Garden of Sinners 7: A Study In Murder Part 2
For the past two years, I've been working my way through Garden of Sinners. While the films have been available on DVD and BluRay for some time -- infamously so due to their laughably high sticker price -- I thought it might be worthwhile to watch them over time the way the original Japanese audience did. I also did it this way because, frankly, they are slow, dark, depressing movies that can suck the life right out of you when they aren't wowing you with beautiful and haunting visuals. I've thought they were good, but not the masterpieces some have made them out to be. There have even been times when I contemplated just letting the series go. It's just not my bag.
I'm glad I didn't, though, because the seventh film, A Study In Murder (Part 2) certainly ties for best film in the franchise. On the surface, it's more Garden of Sinners...more bizarre deaths, more moping around at twilight, more sumptuous eyeball candy. But this one is willing to go deeper, making emotional connections the others were unwilling to venture into. The best thread in the whole interlacing patchwork quilt is resolved. Despite unnecessary squickiness in the finale and other threads left dangling, it's a worthy ending to the franchise (even though a final OVA available in the box sets technically now has that honor). But does that make the series worth your time and money if you've only thought about jumping in? Good question.
But first, the plot...the murders have started again. A few years ago, a string of grisly deaths got notice, but they suddenly stopped...yet the MO on these new killings is awfully familiar. Shiki isn't the same person she was then, and neither is her good friend and confidant Mikiya. But is it possible that she has been responsible all along? After all, someone wearing a kimono has been fleeing the scene of the crimes, and Shiki's problems with dual personalities and the spirit world seem destined to lead to death and destruction. A link between the murders and a strange new drug on the streets gives them clues...as mysteries are revealed and a devil unleashed, Shiki must deal with her own demons and come to grips with her unresolved feelings for Mikiya.
If you've gotten this far, you know that all the Garden of Sinners entries look and sound pretty great, so there's no reason to go into that again. And it's still Garden of Sinners...it still moves at a snail's pace. The action is furious for a few moments every half-hour and then immediately settles back down into unrelenting moodiness. There's a lot of silence. There are gorgeous cityscapes, dingy back alleys, and streets that are perpetually covered in rain. There's no sense now in expecting anything different.
A Study In Murder Part 2 succeeds, in large part, because of its willingness to finally deal with relationships. Sinners has often been cold, clinical, even icy in dealing with its characters. In a sense, the series itself feels like a manifestation of Shiki's anti-social disorder. In this film, though, the shell begins to break as Shiki finally realizes her feelings for Mikiya -- as much as she can have them, anyway. She isn't suddenly going to turn into a shojo heroine full of fluff and whimsy, but Shiki begins to feel. That's big, since her lack of emotion frustrated me throughout the series. It's not that A Study In Murder Part 2 is romantic in any normal sense, of course. But within the universe of these odd folks, it makes sense. And at a base level, I finally felt like I could relate to Shiki. It took long enough.
The other parts of the film -- the investigation, the reveal of the culprit, the showdowns -- they're all fine, and what we've come to expect. I will say that the villain is a comedown from the evil heights scaled in Paradox Spiral, but he was fair enough. Truthfully, he is more a foil to allow the relationship between Shiki and Mikiya to take root. He's not that interesting on his own. And for once, he doesn't have to be, as our leads finally matter to us.
As with virtually every episode in the series so far, there's a distastefully unnecessary section. In this one, it involves the antagonist, a bound Shiki, and a whole lotta saliva. It beats some of the disturbing material that's come before, but this got a more visceral reaction from me. It's just sick and lingers on-screen too long. I don't know why the creators of this series thought to include it...that said, it's not as if horror directors haven't been trying to freak us out for decades. But be that as it may, Garden of Sinners bugged me in going for the grossouts.
After the last six films, this ending was surprisingly enjoyable in a sense. I was glad to finally see some humanity on display, as stilted as it might have been. I appreciated Mikiya, by far my favorite continuing character, becoming central once again in a meaningful way. And while there are plenty of dangling plot threads, the one this film pursues is the one I personally wanted resolved. I can deal with this finale.
But I also have to take a moment to reflect on the whole. All of my grades for the films have been in the "recommended" range. I'm not going to change that. But at the same time, I don't really feel like ever revisiting this particular cinematic playground, and I can't recommend it to others. There's enough darkness in the world without intentionally wallowing in it. And while I feel I've matured through contemplating dark material like A Clockwork Orange or Fight Club or Welcome to the N.H.K., I don't feel that I could become any better of a human being by returning to this series. I don't have a problem with a bit of mindless entertainment now and then, but not something that makes me feel the need to shower afterwards.
The sum of Garden of Sinners is, somehow, strangely lesser than its parts. In this way, it's not radically dissimilar to the way that I enjoyed Death Note but found the whole disaffecting. I know a second watch would give me all the puzzle pieces; I can imagine enjoying it more now that I've got the basics down. I can even understand why true fans would shell out $400 to watch it a few times to wrap their minds around it all. And yet, I have no compulsion to take a second look. Even though there's a note of redemption at the end, it isn't worth all the darkness to get there.
Long story short: if you've waded into the Garden of Sinners world and find it intriguing, you should make sure to catch the last film. But if you are merely contemplating whether or not to take the plunge, I'd advise against it. There's just not enough meaning in this sinister universe to make it worth your while.
Garden of Sinners (series as a whole) -- C+