. The youngsters have an anime-friendly look and plenty of goofy expressions to go around, while the adults look more serious and squared-off. Despite the premise, there's not a lot of gore to go around. The most graphic moment is the one they use for the cover, which tells you just how tame the art is all around.
One minor point that I do want to point out is that Hattori does throw in a few references to other zombie media here and there. That's part of the reason the title is what it is. It's not just Rea's name, but also a reference to the Japanese title for Zombi 2. I also love that the translation notes confirm that Chihiro's cat is indeed named Bub as a reference to Day of the Dead. References like these aren't frequent or obvious enough to distract, but if you know the material you can appreciate the little nods.
Sankarea is a monster girl romance I can actually kind of get behind. It works where others fail because it takes its time with the core relationship and it keeps things tame enough (for the most part) to keep the concept tasteful. It's not brilliant, but it's a far better start than most non-undead romance manga can hope to deliver.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available. All volumes have been published and are currently in print.