Red Garden Vol. 1
Gonzo is perhaps one of the most overrated studios in anime existance. Yes, they made Hellsing; yes, they made Gantz. The first was an entertaining if somewhat inconsistant tale of vampire hunters; the second was a brutally cruel free-for-all that really made me question my own morality just for even watching it. But both suffered from rather pedantic animation that didn't look all that great, and neither one struck me as the next great anime on the planet. So when Red Garden Vol. 1 appeared in my inbox, cheerfully displaying its Gonzo credentials, I couldn't say that I was particularly excited. Then I read the back of the box and found out that the plot was identical to that of Gantz, almost to the point of plagarism. This really didn't motivate me. But then I actually watched the disc...and folks, this is pretty darn good. The animation still suffers because it's a Gonzo title, and the plot of the series as revealed so far is unquestionably unoriginal. But Red Garden Vol. 1 is proof that interesting characters, atmosphere, and good direction can elevate a show from a token ripoff to a uniquely satisfying entry.
In New York City, a killer appears to be on the loose. Several young women have been found dead across the city; some are thought to be suicides, but the cops know differently...there are simply too many similarities. At the same time, four teenagers find themselves without memories of the previous night. Drawn together despite their clear differences, they find themselves locked in a grim battle with a man-beast with glowing eyes. Why must they fight this demonic creature? And what exactly has happened to them? As they mourn the loss of their classmake Lise, they are confronted with a stark realization -- they are dead, yet they live. A mysterious undertaker and her assistant have resurrected them for reasons unknown, but it becomes clear that they must either fight when called or die in their sorrows. Summoned by a cloud of butterflies only they can see, the four girls seek out the truth behind their deaths and wonder if a life dedicated to fighting creatures of the night is worth living at all.
For a title I'm going to recommend, Red Garden Vol. 1 does have a surprising number of strikes against it. The animation is fine, but it still displays Gonzo's problem for sometimes making characters look like they really don't fit with the backgrounds. The character designs themselves are just odd; none of the characters looks remotely pretty, at least not in an stereotypical anime sense. The opening and ending songs, while actually decent musically, are completely and totally out of character with the tonal quality of the show itself; I found myself skipping them because they drew me out of the darkness of the program. And on top of all that, ADV's quality control team was really not on the ball, as I caught no less than six typographical errors in the subtitles. One's not unusual and two are OK, but somebody fell asleep at the subtitling machine.
But as I keep hinting, this is a show worth investigating, and it's due to some choices in direction that set this show apart from its contemporaries. First, the oddness of the character designs works in the show's favor. The elongated bodies and strange features of the characters actually make this feel much more like a modern shojo manga for older teens, and while the style is rarely adapted into anime, it made me think about the show differently. I knew I was in a different world. Second, while the show was done digitally, there's a bit of grain and haze to the picture. This almost certainly is a intentional choice, and it drives home the show's chilly, disturbing atmosphere. Other choices continue to play to the show's strengths. The lighting, the slightly awkward moments between characters, the vocal performers who know how to scream convincingly as if it weren't an act...it's the little touches that make the show thoroughly creepy.
Those small nuances continue in the storytelling ingredients. For example, how many shows would let their characters sing...and not sing big ballads but heart-wrenching tunes that barely stay in key because the emotion is so overwhelming? Red Garden captures the bittersweet issue of not fitting into any crowd as a teenager; even the sassy popular girl knows the frustration of feeling distant from even her closest friends. And when it comes down to it, the group of hall monitors known as "Grace" is almost as scary as the beasts the group has to face in the haunting hours. When the violent scenes do occur, they are never very graphic, but they wind up being terrifying on a more psychological level as the girls are traumatized all over again. While it is creepy and disturbing in its own right, it is the antithesis of Gantz, the show with which it shares an almost identical plot structure. The mystery here is more compelling because the characters are worth our emotional investment, and the violence has consequences. It won't be for everyone, and I daresay that some will think I'm overpraising it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Red Garden Vol. 1 is a compelling thriller that's perfect for the Halloween season. It's not going to scare you or gross you out. It's not going to have a radical unexpected twist. At this point, I can't give it my top grade because it's just a little too much like what we've seen before from Gonzo. But give it enough time and let it sink into your pores, though, and I think you'll find it's disquieting enough and original enough to give you the chills.
Red Garden Vol. 1 -- violence, disturbing subject matter, brief profanity in Japanese version -- A-