Sunday 13 May 2012

Series REVIEW: Garo

Where there is light, shadows lurk and fear reigns.
But by the blade of knights, mankind was given hope.

While there's so much more to the tokusatsu genre than just Super Sentai and Kamen Rider, its arguable that these two franchises are the ones that come to mind first when you think of it (well, those and Godzilla). While in the West most Sentai and Rider fans may be adults, these shows are still meant for kids. But what if there was a similar style programme on offer for adults that wasn't a comedy or parody? Garo might be exactly what you are looking for. After an initial 25 episode series in 2005-2006 (and a feature length TV special), Garo returned for a feature length movie (entitled Red Requiem) in 2010, a spin-off video release in 2011 and finally a 25-episode sequel series: Garo: Makai Senki, between 2011 and 2012. A final film is also confirmed for release.

Kouga: Golden Knight and undisputed badass.

Garo focuses on Kouga Saejima, a Makai Knight who holds the title of Garo (the golden knight and highest ranking of all Makai Knights) who battles demonic creatures known as Horrors. During his battles, he encounters a young girl named Kaoru whom he saves from a Horror, but who is stained with its demonic blood. As a rule, those that have been stained by the blood of a Horror shall be cut down, or else they will die painfully in approximately 100 days. Although initially he plans to use her to attract more Horrors, as his relationship with Kaoru develops he attempts to find a way to purify her before time runs out. Kouga also goes head to head against another Makai Knight named Rei (Zero the Silver Fanged Knight) and a darker plot to revive the Horrors' originator Messiah.

Meanwhile Makai Senki continues these adventures, as Kouga becomes entangled in a near civil-war between Makai Knights and Makai Priests, who believe the responsibility of hunting Horrors should fall to them. As a curse slowly drains his life away, Kouga must also deal with his slowly developing romance with Kaoru. Side-characters from both the original series and Red Requiem return in Makai Senki, with several episodes solely dedicated to Rei.

Kaoru stumbles upon the world of Makai Knights and Horrors

The first and perhaps the most important thing to note about Garo as a whole is the stark difference between the two series. The original series has a noticeably smaller budget than what follows, and instead there is a much bigger focus on darkness and more gothic horror. The episodes are more self-contained to begin with, and plots revolve around the darkness and depravity of human nature mixed with the grotesque Horrors. The CGI is of typical Japanese fair (noticeable, but not horrible to watch by any means) but is short and sweet so that focus is primarily on non-suited fights. Kouga battles against the Horrors disguised in human form and the Garo armour (along with the Horror monsters themselves) are brought out for a "short but sweet" climax.

Following Red Requiem the visual effects take a huge kick up the rear, and carry the action much more than they did originally. The impressive out-of-suit hand to hand/sword combat hasn't left, but there are far more CGI monsters and a greater use of the Makai Knight armour. Makai Senki also delves much more heavily into Makai lore, and features a far more extensive cast. The extensive daytime sequences in comparison to the first season's almost permanent night setting give it a very different feel - and combined all these things make Makai Senki a more effects-laden fantasy series.

Zero the Silver Fanged Knight

So despite two very different tones, how do the series hold up when viewed together? The answer is brilliantly. While the shift in tone might in reality have more to do with budgetary reasons, it also nicely reflects the change our protagonist goes through on his journey. When we're introduced to Kouga we know very little about him, but seems to care very little about individual people and more about his "mission" to protect the world from the Horrors. His only companions are his faithful butler Gonza, and Zaruba - a Madō ring created to aid him in his battles against the Horrors. But as his relationships with both Kaoru and Rei change, we realise how compassionate an individual Kouga is. This also stretches to many other characters in the show - Jabi (a Makai Priest from the first season), Rekka (introduced in Red Requiem), Leo (a Makai Priest partnered with him in Makai Senki) and several others. By the time we reach the end of the second season, there aren't just a group of warriors fighting with Kouga, their fighting for him.

Kouga isn't the only character who receives an ample amount of personal growth in the show either. Back-stories are a plenty in Garo, and most characters will have some sort of trauma or issue they need to work out. It does border on repetitive sometimes when you realise most have some sort of "murdered loved one" story to tell, but it keeps the show interesting, makes the characters more alive and stays fitting with the overall tone of the show. Kiba - the villain from the first season and Makai Knight gone bad, even gets his own 40 minute special to explore his character a bit more. Even Zaruba, a talking ring, becomes a character you'll grow attached to and likely to shed a tear for at some point.

The smart-mouthed Zaruba.

Garo also sports some excellent designs. The Makai Knight armour, which all sport a wolf motif, are present in both suit and CGI forms - with both showing off some very intricate detail. The knights are also able to summon Madō Horses, which are an extensive of each individual knight's colours and styles - plus they look pretty damn amazing to boot. The Horrors, who are equally as memorable, come in different shapes and sizes. The standard horrors each come with a different motif, and the result ranges in some that just look amazing, and others than are pure nightmare fuel. The bigger Horrors lack these themes but still manage to maintain a look of monstrosity and the primary antagonists (such as Messiah in the first season and Ganon in the second) take a more majestic approach in design. There's a hell of a lot of offer design-wise in Garo, whether it be steeped in mythology or a brilliant idea on the design team's part.

Some horrors just look cool...
...while others you might find yourself losing sleep over.

Garo receives much praise from internet crowds for being an adult-orientated tokusatsu series (which comes with warnings of dark horror and nudity) and so I was eager to check it out. I wasn't disappointed - Garo deserves every bit of praise it gets. Your mileage may vary on what style you think suits the show better, but both complement the show nicely and illustrate how the same cast of characters can work in two very different stories and styles. Garo is must-see for tokusatsu fans, and a reminder that there's so much more to the genre than just Super Sentai and Kamen Rider.

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