“There is a universal fascination with the living dead. There is more to [zombies] than a bunch of corpses attacking the living. The real power… lies with the undercurrent of hopelessness compounded by a very real instinct to survive.” –Julie Ann Dawson
As trends in popular culture in the 21st century have ebbed and flowed, there has been a slow resurgence of interest in the apocalypse, the post-apocalypse and how this might happen. Perhaps resurgence is the wrong word; has there ever been a generation that has not been fixated on the End of the World? For example, in an Assyrian clay tablet written back in 2800 BCE, the writer complains that the “recent” degradation of morality was a sign of the imminent collapse and end of society; Romans feared the sacking of their city and destruction of their culture; the Christian and Jewish religions have been rife with sects and individuals obsessed with the End of Days; and obviously the Norse faith had their infamous Ragnarok.
More recently the fear of existential destruction by nuclear weapons during the Cold War period and, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, by chemical and biological means at the hands of rogue states and organisations has resulted in the concept cementing itself in the international shared psyche. However to differentiate the current interest in the End Times with that in the past, Science’s advances and the acceptance of extinction event theories have done much to remove the religious component from apocalyptic thinking and replace it with ideas that can be explained in either a scientific or pseudo-scientific way. A zombie apocalypse scenario is something that has become a staple in the translation of this fear into popular media and culture.
So what do we mean by zombies? As I am sure you are aware, zombies are reanimated corpses that return to un-life to plague the living. The word first arises in the folk myths of Haiti. In these we are told of the dead being brought back by magic as mindless undead creatures. They are thralls to the magic user that resurrected them and the polar opposite of the story of Lazarus in the New Testament where he is brought back to life hale and healthy in body and mind.
However, the origins of the current archetype that we all instantly recognise as a zombie found in both literature and movies can trace its roots back to such books as Frankenstein and the stories found within the pages of the 19th century Penny Dreadfuls, especially the seminal Varney the Vampire. This inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula that in turn led to Richard Matheson’s I am Legend in 1954. This amazing book provided the blueprint for much of the zombie fiction that would follow in spite of the fact that it was a vampire book. In the book, the world had ended and the dead had all become vampires wandering the streets in great hordes, ragged and dishevelled, aching for blood. The last man on earth is their prey. To any zombie movie aficionado, this must sound very similar to the zombies seen in George Romero’s movies that really kick-started the genre of zombie horror. Since that time the genre of zombies has gone from strength to strength with the success of the brilliant books by Max Brooks, the video game series Resident Evil (known as Biohazard in Japan) and the television series The Walking Dead.
This little slice of western pop culture is all well and good but what does this have to do with Japan? To answer that lets just familiarise ourselves once more with the phenomenon of Cosplay:
Cosplay is a contraction of the words ‘Costume Play’. The phrase was coined by a gentleman called Nobuyuki “Nov” Takahashi working for a Japanese production company called Studio Hard back in 1984. He used it to describe some of the costumed attendees of the science fiction and fantasy convention Worldcon in Philadelphia that year. This had been a traditional part of the Worldcon goings-on since 1939. He enthusiastically spoke about this to numerous Japanese science fiction magazines at the time and the seed that would bloom into Cosplay as we know it today was planted.
Outside of Japan Cosplay mostly follows the more “traditional” route of making your own costume, entering competitions and having fun with your friends. In Japan, and worldwide communities inspired by the Japanese way of doing it, they are much more about becoming an established fictional character and both looking and acting as much like that character as you can.
So, what happens when you take a bit of Column A (zombies) and splice it together with Column B (Cosplay)? Well, you get the Zombie Performance Unit: ZOMBIENA.
Zombiena is run by the arch zombie, Zombiena herself. She began by putting on Halloween shows back in 2010. This was so much fun that she expanded these into club and bar events and now has her own Zombie Bar that opened in May 2011 in Roppongi, Tokyo. Zombiena’s Zombie Performance Unit currently has around 50 members and they get together as often as they can to have fun dressing and acting like zombies.
Every year in May they hold a free event at Yoyogi Koen (which means park in Japanese) situated near Harajuku. The premise is to have the hardcore group of members be joined by anyone who wishes to take part and slowly shuffle and lurch their way around the park for an hour or so. This generally takes place on either the Saturday of the second or third week of May and barring a typhoon or natural disaster the Walk will always stagger onwards.
If you wish to participate there are some rules:
- Although everyone there is dressed and acting as zombies, it is a friendly event and participants should not roam around attacking or groping any innocent passersby or onlookers. The aim is to walk with your fellow participants and enjoy yourself, not to terrorise the populace.
- Zombies stumble and stagger in the eyes of this group. They are the ones that you can see in such films as Night of the Living Dead as opposed to 28 Days Later, so that the walk around the park is just that, it’s a walk, you do not run.
- Zombies are encouraged to wear appropriate costumes but it should not be anything risqué or overly revealing as everyone will be in public. There are laws against nudity in public places. There will also be children around so anything too horrifying is also discouraged. In a similar vein wearing full masks can attract the attention of the police so this also is also not recommended.
- Japan is a very trash disposal conscious country and this event is no exception. Participants are encouraged to take all their trash home.
- The event is a public event and there will definitely be a lot of people taking photos there. If you have qualms about having your zombie-face splattered over numerous Facebook, Twitter and blog feeds then this is probably not the event for you.
Okay, so with the ground rules established let us talk logistics. The event takes place at Yoyogi Koen and there are three stations you can use to get here: Harajuku station on the Yamanote line, Yoyogi Koen station on the Chiyoda line and Yoyogi Hachiman station on the Odakyu line. The group meets at the clock tower near the main entrance to Yoyogi Koen. Everyone gathers at 2pm and the walk generally gets started at about 2:15pm. As I mentioned it lasts for about an hour and we finish in the centre of the park for a final group photo session and socialising. Their website is in Japanese but for the Zombie Walk event they also put up a post in English. You can get updates for upcoming events at www.zombiena.net.
A word of warning: The group does not provide any zombie make-up service or assistance in this regard so this is very much left in your own hands. However, the event takes place during the afternoon and many, if not most, would not feel comfortable travelling on public transport at this time of day in full zombie make-up. Never mind the looks (and possible complaints) that you would get on the train there. So, I would recommend arriving much earlier than the 2 o’clock start, finding yourself a nice spot and applying your make up there.
Insofar as costumes go, zombies are one of the easier ones to put together. A ripped bloodstained t-shirt would suffice and you can find cheap Halloween make-up in many 100yen shops. However, any search of Youtube will reveal a variety of very effective cheap ways to accomplish ‘that eye-catching zombie look’. This year I used tissue paper mixed with glue to create facial wounds, hidden with foundation and black eye-shadow and then applied a gelatinous mix of corn starch and red food colouring to create the blood and gore necessary to complete my transformation. Great fun and easy!
So, the zombie walk in May is a great little event that combines a nice trip out to the park with some local interaction. Even if you do not want to participate it is well worth popping along to take photos and have a chat with those taking part. I hope to see you there next year.