Wednesday 1 April 2015

Anime REVIEW: Garo: The Animation

Garo the Animation

It still seems strange to say that for the last year and a half there's always been a GARO series on television. What was once a great little adult-orientated tokusatsu series is now a full-blown franchise, with always at least one project seemingly on the go. But between last year's Makai no Hana and the forthcoming The One Who Shines in the Darkness sequel Gold Storm the franchise went off in a different direction, spawning it's very first full-length anime series. Simply named Garo: The Animation but also known as Honō no Kokuin (The Carved Seal of Flames), the show takes GARO back into what looks to be the past, making it a nice contrast to the modern day and near-future setting of it's two live-action brothers. It's also notable for being the first GARO series to get proper exposure in the West, having been simulcast via the Funimation website.

Leon & Alfonso
Knights of the big hair

Under the evil influence of his advisor Mendoza the King of Valiante has embarked on a witch hunt, endangering the lives of the Makai Knights and Priests surrounding the Kingdom. When a pregnant Makai Priest (or Alchemist in Funimation's subtitles) is burned at the stake, she suddenly gives birth and her newborn son is carried off by a silver-clad Makai Knight. Years later the boy, León Luis, returns with his father Germán (the Makai Knight Zoro) having inherited the title of the Golden Knight Garo. However León is fuelled by his thirst for revenge, seeing the armour only as a means of avenging his mother's death. These negative emotions often get the better of him, sending him into a burning berserker rage.

As father and son battle Horrors on their journey to Valiante, they meet up with the young prince Alfonso (who on his own path inherits the Makai Knight title of Gaia) as well as a Makai Priest named Ema. Together they try to stop the scheme Mendoza has spent years working towards, while León himself must face hardships to not only learn it means to not only be a Makai Knight - but what it means to be the greatest of them.

Leon's first Garo suit

It only takes a single episode of Garo: The Animation to see that this isn't quite like the Garo we've seen before. While both live-action series have retained a distinctly Japanese-flavour for obvious reasons, the anime version transports viewers to a much more European setting - Valiante itself being loosely based off of Inquistion era Spain. It's a bit of wild departure, and one that does take a little bit of settling into - especially when it instantly draws comparisons to other similarly medieval anime such as Berserk or even Attack on Titan. But this setting proves particularly important for the story, which another continuity heavy instalment for the franchise. Makai no Hana may have made a poor attempt at a story arc by tacking on an ending to 20-odd one-shot episodes, but here the story is carefully plotted across the 24 episode run.

Of course there are the odd side stories here which you can take or leave, but what these do is help build up this very different Garo universe even more. In the live-action shows the Makai Knights are more of a shadowy organisation, but in Valiante the golden knight is the stuff of legend. Take episode 15 for example, which sees a random group of townspeople build their own Garo armour in the hopes of emulating their legendary protector. It makes the world and impact of Garo feel that much bigger, that while the knights live their own lives in solitude that the work they do is properly recognise it.

Germán being Germán
I couldn't see Kouga or Raiga doing this

But it's the characters that really make this show special, offering a much more diverse and emotional cast than anything Garo has offered before. Let's start with León, since he is the eponymous knight after all. The character doesn't get off to a great start as his cold, revenge-driven schtick gets old pretty fast, but this then gives way to without a doubt the greatest character development of any golden armour wielder yet. Events that lead into the second half of the show lead to León losing the armour together, leaving him a broken mess that is essentially cast into exile. From here he's basically reworked from the ground up, casting aside his single goal of revenge and learning what it means to be a true Makai Knight and protector. The events that to him taking up the mantle again are pretty predictable, but nonetheless its extremely refreshing to see a Garo go through this level of development. The live-action ones have their moments (Ryuga especially), but certainly nothing to this extent.

Germán is another one that wonderfully breaks the mould of what to expect from a Makai Knight. Some of the knights in the previous shows have been known to crack a smile every so often, but on the whole they were a rather broody bunch. Germán on the other hand goes in completely the opposite direction - a suave, cocky womaniser that seemingly thinks more with his penis than his head. There's even an episode entirely dedicated to him having his clothes stolen and then running around Valiante naked! Whether this is a good thing or not is going to vary person to person (after all, it is a rather odd side story), but it adds a whole different element to the father/son relationship he has with León as well. If you want a more typical knight look no further than Alfonso who's definitely the more straight-laced one of the trio. Unfortunately this means that in terms of story and development he's probably the least interesting one. Other than Ema that is, who doesn't offer a whole lot to the story either outside of adding a Makai Priest into the mix.

On the other hand, the villain side of things aren't quite as impressive. Mendoza's backstory and long-game plan are rather interesting, but as a character doesn't strike a particularly notable chord.  His sudden disappearance halfway through the show is ridiculously abrupt too, with his sudden return toward the end lacking both the gravitas and context to make it a big deal.

"Like fire, Hellfire, This fire in my skin..."

I've made my opinion of the use of CGI-rendered models in anime abundantly clear in many reviews across this blog, so as you can probably expect I was rather disappointed to see the Makai armours rendered in a similar fashion here. Despite the added detail and faster movement they can provide, more often than not they just clash with the distinct aesthetic the show is going for. But the designs themselves are top notch stuff, especially León s initial "burning" Garo form. It's the most radical departure for the Golden armour yet, but still close enough to original for it not to simply feel like a totally different armour. The classic suit does make an appearance later (cleverly tying into León's journey to become a "true" Garo), but honestly his first one is the really memorable one.

Naturally animation allows for a lot more creativity than the limitations of live-action and costume design, and this is nicely realised and the weird and wonderful Horrors that turn up over the course of the series. From dinosaur like monstrosities to giant gates to oblivion, this anime was a great opportunity for the writers and designers to get inventive with their enemies. Unfortunately with Mendoza pulling the strings the Horrors more often than not played as straight monsters, but the there are still plenty of one-shot style stories that focus on a specific Horror. Of course, the usual black bat-like ones aren't too far behind and remind you that while this may be animated it's still Garo through and through. Along with a giant pair of breasts for the final fight, because it wouldn't be Garo without them.

One of the Horrors
Not the kind of Horror you'll see in the live-action version

Garo: The Animation is a bit of a slow burner to begin with, but if you get past those early episodes and the often-spotty animation then you'll be rewarded with one of the best character-driven Garo instalments yet. Discarding the archetypes set up by it's live-action counterpart, this is a wholly unique adventure that expands upon the existing Garo universe in a spectacular manner. The added level of continuity is one of it's biggest driving forces, allowing the cast to properly expand over the course of one set story rather than multiple one-shots that loosely contribute toward a finale. The One Who Shined in the Darkness proved that there was enough room for a second Garo timeline, and now this has proved that third isn't exactly a bad thing either.


Anonymous said...

FUN FACT! Did ya know: That the character designer of the series was HIRO aka Hiroyuki Takei, the author of the Shaman King series? That explains why the character designs look so appealing.

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