Friday 8 July 2016

Special REVIEW: Garo: Ashura

Garo: Ashura

Garo: Makai Retsuden may have ended, but the tenth anniversary celebration of the GARO franchise isn’t over and done with just yet. Sandwiched between the aforementioned side character series and a HD remastering of the original series is a curious one-off TV special that goes by the name of Garo: Ashura. What makes it particularly curious is the fact that it is a collaboration with New Japan Pro Wrestling, with wrestlers Hiroshi Tanahashi and Togi Makabe starring in the lead roles. Outside of his wrestling career, toku fans might also recognise Tanahashi from his appearance in the Kamen Rider Wizard “Life is Show Time” music video back in 2013.

Japan's answer to WWE Meets Scooby Doo

Garo: Ashura features the return of Kaoru Mitsuki, as she tells a young Raiga Saejima a bed time story about a version of the golden knight from centuries ago named Gouki (Tanahashi). Injured in a fight against a Horror, Gouki is nursed back to health by Ren and her two brothers, Shin and Taku. Shin is initially wary of Gouki as he carries a sword, the knight tries to show the boy that he isn’t the monster Shin thinks he is. When Ren is kidnapped by another Horror (Makabe), it’s up to Gouki to rescue her – however this is something he can only do with the hopes and faith of his new friends.

A 25-minute standalone special is never going to break new ground in terms of story-telling, and so Garo: Ashura wisely goes for a simple story with very clear morals at the end of it. A lack of complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially with the knowledge that this is a story a mother is telling her child and so would be presented in a simple and understandable fashion. Similarly the characters don’t have a whole lot to them in the way of depth, but all serve their purpose well. Gouki makes for a pretty interesting iteration of Garo – bigger and gruffer than what we’ve seen in the past but behind that calm and gentle. Makabe also puts up a wonderfully hammy performance, making his Horror all the more memorable. Of course for long-time fans the real treat is seeing Kaoru back, as this special begins to scratch the surface of Raiga’s upbringing and Kouga/Kaoru’s relationship post Soukoku no Maryu. Here’s hoping this is only the start of things to come.

Ren, Shin and Taku
A friend to all the children

The bedtime story framing perfectly suits Ashura’s unique aesthetic, which sees the cast acting against either illustrated or CGI backdrops. This isn’t the first time GARO has done this, but it is perhaps the time it has worked the best. The colourful painted landscapes are a great contrast to the CGI Horror castle where the latter half of the special takes place, marking a tonal shift as things head toward the action. Used repeatedly in a full series this aesthetic would perhaps seem cheap or distracting, but as a one-off it displays a sense of imagination and experimentation that Retsuden was mostly lacking.

Togi Makebe as a Horror
Another addition to the club of wonderfully hammy Horrors

With the primary cast including wrestlers one might think that Ashura would feature some rather interesting fight scenes, but surprisingly there isn’t a whole lot here in the way of choreographed sequences. Instead the untransformed fighting is minimal and sluggish, simply acting as a passable introduction to the main event. It isn’t until the transformations break out and things go CGI that things start to get really impressive. One of the biggest criticisms of Retsuden was the absence of full armour fight scenes, but in contrast Ashura fully embraces it – producing in turn an energy that hasn’t been seen in GARO for quite some time. Things only get more heated as Gouki’s version of the golden knight receives his own powered-up form, providing even more spectacle and cementing Ashura as a piece of GARO fiction that shouldn’t be so easily overlooked.

And if the appearance of Kaoru and a child Raiga wasn’t enough to tickle your GARO nostalgia, the end credits feature a montage of the various “end of series power ups” from across the franchise set to none other than JAM Project’s "Saviour in the Dark". The combination of these clips and what is arguably the most well-known (and best) song from GARO make a perfect little 10th anniversary tribute, as well as acting as some nicely-timed hype building for the HD remaster of the original. 

Kaoru and Raiga
Truly an anniversary

When it was first announced that GARO would be teaming up with New Japan Pro Wrestling I can’t say I honestly thought much of it. However Garo: Ashura is a special that completely shattered any low expectations I held, proving itself in its measly running time to be better than nearly all of Garo: Retsuden. On the surface it might not offer much in the way of character development or a complex plot, but it’s a beautifully crafted special that both expands the GARO mythos and celebrates its ten year history. Those that felt Retsuden was lacking in armoured-action should look towards this for an enjoyable fix as we wait for the latest instalment to roll around.

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