Sunday 13 April 2014

Series REVIEW: Zero: Black Blood

Kicking off the year of GARO is...a miniseries that doesn't actually feature Garo at all? That's right, the franchise's first 2014 entry is a story about everyone's favourite secondary Makai Knight - Rei Suzumura, aka Zero the Silver Fanged Knight. The six-part miniseries, titled Zero: Black Blood was also released in Japanese cinemas as a film duology - with the two parts being named White Chapter and Black Chapter respectively.

Set during an undetermined place in the Garo timeline, Black Blood sees Rei bumped up to main character status as he investigates the formation of "utopian" community between humans and Horrors. In this community, the humans are left to live their own lives until one is chosen by random lot every so often to become the Horrors next meal. However in order to keep the Horrors from turning on the humans, the chosen candidate is not fed to them in the usual way. By ingesting a small amount of Horror blood, the human becomes a "blood dolce" - an agonising death that is considered a deliquesce by the Horrors.

Teaming up the Makai Priests Cain and Yuna, the latter of whom is mysteriously able to wield a Makai sword despite being female, Rei is tasked with putting an end to the community and it's Horror leader Ring. 

Rei Suzumura/Zero returns
Back, in black and still badass

Outside of a great one-shot focus episode during Garo: Makai Senki, Rei/Zero hasn't really had much opportunity to strut his stuff outside of Kouga's overwhelming presence. It's a shame because there's so much more variety to work with when it comes to Rei - not only is he far more emotionally diverse (i.e, he actually smiles), but there's plenty to explore concerning what makes him tick. Sure we found out his backstory in the original series, but there's more that could be said on his motivations as a Makai Knight. And sadly we only really get a glimpse of that here in Black Blood, as  Rei seems more about moving the story along than actually being integral to it. Sure he's still undisputedly a badass and apparently has a penchant for incredibly sweet drinks, but the story doesn't ever feel about him. For fans of Zero or his actor Ray Fujita it's a dream come true to see him get his own miniseries, but that doesn't stop it from feeling a little bit like wasted potential.

Sentai fans may be familiar with Yuna
ToQ San-go! ToQ San-go!

So who does the story mainly concern? That would be Yuna, who teased the possibility that women might be able to become Makai Knights after all. Sadly those gender boundaries stay firmly in place, even if the reasoning for her ability to wield to Makai sword could have opened some doors. It's a shame, because Yuna is considerably badass and would actually make for a good regular on Garo. If you do want to see the continued adventures of Yuna though, your best bet might be sticking to Ressha Sentai ToQger where her actress Riria is playing Mio/ToQ #3. Meanwhile Cain hardly seems worth mentioning at all, because other than having an umbrella for a weapon (which is actually much cooler than it sounds) didn't really do very much to contribute at all. And then what he DID do could have easily been filled out elsewhere.

While Garo has undeniably had a range of interesting villains, in the end in most cases they are simply there to pave the way for some all-powerful god-like Horror to take over in the final battle. More often then not these big bads never live up to expectations, so it's nice to see Black Blood cast that mindset to the wayside and make Ring the main threat throughout. Flamboyant as he may seem with his silly hair multiple-language outbursts, Ring is still an obvious threat and outclasses all three heroes in terms of fighting prowess at almost every turn. But it's the whole morality of his plan that makes him great as a villain - he rightfully states that Horrors will always exist while mankind bears evil intentions toward each other, so what's wrong with his compromise? Of course, some of his actions firmly push him into the villain camp but the whole idea of it all is interesting nonetheless. Sadly even Ring falls victim to the "final Garo battle must be against some giant CGI monstrosity" trope, but even then it isn't as bad as things usually are. In fact, I'd so as far as to say it actually works really well.

Umbrella-wielding Makai Priest Cain
The Penguin would be proud

When it comes to story, Black Blood falls sadly also falls short in quite a few areas. As I've previously said, the main story itself is actually quite interesting at its core, but a lot of what goes on around it feels like padding. Elements such as the human side characters who chose to become part of Ring's society should be interesting, but there simply isn't enough time to get invested in them as characters or be overly interested in their fates. Secondly, there are far too many elements in the show that bear similarity to The One Who Shines in the Darkness. Sure no of us may know how the hell that fits into the Garo timeline (although by now most just accept that it doesn't), but that series didn't happen that long ago and the things that happened in it are surely still in everyone's minds. A utopia overtaken by Horrors, a mother thought to be dead, the importance of a song/singing...these are just a few of the key elements present in both tales. When the similarities are so strong that one scene plays out exactly the same (right down to the location), it's hard to not acknowledge it as an issue.

Big bad Horror Ring
Ring has swag

But one of the biggest issues many had with The One Who Shined in the Darkness was its absence of physical armour, instead really wholly on CGI suits (which works to varying degrees of success in fight scenes, but not really at all in static shots). Thankfully the physical suits (well, suit) make a return in Black Blood, making this less intensive action sequences considerably less tacky. Watching the miniseries in HD also helped give an appreciation of just how far Garo as a franchise has come over the years. The visuals are absolutely beautiful, and the clearer picture makes all the nighttime lighting work all the better.

Zero is by far and large my favourite character in Garo, so I really wanted to like Black Blood. In fact, when I started writing this review I considered giving it a higher rating than the one I settled on. But the more I thought and the more I wrote, the more glaring the flaws became. Black Blood simply isn't long enough for the story to develop in a satisfying manner, and the new characters play such a big part that they end up pushing Zero out of his own show. Rei undoubtedly deserved a miniseries, but what he deserved is better than what he actually got.

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