Thursday 4 April 2024

Series REVIEW: GARO: Heir to Steel Armor

GARO: Heir to Steel Armor

In 2013 the GARO franchise took a surprising turn with the release of GARO: The One Who Shines in the Darkness – a series featuring a brand-new protagonist in the golden armour completely removed from previous entries. From there the story of Ryuga Dougai continued to grow, expanding into multiple series and films to truly become its own separate continuity. Ten years on from Ryuga's debut and GARO has marked the occasion with the next chapter in his story – GARO: Heir to Steel Armor (GARO: Hagane o Tsugu Mono). Heir to Steel Armor also marks the first time a live-action GARO series has been simulcast to worldwide audiences, releasing on the official GARO Youtube channel with English subtitles shortly after their Japanese broadcast.

Ryuga DougaiGaro, the Golden Knight

Now seemingly travelling alone, Ryuga Dougai continues his duties as the Golden Knight Garo. One night he is approached by the Makai Priestess Koyori, who asks him to come with her to the futuristic city of Creacity. Horror attacks have been increasing in Creacity due to the "The Gate of Destruction" – an ancient gate where it is said Horrors first appeared in the human realm. The gate is on the verge of opening once more, and catastrophe is looming.

In Creacity Ryuga meets Souma Shirohane, a Hagane Makai Knight who acts as the city's protector. Impulsive and hot-headed, Souma does not believe the city needs the Golden Knight's help. But as the Horror attacks continue to worsen, Souma begins to realise he cannot do it alone. Whilst working together to destroy the Gate of Destruction, Souma learns of Ryuga's relationship with his missing father Godou, as well as learning what it takes to overcome the darkness inside of him.

Souma ShirohaneKoyori

To address perhaps the main point of contention with the series first and foremost, for worldwide fans Heir to Steel Armor's biggest issue doesn't come from its content but rather its presentation. As suspected after the release of its first episode, while the worldwide simulcast of the show is a step in the right direction GARO has a long way to go before its on the same level as Ultraman. The subtitles are indeed an AI translation, giving you a basic understanding of the dialogue but becoming increasingly incomprehensible as the show progresses. GARO can be a particularly lore heavy franchise at times and while Heir to Steel Armor is fairly newcomer friendly, the nuance of an actual translator is required not to make all the terminology seem like a garbled mess. Most of the episodes have since been removed from YouTube as well, suggesting that access to the whole series was only limited to when the series was airing. So while an official release should definitely be taken as a positive, unfortunately for a good experience with this series fansubs are still the best way forward.

When we were first introduced to Ryuga Dougai back in 2013 he was a very different Golden Knight to Kouga Saejima. Whereas Kouga was a stoic man who took his role very seriously and warmed up through his relationship with Kaoru, Ryuga was almost the opposite – a man with a cheery exterior, but a darker past that saw him walk away from the Order and use the armour in an impure state. Over his adventures we saw Ryuga grow into the role of the Golden Knight, putting the past behind him to re-join the Order and restore the armour's shine. Heir to Steel Armor introduces to an even more experienced Ryuga, one who's seemingly become the archetype Golden Knight and greatly matured from his years of experience. He commands the respect of knights and priests alike, displaying great wisdom and leadership skills. Yet despite all this the show doesn't forget Ryuga's roots either, with his ability to channel darkness through the Garo armour still a defining part of his skillset. Overall it's a fantastic return for the character, to the point where it's hard to see where to take him from here should he ever return. Though not strictly presented as such, Ryuga's closing words almost feel like a passing of the torch to a younger generation – signalling that while his legend may continue there's also plenty of scope for the franchise to continue on without him.

Ryuga, Souma, Koyori and MutsugiThe Garo and Hagane armours

But even though this shift in Ryuga's character is a great way of highlighting the growth he's had over the years, the fact he is the only one returning (other than Zaruba that is) prevents the series from being a true celebration of his story. Whilst its fair to say Tsunenori Aoki and Junya Ikeda won't be reprising their roles as Aguri and Takeru any time soon, Makai Priestess Rian has been such a big part of Ryuga's story that Miki Nanri's absence is definitely felt. Appearing alongside him since the very beginning, the fact they came as a team as something that really made the pair stand out. A touching little scene in the show's final moments are nice assurance that she hasn't been forgotten, but their apparent separation is something that could (and should) have been worked into the story to give them both some proper closure should this prove to be the last we see of Ryuga.

In her place Heir to Steel Armor introduces us to a whole selection of brand new characters, some of whom the show is about just as much as it is Ryuga (if not more so). At this point Souma is the perfect foil to Ryuga, in some ways mirroring the man he used to be - brash, impulsive and carrying a darkness inside of him. The disappearance of his father combined with his inability to master the ‘Flash Sword Dance’ (an instant kill attack created by Godou) has given him an inferiority complex, which he only really begins to properly work through after meeting the Golden Knight. Standing by his side is Koyori - an apprentice Makai Priestess and childhood friend to Souma. The two share a relationship very similar to that of Ryuga and Rian, with Koyori concerned for his wellbeing and mental state despite him pushing her a way. The two have a good dynamic that only continues to grow as Souma works through his issues, allowing for plenty of scope for the two to return in another Makai Tales-style anthology series or even their own mini-series.

Ron, Igusu and ObiGodou Shirohane

The series also features several other key characters that help to build up the Makai Order within Creacity. In addition to Koyomi there’s also her mentor Mutsugi, who leads the coven within the city and plays an pivotal role as the backstory behind the disappearance of Godou and the resurgence of the Gate of Darkness is revealed. Heir to Steel Armor also brings three other Hagane Makai Knights into the fold - Igusu, Ron and Obi (the latter played by Kamen Rider Ghost’s Shun Nishime). Though not quite as essential to the story as the main quartet of Ryuga, Souma, Koyomi and Mutsugi, their presence in the story is far from wasted. The showcasing of Hagane Knights (those that don’t bear a distinct title like Garo, Zero etc.) also helps to establish a clearer hierarchy within the Makai Order, creating a new a brand new element with again plenty that could be explored in future offerings.

Unfortunately at only 12 episodes long (roughly half the length of both The One Who Shines in the Darkness and Gold Storm -Sho-), Heir to the Steel Armor has to tell a much more condensed story than its predecessors. It wastes no time in establishing both the setting and key characters, promoting Souma’s internal and external conflicts and the Gate of Destruction mystery above more episodic adventures to lay out a feel for the series. Though the crux of that main storyline is pretty standard GARO fare and thus quite predictable in places, it's the strengths of the characters and the relationships between them that makes it work. It also finds a good villain in the form of the Seducer, the spirit of an ancient Horror that can both grant great power and corrupt in the form of the “Forbidden Fruit”.

The Kazamatsuri HorrorThe Seducer

Straightforward as it may be Heir to Steel Armor does do well on the overarching story front, but in lacking is that episodic horror it also cuts itself off from what often results in GARO's most memorable storytelling. Truth be told the Ryuga-verse has always preferred this format to the Saejima-verse (which usually opts for a number of self-contained stories before moving onto a larger plot thread in its second half), and with only 12 episodes to play with there isn’t a whole lot of time to devote to it. But the show exhibits some strong Horrors in its early stages that feel like they could have been the driving force of their respective episodes, as opposed to the background to the Gate of Destruction storyline. One great example of this is an office building that's become a hive of Horrors, with Toshiki Kashu (of Kamen Rider Agito fame) guest-starring as their leader. It's a fun little set-up that provides plenty of action, but doesn’t feel like the centrepiece it could have been had the show had time to explore Creacity more before jumping into the main action.

However the main aspect of the show that really signals a grand return for the franchise are the visuals. Unlike the Keito Amemiya-led Saejima-verse series, the Ryuga-verse side of GARO has previously leaned far more towards the CGI side of modern tokusatsu filmmaking. Whilst still featuring plenty of fantastic swordplay and fight choreography, the Horrors and armours were more often than not CG creations that didn’t quite have the polish of physical suits. Heir to Steel Armor bucks that trend with a greater emphasis on practical effects and suits - making this among the best the Ryuga series have ever looked. Naturally this results in a more sparing use of the armours, but with the reasons for that already built into the franchise lore (as well as plenty of fantastic out-of-suit sword fights) it doesn’t feel like too big of a loss. Every moment the armours are on screen it's a spectacle, with both the Garo and Zango (Godou’s Knight form) armours ornately standing apart from the mass-produced Hagane armours. The Horror costumes also look great - not quite capturing the grotesqueness of some of Amemiya’s offerings but certainly matching them when it comes to the surreal. The fight choreography is just as great as ever, and some key moments of violence show that GARO hasn’t lost its more bloodthirsty edge without getting too over the top with it.

ZangoGaro Yami

GARO: Heir to Steel Armor is a great return to form for the franchise, celebrating ten years of Ryuga Dougai with a story that feels true to his era whilst also showcasing the growth the character has had over the past decade. While the absence of Rian does dampen the celebration somewhat, the show is able to find plenty of strength in its new cast members – to the point where the likes of Soma and Koyori could easily carry their own adventures going forward. Though not strictly a last hurrah, Heir to Steel Armor feels like a satisfying end point for Ryuga's story and should the franchise continue to flourish it would be great to see a new hero take on the Golden Knight mantle the same way he once did.


M said...

Are you going to do a review of 555 20th: Paradise Regained? Also, Geats V-Cinema is also subbed now

Alex said...

I am going to do Paradise Regained, but I'm holding off until either Special or Complete editions are released/subbed.

Last Haven Media said...

Glad you liked this one, but I was pretty disappointed. Souma got so much focus that Ryuga felt like a side character in his own show. It didn't help that Souma was unlikable for the first three quarters. I'm okay with another character taking the mantle as long as it's not Souma.

Klom89 said...

I....honestly found this season really boring. I liked the premise of this being about the Haganes and the idea of Ryuga being a mentor isn't a bad one, but rather than do anything with all that, the season either constantly points at Souma and goes "look how sad he is" to such a degree that the first half of the show is dead air or mimics other seasons' story-beats. I'm kinda getting sick of Garo having spent the past five years chasing this need to deconstruct itself and add twist-villains to everything. The whole season felt phoned-in; like it was following obligatory beats and playing itself safe. Maybe it comes off unreasonable from me given this is the first proper entry we've gotten that isn't a gimmick after years of pachinko hell, but they held back WAY too much with this one.