Friday, March 30, 2012

Anime Review: Ga-Rei Zero

Ga-Rei Zero is a 2008 anime prequel (As opposed to an adaptation) to the popular manga series Ga-Rei by Hajima Segawa. The cartoon was produced by AIC, the studio responsible for such classic anime as Green Legend Ran, Amitage III (Both among the first first anime I ever watched), Bastard!!, the Bubblegum Crisis series, the Burn-Up series and the Tenchi Muyo! series. It was dubbed by FUNimation Entertainment who brought it to North America in 2011. In the original broadcast it was advertised that this show would be a completely different story from the manga and featuring an all-new cast but that turned out to be a red-herring as the second episode firmly establishes it as a prequel story focusing on (From what I understand) the comic's secondary main character and initial villain before they were enemies. Or something. It's really hard to know for sure because Ga-Rei was never licensed in America. That's right; the anime spin-off has been brought to America but not the original source material manga. So, in a very real way, this anime is kind of pointless for us; it was almost certainly created to help bring more attention to the manga, or at least give readers better insight to certain key characters. However us Western viewers don't have any (legal) access to the comic so we don't get any of that. Thanks for nothing anime industry.

If you recall with our last anime review I mentioned I ended up watching three entire anime series back-to-back (Roughly eighteen hours) in one sitting, nearly driving myself insane in the process. This was the second of the three. As you may know I didn't exactly care for Demon King Daimao, so the question is did Ga-Rei Zero do anything to ease the pain.

Full review after the jump.

[WARNING: There are some spoilers here from very early on in the series (First two episodes).  If you would like to watch Ga-Rai Zero blind to capitalize on that fact do not read this article.  However I do not spoil the lot of the show so if you're cool with that full steam ahead]

The main cast, who go on to have several meaningful-JOSSED
Supernatural threats exist but are invisible to the normal human eye. Certain individuals are born with the ability to see such creatures (And technology has progressed in a way that allows the help with that as well) and in Japan there are several agencies set up to battle such creatures. One particularly eventful night several of these groups are wiped by a sudden surge of supernatural activity. By the time the Ministry, and their super-agent middle schooler/swordswoman Tsuchimiya Kagura, are dispatched they discover a horrible truth about the person responsible for the carnage. But our story truly begins three years earlier when Kagura lost her mother, a member of the Tsuchimiya Clan who special in battling evil. However an older girl, Isayama Yomi who is the heir to the Isayama Clan, offers the grieving young woman to stay with her family and become her adopted sister. From the two live together and battle the evil spirits throughout the city…that is until everything suddenly goes all wrong.

This show is very similarly in setting Kaze no Stigma. Both feature sword wielding schoolgirls who are heir to a clan of demon fighters (Or whatever) in a modern day urban setting. I think this is actually a pretty common set up in the world of Japanese fiction. Regardless Ga-Rei Zero utilizes it 1000% better. There’s a cool sense of danger mixed with tradition in what the characters are doing, a bit of modern age mixed with folklore; I dug it a lot. In Kaze no Stigma’s defense it suffered from terrible animation and an unlikable lead character (I said “defense”, right?) both which would easily distract from the world the creators were trying to build. Here those problems are non-existent. We’ll talk about characters in a minute. The animation was very well done here. The character designs can be a bit funky depending on whom we’re talking about but ultimately everything looked nice and pretty. This show obviously made better use of its animation budget than Demon King-Demon King-Demon King (Or whatever it’s called). The tone of the show is particularly involving. The show begins right out of left fielding but then quickly changes gears completely. Basically it manages to encompass a lot of different styles: silliness, sweetness and, eventually, bitter tragedy. I have to stress that last one again; it’s not often that anime messes with me emotionally but it’s a very rare day that it makes me want to cry. Gai-Rei Zero manages to get me in that why. If you want a show that is easy on the brain and easy on the heart strings then you’ll want to avoid this damn show. This is not a lighthearted affair despite the fact that at times it tricks you into thinking it is.

I love the two main characters though for different reason. As I mentioned in the intro Yomi and Kagura were both featured in the Ga-Rei manga so this anime was a really neat way to flesh out the two and explain what their connection was before the events to the main story. And the writers just run with it. If you were to force me to name my top five favorite anime in terms of character development I may have to put this show on that list because they do a lot in a short amount of time. Yomi, kind and confident, slowly has to deal with a series of out-of-her-control misfortunes that threaten to destroy everything she’s known. Kagura is forced to face a series of uncomfortable truths about her work, forcing her gentle personality to be at odds with her family tradition and responsibility. They change, mostly by force, to the point that when they are not the same people when the series ends compared to where they were when they when the story actually began. Which is fantastic.

It's like "Sister Sister" but with swords
And also good
Through it all their friendship is the glue that ties this show together. In fact this anime is, from that point of view, very similar to Gurren Lagaan in that the show has two protagonists that are absolutely essential to the story. And their friendship is really what will touch you the most in watching it, especially as we are pretty much told from the beginning how things will eventually turn out (But we don’t know “why”). Even when things are goofy it’s hard to get annoyed since we are well aware of the dark events that will eventually come to pass. It’s…emotionally draining. But in a good way.

This show came so close to being one of the best I’ve ever seen but, damn it, it has a pretty annoying flaw in its villains. There are two main villains: one I won’t say who but I can tell you that they were underutilized like crazy, probably due to the low episode count, and were gone way too fast. They really failed to fully realize what this person could have done as an enemy of the main characters. Actually now that I think about it this may have been the result of the show trying to have the main bad guy as the true threat which would have been fine…if that ever went anywhere! Basically all the bad shit that happens in this show is the result of some mysterious villain but we don’t learn anything tangible about him other than some hints, but those hints lack any substantial context. I’m pretty sure they never even say the guys’ name in the show (I could have missed it). In this case I’m 100% sure this was because he’s actually from the manga where he’s a major villain and the creators wanted to include him in the TV show without making his involvement obvious to the main cast so not to contradict anything from the comic. But the net result is we learn nothing about him or his motivation and don’t have anything sort of closure when it comes to his arc.

I prefer my villains to be un-characterized plot devices anyway
Luckily, and this is likely intentional, the focus on Yomi and Kagura is where the meat of the story truly lies. And it works for the most part. It’s just disappointing that we are left with a shit ton of unanswered questions at the end of the show. Had we been in Japan when watching this we could just say “Oh right, I’ll just go to the bookstore and continue this story with the manga.” Too bad that comic was never licensed in North America. Obviously this has been a huge pet peeve for me in the past since I feel a story needs to stand on its own and not supplemental material but again I must say that even without the answers the anime is extremely strong; much stronger than just about every other anime I’ve reviewed with the same issue. It’s a classic fall from grace tragedy that had me glued to the screen from beginning to end. While it just falls short of getting a perfect score I cannot recommend this series enough. This is one of the shows I will use as an example of why modern anime is indeed worth watching.

Swords and giant monsters?  What is it, my birthday?
I give Ga-Rei Zero 4 out of 5 Adorable Pandas


-Strong Female Lead(s)

-Great character development

-Pretty good animation

-Great setting and tone


 -The villains are severely underdeveloped, underutilized

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