You know there’s a sort of irony to the fact that my favorite anime of the past two seasons happens to be the one that nobody likes all that much. Actually, scratch that, they didn’t pay attention to it at all when it aired, which I find kind of weird. I know Rage of Bahamut looked prettier and had the more bombastic start guys, but that doesn’t mean you should just flat-out ignore Mappa’s other fantasy show because it had sex, theatrical drama, and CG fights that look too busy at times but were otherwise well-choreographed and…no seriously, why did people ignore this show? Are anime fans just so used to the medium having to be “kawaii moe uguu” or “porn-star level flamboyant” that the mere notion of “cool” gives them hives? Do we accept that every cartoon from Japan trying to recapture the essence of Tenchi Muyo is the rule now? I thought there was a reason the noitamina timeslot was so loved by a fair amount of people.
Well whatever. It’s not like I expected much from Garo when I first read about it other than “it’s a Mappa show not directed by Watanabe, so I’m hoping it to be good and establish Mappa as an animation studio I can trust”. And like most people going into this, I never watched the original live-action stuff. I did know it had a lot of sex and violence for a tokusatsu series – sometimes to the realm of the absurd – but that’s about it. Plus, I read beforehand that the anime would be different from the live-action stuff, which did not sit well with the hardcore tokusatsu fans apparently, but let’s not dwell on that. So I went into the show expecting a solid series and lo and behold, I got what is possibly the “coolest” anime I have ever seen in the medium.
It’s kind of weird to praise an anime for being “cool” considering how subjective the term can be. I mean when you get down to it, isn’t Jojo cool? Isn’t Rage of Bahamut cool? Isn’t Gurren Lagann cool? Well you can argue that, but the coolness in this show stands out to me all the more because it has none of the flamboyancies and anime-isms that make up a good chunk of those shows. Make no mistake, whilst there are some stereotypes like the male tsundere and the aloof-but-well meaning father, this is an anime for people who have hobbies outside of being otaku. It does have its share of light-hearted moments to prevent itself from becoming as impenetrable as Mamoru Oshii when he makes something after reading emo poetry, but you’re not going to see people screaming their attack names like a teenager with the mind of a ten-year-old or spouting one-liners that James Bond would find embarrassing. You’re going to see these characters take the silliness of the their CG outfits 100% seriously whilst taking part in battles that are guaranteed to end in blood.
But what good is coolness without substance? Well the anime takes place in a fantasy world where a group of demonic beings called Horrors exist and the only people who can stop them are a group of armor/magic-users called Makai Knights/Alchemists. However, seventeen years ago, said group of people were given the Order 66 treatment by the king of Valiante due to manipulation by his treacherous advisor, and now the few that remain are scattered throughout the world, continuing to protect the people whilst trying to avoid getting killed by them. The series is centered on an angsty kid named Leon, a Makai Knight-in-training who has a hard time living up to the requirements of protecting the people due to his recklessness and his constant anger at his father being a deadbeat. This causes him problems when he ends up getting roped into the events started by said Order 66 conspiracy, and in order to fight it, he must learn how to fully harness his powers with the aid of the Valiante prince named Alfonso, a Makai Alchemist named Ema, and his father/teacher named Hermann. It’s pretty much your typical underdog/dark fantasy story with all the “unexpected for anime, but expected for the genre” twists and turns, so there’s not much I can really say about it without spoiling plot points.
So why exactly do I like this anime so much if the story is kinda predictable? Is coolness really enough to elevate the material? Well, according to you Rage of Bahamut fans, yes it is. But what is it about Garo’s coolness that I personally find appealing? Well, I’ve mentioned how I like the execution of its serious tone before, and there’s not really much else I can say besides how much I like the Horror designs and how I orgasmed over the fact that one of the villains has a gun for a leg. The show just fulfills what I want from anime in general in terms of tone, episodic-storytelling, character interactions, good action, and high drama, and that’s not something I can really rationalize on paper. It’s obviously not perfect – the villains aren’t that great, one or two of the episodic stories are kind of phoned in, and the animation can be really crappy at times. I know Bahamut needed the budget more since its writing is more simplistic and the episodes when said production took a dive were kind of a chore to sit through, but I’m still going to complain about the characters’ faces looking like they got pressed with a sledgehammer when I see it. But those are niggling doubts in terms of everything else this show gets right.
It’s just really great epic drama about heroes and the sacrifices they must make in terms of their occupation. I like the way it’s paced in terms of its usage of the monster-of-the-week format to established plot points. I like the way it’s told without ever getting too corny with its cliches. I even like when the atmosphere gets a little metal – and I usually point my shotgun at that genre when it so much as breathe the same air I do. But most of all, I just like how it’s so fucking cool in a way Jojo can only dream of being. In a medium burdened with anime-isms ruining what could have been decent stories, Garo came out of nowhere and surprised me more than the news that Jon Stewart was retiring from the Daily Show, and that is no small feat given how shocking said news was to me when I saw that episode.
Garo is obviously not for everyone – I mean people wouldn’t have ignored it like they have if it was. However, I had a lot of fun watching this show, I am convinced that it is the best show of its season (shut up *you know what anime I’m referring to* fans) and I am eagerly looking forward to the sequel series and movie…whenever those come out. Hopefully it’s soon. I mean I’m in no hurry, but given how sequels that take a long to come out usually turn out (looking at you, Durarara!!x2), I think I’d like more Garo sooner rather than later.
PS: I should probably give the most recent Hajime no Ippo another shot, shouldn’t I?