Saturday, 2 July 2016

Series REVIEW: Garo: Makai Retsuden

Garo: Makai Retsuden

Can you believe it's been ten whole years since the first GARO series aired? In that time it has transformed from a gritty one-off production that should apart from most of its peers into a full blown franchise - encompassing various generations of the golden knight across multiple tokusatsu and anime productions. The tenth anniversary has brought about the announcement a number of new shows and movies, but among the ones at the forefront of the celebration is Garo: Makai Retsuden (or Makai Tales). What's particularly interesting about this offering is that it takes the focus away from those who have bore the title of Garo over the years, and takes a look at the various Makai Priests and Knights who have aided them in their battle against the Horrors.

Tsubasa & Jabi
From old faces...

Introduced each episode by the Saejima family’s loyal butler Gonza, Garo: Makai Retsuden is a collection of one-shot stories from across the GARO universe. Featuring characters from the show’s three distinct time periods (the Kouga era, the Raiga era and the Ryuga era), it’s a chance to move the spotlight onto the golden knight’s allies in their own unique adventures or reveal never before told back stories.

When Makai Retsuden was revealed as a series of side stories focusing on the wider cast of the GARO universe, it was easy to build it up as something with massive potential. GARO has always fared well with self-contained stories, especially when they dabble in specific themes or various forms of experimentation (the best examples will always be the various ones in Makai no Hana). Not only was Makai Retsuden a chance to bring back some familiar faces and expand their development without the inclusion of the title character, it also presented an opportunity to make a series comprised almost entirely of these sort of episodes. While the series did bring back a lot of old faces (many of whom you might not have expected to ever see again), unfortunately the show itself didn’t quite live up to this potential.

Zinga and Amily
...to new ones...
When you hear something is an anniversary celebration that usually feels like a good indicator that the show is going to go all out to impress, be in on a story level or a visual one (or both). Makai Retsuden on the other hand feels like a bit of a budget saver. The returning cast is the primary anniversary element here as the show is feels primarily character-driven, with the action and epic set-pieces taking something of a back seat. Not all of the episodes really serve to further the characters either, instead feeling more like whimsical side stories that simply reinforce something we already knew about said characters. Admittedly 20 minutes isn't always a lot of time to do a whole lot, with some episodes broken down even further things become even more problematic. There isn't a whole lot of room for experimentation either - there's a nice story told from the perspective of a group of Horrors and some unexpected fourth wall breaking, but that's about it.

With all this in mind it should be no surprise to hear that the action itself is also fairly divisive. While Makai Retsuden has plenty of those great untransformed wire work fight scenes that the franchise known for, the amount of armoured fights is at an all time low. This is partly due to the greater focus on Makai Priests rather than knights in this show, but when a knight does appear any armour is usually only donned for the finishing blow. In the case of Tsusbasa for example, the armour appears for mere seconds and the final attack itself isn’t even shown onscreen. The Horrors have also suffered from the obvious budgetary limitations, with a mere handful of original (and primarily CGI) monstrosities made up for this series - the bulk of the episodes opting to use the generic Horror costume instead.

Daichi and Raiga
...to some really new ones.

But with all that in mind, it’s still wonderful to see so many of these characters back again. It’s a little disappointing that no Yami o Terasu Mono/The One Who Shines in the Darkness-specific characters returned (all the Ryuga-era ones come from Gold Storm), but other than that there’s a pretty good variety on offer here. Characters such as Rian, Mayuri, Crow and Bikuu seemed like a shoo-in to return, but the likes of Yuna, Kain (Zero: Black Blood), Reo and Wataru (Makai Senki) making reappearances are all pleasant surprises. As is especially the return of Jabi and Tsubasa, who are saved until toward the very end of the show. Faring especially well here are the characters from Gold Storm, with the writers clearly using this series as an opportunity to flesh them out and give them much needed backstories. Early on in the series we're treated to an episode featuring the pre-Horror versions Zinga and Amily and how they met, while later on Lady Ryume and D. Ringo receive similar treatment. For Western fans yet to see the newly released Bikuu movie there's also the chance to get a glimpse at its extended cast, with Darkness Slasher Daichi getting his own episode too. However Garo fans need not panic, as the golden knight does pop in from time to time for some well-timed cameo appearances.

Rekka and Rian meet
Crisis on infinite Garos

However one thing the show did succeed in doing is ending on one hell of a high note. As if the return of Jabi and Tsubasa wasn’t enough previously, the series ends with a crossover that most likely nobody saw coming as Rekka and Rian team up against a creature born from the malice of Horrors slain by the Golden Knight. This episode manages to tie all three live-action eras of GARO together, with Makai no Hana linked through a guest appearance from Horror demigod Eiris at the beginning and subtle mentions of Kouga’s eventual disappearance.

To top it all off the episode also features the best cameo of the entire series, as Kouga Saejima returns once again after a three year absence from screens. This is almost enough to have made the series completely worth it, along with Gonza’s final tease that the story just might not be over yet. Although we know Raiga comes later we’re still waiting on a proper look and Kouga and Kaoru’s happy ending, and right now it feels like the closest we’ve ever been to getting it.

Kouga Saejima returns
Welcome back

Rather than being a grand anniversary celebration Garo: Makai Retsuden instead comes off feeling more like a stop gap until the next big project comes along (which right now is looking to be Zero: Dragon Blood in 2017, as the planned Raiga film doesn’t currently have a release date). It’s wonderful to see all these characters back and the show does have its odd moments of greatness, but even in those it can be difficult to forget its low budget feel and the overall desire for something more substantial. Had Makai Retsuden been a full 25 episodes it would have certainly outstayed its welcome, but at half that size it is instead an enjoyable – if a little disappointing – journey through the GARO universe.

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