I am going to try something new, reviewing anime series as I watch them. Now, I am a little old to be an otaku, but I do like some of the stuff that is coming out as anime these days, keeping in mind that the quality distribution fits Sturgeon’s Law. If a new US release pops up on my RSS radar, I’ll take a look at what the usual sites are saying about it, then do a quick check on the Wiki and Amazon. If it looks interesting, I’ll stick it on my shopping list on Amazon. Since one episode of a series (minus the intro and credits) runs about twenty minutes or so, it’s a perfect thing to watch while I jog on my third hand treadmill, AKA The Imperial Walker. If I think I have something to say about it, I will post it here, and maybe review it on Amazon.
In general, I won’t go into any of the meta-stuff, on publishing history and who voiced the US version and the like. Go look it up. I will give a plot summary and some commentary. Both will be riddled with spoilers. Many of the anime I have watched follow a similar story arc: We meet the lead character, a normal person living a normal life (often despite a tragic backstory, which explains why they are living alone in a house, despite being in their middle teens). Something untoward happens to him/her, and they drop into the genre. The episodes run along for a while in X of the Week form, where X is the genre (monster of the week, crime of the week, battle of the week…etc). Midway, hints get dropped that there’s a subplot lurking about. These hints get stronger and stronger, until the subplot takes over for the last few episodes. The final episode usually takes another 90 degree turn and we have the final denouement. What’s interesting about a series, of course, is the subplot, but revealing that is a major spoiler. I plan to reveal, early and often. As a public service, I’ll put up a warning first.
My first stab at this is Red Garden, a high-school-horror flick. The demographic it’s aimed at is josei, or late-teen/adult women. And, I guess, me.
Strange and horrible things are happening in New York City, right under our noses, and most of us never find out. Those who do, often die. Five high school girls encountered the horror, and died. That’s not what this anime is about. It’s about what they did afterwards.
Before we get into the spoilers, let me say that, overall, I liked this. It’s above average in concept, in character development, in dialogue. I plan to watch it again. I plan to give it to my friends. It features a group of sane girls trying to cope with insane personal disaster. It’s their story, and so we are spared the gormless, constantly embarrassed male co-star, or the loud and bratty little sister, or the overly moe pet. It’s surprisingly quiet. Yes, there’s too much shouting during the fight scenes, and some of the secondary characters can be accused of overacting, but it’s not one of those anime where everyone teeters on the brink of adrenalin exhaustion. Each of the characters is a unique individual, and is believable, even when their circumstances aren’t. Rose, for example, fighting to keep her family together and care for her younger siblings, with her mother in the hospital and her father run off, and no sign of NYC Family Services. I went to high school with their equivalents, or college. I know exactly which actress I’d pick to fill each of their roles. The anime is about personal growth and character development, but it doesn’t rub it in your face, the way some do.
Minor spoiler plot summary: The plot is as strange as any other anime. Five HS girls, most of them casual acquaintances at an upper-class HS in NYC, are killed by one of a pair of warring clans. The other clan steals the corpses and builds New Bodies for them. The first clan steals one of the New Body girls back. This all happens in one immemorable night.
Why is this happening? Well, you see, the feud is centuries old, because one clan stole one of the others books. It’s a book of spells and they only had the two. The first clan (the killing/stealing back clan) has been cursed such that they change into monsters (think human werewolf in a suit) and all their women die. This was done by the second clan, who are apparently all women. The men’s clan (the Dolore) needs a New Body Girl to experiment on to see if they can overcome the curse. The women’s clan (the Animus) is dedicated to killing the monsters as they appear (this is the task assigned the New Body Girls), and trying to get their book back. If you squint and suspend your disbelief, this won’t sound so much like it was thought up by Terry Pratchett.
The girls are of widely differing character: Rose is an innocent working class girl trying to care for her younger siblings; Rachel is a party-going fashionista; Claire is a tough young woman making her own way despite her rich father; and Kate is a straight-laced honors student. They have little in common, but finally bond as a team and carry the fight on to the disastrous finish.
Major Spoiler Alert, all the way down:
That said, there’s plenty of plot holes, and your disbelief has to be hanged, not just suspended. We never find out why the girls were enticed to the old house in the first place, nor why they were killed, or why they were left. Was it all a plot to get one New Body? If they were recruited by the Animus to fight the other clan, why weren’t they trained to fight? Why weren’t they given better (i.e. any) weapons? Why do they keep going off to fight wearing school cloths, or party clothes. Doesn’t any of them own a sweatsuit? Then there’s the Dolore pharmaceutical company, with their inept experiments. If the drug side of the operation is run the same way as their attempt to preserve a breeding stock, it’s a wonder we’re not all dead. What’s the purpose of the red flowers and the butterflies? Wouldn’t a cell phone do as well? Or a pager? What happened to the seed the girls planted at the cemetery? Why do the old New Bodied women die and dust when the curse is lifted, but Our Girls just fall asleep, and wake up immortal but without memories. These kind of gaps run all through the program. If you are the kind of person who can just say “anime magic” and ignore them, you will like the series. If not, you will have trouble not shouting at the screen.
In the end, the girls come to terms with their future, understand that they will be remembered (even though they won’t remember), and win through to a hollow victory. Everybody dies. On both sides. Except them. The school and its island are covered in a Red Garden of flowers, where they awaken in the last episode of the series. That’s when the fun begins.
For me, the post-season OVA (original video animation) was the best part. It takes place hundreds of years in the future (they mention that 300 years earlier they were partying in Osaka). There are flying cars. The supporting characters are all future versions of the ones from the series (the two policemen are still on patrol, the same guy runs the hamburger stand). We have just spent 22 episodes establishing the characters, and now we can have fun playing off of them. They are all still biologically 17, even though they are chronologically (and emotionally) much older. Rose is more assertive, almost matronly. Rachel is a bit of a slob (showers are so much trouble). Claire is still driving her old car. They make bets on who can seduce the new transfer student. They fight crime while singing (extremely poorly) a song set to the music that plays for the setup screen. Claire builds a sexy female gundam style mech (actually, it looks more like something from an Indonesian puppet play), one that ends up face down in the flowers of the Red Garden, with its bare backside in the air. Kate, less changed than the others, manages to shock them all at the very end, and I think I’ll keep that spoiler to myself.