Friday 12 May 2017

Movie REVIEW: GARO: Divine Flame

GARO: Divine Flame

While the GARO franchise has grown exponentially in the last few years, the anime side of things seems to have been met to a more mixed reception than the tokusatsu elements. The Carved Seal of Flames (released in the West simply as GARO: The Animation) got off to a slow start but eventually developed into a very strong series, however the second instalment - The Crimson Moon, failed to match its the worst of its predecessor even when it was at its best. However following the conclusion of Crimson Moon the cast of the original series returned once more in GARO: Divine Flame - a feature film once again animated by studio MAPPA and released as part of the franchise's 10th anniversary celebrations.

Leon LuisSara as a Horror

Taking place five years after the series finale, Leon Luis continues his duties as the Golden Knight while his cousin Alfonso helps rebuild Valiante to its former glory. In this time Ximena also gave birth to her son Roberto, who Leon is training to follow in his father's footsteps as the next Zoro. After being summoned by Garm, Leon and Alfonso learn that Zirkel's Ring, the Makai Tool previously developed by Mendoza, has fallen into the hands of a Horror located in the fallen Vazelia Kingdom.

As the two leave to investigate Roberto is kidnapped by a mysterious group of Horrors, and when Leon gives chase he is aided by Dario Montoya, the Makai Knight Zem who was thought to have disappeared. Garm had promised Leon and Alfonso help, but things are further complicated with the reappearance of Germán - resurrected by the watchdog to aid them in their mission. If Leon's father was the help that was promised, who is Zem and how is he connected with both the Horror and Roberto's kidnapping?

Alfonso & RobertoDario Montoya

Five years may seem like a fairly sizeable time skip but little has changed since we last saw these characters, other than that Leon has now confidently settled into his role as the Golden Knight. With his hot-headed past behind him, Leon now stands on similar ground to that of the various other characters that have held the mantle over the past decade - but it isn’t completely gone to the point that he doesn’t feel unique any more. Alfonso is still his more level-headed opposite, working diligently to rebuild his fallen kingdom but not so hard that he’s against sneaking away from the castle every now and then. Ema’s back in tow too, and she’s just as badass as ever. The big “surprise” here though is the resurrection of Germán, which is thankfully a one-time deal so not to completely ruin the impact of his death. But given how integral Roberto is to the plot it was a good decision to bring the character back, and his personal stake in the mission puts an interesting spin on his relationship with Leon. Whereas before Leon was the one consumed by vengeance, here it’s Germán as the more impulsive one – battling not only to save the son he’s never met but also against the clock to save himself.

Divine Flame also introduces a handful of new characters, with five-year-old Roberto front and centre. Cutesy child characters aren’t exactly the norm for GARO, but introducing one adds a certain innocence that’s usually lost in this usually stone-faced franchise. It also thrusts Leon into this new big brother/mentor type role, eager to have him follow in his father’s footsteps but not have him fall victim to the same mistakes Leon made in his training. There’s always been a big familial aspect to the Carved Seal of Flames universe, but this added dynamic really brings it all together.

EmaGermán Luis

Against our motley crew of Makai Knights you have Dario/Zem, whose motivations aren’t particularly unique but work well enough in the context of the film. His unflinching dedication to the long-dead Sara makes a good foil to Germán’s situation, who continues to show the same sort of dedication to his family even in death. Sara doesn’t offer all that much as human outside of a tragic back story, but her Horror persona is GARO terror at its very best (as well as a sensible use of female nudity for once). The idea of scarred beauty turned into a nightmarish succubus is such a basic one, but works so well for GARO and is visualised beautifully. The film’s opening sequence, where the Horror consume a pair of unsuspecting victims, sets the tone perfectly when it comes to the level of adult content fans have come to expect from the franchise.

The trouble with the live-action GARO series is the limitations on in-suit action, but the beauty of animation is that Divine Flame has no such restrictions. MAPPA have pushed the fight scenes to their very limits, with each one proving more incredible than the last. Generic Horror skirmishes give way to midair and horseback battles, before in true GARO fashion Leon unveils a new absurdly powerful form for the film’s climax. Not only are the fight sequences far more impressive, but the character models themselves have received similar treatment – adopting a stylised cel-shaded look that blends in far better with the equally-sharp scenery. Long-time GARO fans will also appreciate the franchise-wide tropes the film ticks off, such as Leon’s debut scene seeing him face off against a not-so-helpless assault victim. And of course, you can always rely on a great JAM Project theme song to be thrown in for good measure.

Garo battles ZemGaro's newest power up

GARO: Divine Flame isn't just the perfect epilogue to The Carved Seal of Flames - it completely defies expectation to be one of the strongest instalments of the GARO franchise as a whole. The story of Leon, Germán, Alfonso and company is continued in excellent fashion, combining the strong characterisation the series itself developed in its latter half with the slick visuals a movie budget can deliver. Though the poor reception of The Crimson Moon may have left the anime side of GARO in a precarious position, Divine Flame illustrates both the brilliance and potential this franchise has as an animated medium.


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