Friday 3 July 2020

Series REVIEW: GARO: Versus Road

Garo: Versus Road

A franchise’s longevity often depends on just how well it can reinvent itself. Over the past decade and a half GARO has spread itself across multiple mediums and timelines, all unified by the appearance of the titular golden armour and the malevolent dark karma creatures known as Horrors. And in the year of its 15th anniversary, GARO: Versus Road has done it again. A brand new chapter in the GARO legacy, Versus Road brings in new characters and a brand new setting - one that seems very different to what has come before.

The Ultimate PrizeA Horror Watches On

Garo: Versus Road - an advanced VR game where 100 players compete for the ultimate prize. As well receiving the title of Garo and the game’s golden armour, advancing through the game will also make the players’ wildest dreams come true. To do so though, they’ll have to face off against each other and ferocious cybernetic Horrors that stalk them at every turn.

Sena Kuon, Hoshiai Shouri, Nagumo Taisuke, Amou Ryuosuke Amou, Kouzuki Takane, Kanata Dai, Hyuga Ren. These are just some of the players fighting for their lives in Versus Road. Death in the game means death in reality, making it a race against time to reach the end and discover the truth behind the mysterious golden armour.

Kuon and HoshiaiWelcome to Versus Road

In the past decade or so Japan has seen a huge boom in the Isekai (“Different World”) genre, with game-based franchises like Sword Art Online right at the forefront of it. As such it is was only a matter of time before some tokusatsu property got in on the action, but GARO probably wasn’t the one that everyone was expecting. Versus Road takes what is quickly becoming a rather uninspired premise and throws in a healthy dose of Battle Royale brutality, creating something befitting of its darker tone. While it may not really do anything original with these tropes, it’s draw instead lies in how it’s able to use them to pervert the expectations of long-time GARO fans. To call Versus Road a deconstruction might be overselling the idea a bit, but it does attempt the shatter the pieces of Makai lore the series has built over the years - rebuilding them a way that’s unexpected yet intrinsically GARO. 

The main thing that separates Versus Road from previous seasons is that this one almost exclusively deals with “normal” people rather than those already versed in the Makai realm. Whilst the audience is gradually reacquainted with more familiar territory later on, the characters themselves are completely detached from it. They are looking at it from a completely new understanding, while that portion of the audience already familiar with GARO is in a similar position by having their expectations challenged.The series impressively keeps its cards close to its chest, and its only in the final quarter (and a well-times prologue episode) that the pieces begin to come together. This isn’t just an important factor for the storytelling of Versus Road though, it’s also integral to its story. Becoming Garo isn’t about heritage, skill or the tools at your disposal - worthiness is determined by one’s person. 

Vlogger NagumoAmou and Kanata

Kuon may be the "hero" we primarily follow over the course of the series, but it call it simply his story would be doing the other characters a massive disservice. Though the aim of the game is to win and ultimately claim the title of Garo, the armour itself is but a tiny fraction of the series – so much so that the suit action is entirely contained within the final episode. Instead Versus Road is an ensemble piece, looking at a specific group of players in greater detail – how they interact with each other, and more significantly how their backgrounds influence the way they play the game. Though they're all fighting to win, they all fight for very different reasons. So whilst Kuon and Hoshiai occupy the space of more conventional protagonists, there's also plenty of room for other types of character to be just as vital. Whether it vlogger Nagumo's hunt to expose the truth of the game, the kinship and rivalry Amou and Kanata share through their fists, the violent yet ultimately tragic Takane or the straightforward sadism of Hyuga Ren, Versus Road isn’t short on diverse characters.

At a mere 12 episodes long there simply isn't enough time to fully flesh these characters within the narrative itself, but Versus Road gets around this by letting its fists do the talking a lot of time. Versus Road's story is very much a visual one, and it's far easier to get a sense of the characters' personalities and state of mind from the way they fight. These moments, sometimes interspersed with brief flashbacks with minimal dialogue, are enough to give a good sense of who they are and how they've come to be the way they are. A typical GARO series will present the audience with a victim of the week that's eventually consumed by negative karma, but the time we spend with them is brief. Here, those characters that would usually become Horrors have become major players instead. The game feeds off their negative karma, exposing the monsters humans often are in a way that's far more to the point that GARO's usual route of demonic transformations.

Versus Road is certainly a series of surprises, and perhaps one of the biggest ones of all is to find out the true mastermind behind the game. Corruption within the Makai Order isn't a new concept for the series nor is it a particularly novel one, but the slow build up in properly revealing Hagiri is the element that truly breaks down any previous notions of how GARO works. The prologue episode is especially enlightening in showing just how the supposed values they uphold can be so twisted and easily corrupted. In comparison his partner Azami is a far more generic villain, simply portrayed as a chaotic evil with little development to back it up. It feels like a waste, but the open-ended nature of the show's finale does suggest we might not be quite done with her just yet. 

Kouzuki TakaneHagiri and Azami

So with a lot of the show's emotion being conveyed through the fight sequences, it shouldn't be any surprise to hear that Versus Road has possibly the strongest choreography of any GARO series yet. Not to say that previous entries haven't dazzled with their wirework and swordplay, but there's a real rawness to the fights here that only accentuates just how brutal this all is. The level of violence (as well as other scenes that may be triggering to some) can often make Versus Road a difficult watch, but how the show uses violence to carry across its main themes has an almost poetic quality to it. The fact it can effortless jump between carefully choreographed martial arts or street fighting sequences to blood-soaked brawls with all manner of weapons also means that the fighting never gets stale either. Directors Ayabe Shinya, Nagae Jirou, Taguchi Kei and the rest of the stunt team have crafted something relentlessly visceral, but isn't violent simply for violence's sake.

The penultimate episode, in which the final four players are left to battle it out until only one walks away, is so powerful that it almost makes the long-awaited arrival of Garo almost a step down by comparison. For all its strengths GARO's CGI has never been brilliantly, so a CGI beat down doesn’t quite have the same impact no matter how flashy it may be. The video game-like graphics certainly lend themselves much better to Versus Road though given its setting, and it still delivers a thrilling finale that feels earned given the lack of suited action during the rest of the series. The golden armour's drastic new look, featuring smoother polygonal textures and neon blue highlights, might prove controversial among traditionalists but again finds its place within the setting. Arguably a bigger triumph here are the Horrors, which takes the generic bat-like silhouette seen throughout the franchise and transforms them in the cybernetic guardians of the twisted game. Combined with their invulnerability it injects brand new terror into the creatures, illustrating just how unprepared these people are to face even the most basic of Horrors. 

A taste of the violenceGaro transformed

With its brutality, strong subject matter and how differently it approaches the subject matter GARO: Versus Road won’t be for everyone. However that reinvention is clearly exactly what the franchise needed, as this is easily the most unique entry since the original series and the only one that’s come close to recapturing that same dark sense of mystery. It’s both unrelenting and visceral, yet at the same time captivating in a way that makes it difficult to tear your eyes away from the screen. To barely put your armoured hero in a franchise that’s prominently featured said armoured hero takes some guts, and Versus Road’s gamble definitely paid off.


M said...

Even tough I liked Versus Road, I think it's the weakest Live-Action Garo Show for me. I liked Makai no Hana more, which for me, was the weakest show until now.

Chengkeng said...

This was okay, the story was kind of off. But the ending was not as what we expect. The characters was really likable. I would rate this series 2.5 out of 5

Stephen Cassat said...

I liked this show. Although the CGI Final Battle was a little lackluster, I still enjoyed it. I would give it a 4/5.