Thursday 3 May 2018

Anime Review: GARO: Vanishing Line

GARO: Vanishing Line
GARO: Vanishing Line is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

Over the past few years GARO has gained some real traction in regards to Western recognition, an achievement that's certainly partly thanks to its spinoff into animated media. No longer the niche franchise known only among the tokusatsu fanbase it once was, the GARO anime are simulcast, dubbed and (in the US at the very least) released on physical disc – with the live-action series now following suite thanks to a number of Blu-ray releases by Kraken-Releasing as well as streaming on Hi-Dive (again, unfortunately US only). Last year saw the franchise return for its third anime outing – GARO: Vanishing Line. Like previous shows The Carved Seal of Flames and The Crimson Moon, Vanishing Line is a completely standalone series – starring an all-new cast and moving the action to a modern city setting.


In the fictional American metropolis of Russell City, a young orphan girl named Sophie is searching for her missing brother. Her only clue to his whereabouts are the words "El Dorado", a clue that leads her to an encounter with the malevolent beings known as Horrors. She is subsequently rescued by a man named Sword, this era's Golden Knight and bearer of the Garo title. Believing that Sword may be key in helping her find her brother, Sophie begins to follow Sword – helping him in his mission to fight the Horrors. But little does she know that Sword's younger sister also went missing, with his only clue being the exact same words.

When Sophie is directly targeted by the King of El Dorado, the pair embarks on a journey to find the fabled place and the answers they are both searching for. Together with the Makai Alchemists Gina and Luke, the Golden Knight faces his toughest challenge yet.

A glowing GaroThe Horror, King

For those who are only familiar with GARO through the anime a series set in modern times is a brand new experience, but those who've followed the franchise from its live action roots will immediately feel right at home with Vanishing Line. GARO has always thrived on a distinct urban horror setting and this series is certainly no exception, it also leans into it more than ever. While there's always been an obviously intentional disconnect between the ancient Makai Order (which includes alchemists and literal knights in shining armour) and the landscape they protect, Vanishing Line's version of the Golden Knight feels considerably more modern in his ways. This Garo is hulking bruiser who the most part prefers to fight with his fists rather than a sword, with a Zaruba-powered motorcycle as his main means of transport rather than the more antiquated Madouba (Madou Horses). There's a definite sense of the writers trying to move this version of GARO more into the mould of "American action hero meets schlocky 80s anime OVA" which not only works brilliantly for the setting, but also helps it stand out against the many other iterations of franchise there's been over the years.

However Vanishing Line's true strengths lie in its characters, and just how well they all play off of each other. As previously stated Sword definitely has the aura of some sort of action hero – a big loveable lug of a man with an unstoppable appetite and a heart of gold. There are certain crass elements to his personality that some won't get along with (such as his "appreciate" of the female figure) but on the whole he's an extremely likeable protagonist who's already well-established in his role as the Golden Knight when we first meet him. Equally strong a lead is Sophie, who is perhaps the most capable and instantly likeable human lead the GARO franchise has ever had – which is no part thanks her being brought to life by the brilliant Rie Kugimiya. While Sophie may regularly to play the victim role she really is at the core of Vanishing Line's story, not only driving the narrative but also doing whatever she can to assist in Sword's work. The surrogate older brother relationship she has is charming, and by the end of the series she's become confident enough to stand against the Horrors even without any abilities of her own.


The same praise also applies to the show's supporting cast, which showcases two Makai Alchemists with very different personalities. Like Sword Gina is rather unfortunately light on back story, but continues the long tradition of GARO's ass-kicking female characters with a dash of femme fetale about her character. We don't hear much about her history with Sword, but their familiarity and interactions are enough to know that they go back a long way and have clear feelings for each other. Meanwhile Luke is in many ways the opposite of Sword – a reserved, calculating fighter that would rather stay in the shadows and conduct his work secretly. However other than Sophie it's perhaps he who has the most interesting development of all, as his involvement in the story has a particularly personal edge to it. Even Zaruba, a core element of the GARO franchise despite simply being a talking ring, feels more like a character here than ever before. As well as offering Sword his usual brand of snark, Zaruba acts in an almost mentor-like role to Sophie in certain areas – offering her solid advice and then later proving himself as a hero and valued member of the team.

Like most GARO series Vanishing Line kicks off with a number of standalone episodes that showcase a Horror of the week, which together slowly develop towards an ongoing storyline that takes centre stage in the latter half. These early episodes give the show a chance to play about with different scenarios that could lead to someone becoming a Horror, drawing from real-life situations such as domestic abuse and gang violence. When the show moves into its second half it then evolves in a road trip adventure, with Sword and Sophie (along with Gina) travelling across the desert to reach the neon utopia of El Dorado. As well as a welcome visual change the new scenery brings new episodic Horror opportunity and a great Max Max-style car chase, it's the larger story that brings it all together. Family ties are at the heart of Vanishing Line's story and manifest in many different ways. As well as Sophie and Sword's missing siblings it also plays a big part in Luke's development and through the new relationships Sophie forges with Sword, Gina and Luke. The villains and fight scenes remain just as over the top as ever, but there's an emotional weight behind the final stretch of episodes that succeed in making them far more potent.

ZarubaSophie and her brother

Those action scenes certainly aren't anything to scoff at though, as MAPPA really bring their A-game to create some truly unique and memorable GARO face-offs. These are where the motorcycle (and in Gina's case, muscle car) element truly shine, with several battles taking place at high speed velocity while utilising dizzying camerawork to remarkable effect. When things are slowed down the action remains just as interesting, thanks to Sword's brawler fighting style and gun-slinging Makai Alchemy trickery pulled off by both Luke and Gina. The animated medium also lets the show go to town when it comes to body horror, featuring copious amounts of violence and some fairly grotesque Horror sequences. Though perhaps not quite as ambitious as some of the creatures seen in previous GARO anime, Vanishing Line certainly takes the award for looking the slickest.

But as exhilarating at these fight sequences are, the visuals can often get lost among the blitz of high-speed choreography. Whether it's intentional or not, Vanishing Line seems to play far closer attention to the franchise's self-imposed 99.9 second armour time limit than the previous anime – which in itself is not a bad thing but does sometimes result in the show some of that distinct GARO identity. When the armour does make an appearance it usually comes and goes in the blink of an eye, which doesn't ever give you a chance to fully appreciate just how good it looks. Each iteration of the Garo armour has had its own unique intricacies and for some fans noticing those differences can be part of the appeal, but without carefully freeze-framing every scene it's almost impossible to see what makes Sword's armour unique other than the purple highlighted sections. It isn't until Sword receives his obligatory mid-series upgrade armour (something that’s clearly become a staple of the anime) that we get a really good look at the suit itself before Sword leaps into action. However once that's been done it's mostly back to business as usual. Annoyingly it isn't like this is a problem across the whole series either, as villain Knight's dark armour gets some beautiful establishing shots that show off its really unique features. While its absence may not detract from the quality of the show as a whole, a little more time dedicated to simply admiring the design work that went on here would have gone a long way.

Garo's mid season upgradeThe dark knight

It may have taken a little while to get there, but GARO: Vanishing Line easily proves to be the most consistent and enjoyable animated GARO entry yet. Though perhaps still a little rough round the edges in certain areas, it's extremely strong characters, engaging storyline and emphasis on family are more than enough carry it through. Vanishing Line also undoubtedly proves that the modern cityscape is where GARO is most at home, with the desert road trip element highlighting that there's still plenty of interesting things that can be done with that setting. Though the next GARO instalment will likely be a completely new one, with a Crimson Moon movie due later this year it's likely Vanishing Line will follow suit. This won't be the last we see of Sword, Sophie, Gina, Luke and the rest of the gang.

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