By Jerry Hrechka / June 25th, 2015
Those of you who have been following along may notice that I’ve been doing older stuff on Toku-talk. You may also notice that I’ve been covering shows for children. There are reasons for that, partially because almost all of it is for children and I have perhaps too much fondness for old stuff with lovably terrible special effects. That said, both of those things are set to change today with perhaps the only foray into tokusatsu for adults: Garo.
Unfortunately, I don’t like Garo as much as the other stuff that I’ve covered in the short time I’ve done this column. That isn’t to say I dislike it, but rather that I think this series has a lot of the wrong ideas of what constitutes mature. It’s the kind of mature envisioned by a fifteen-year-old who loves Wolverine and will hail the newest action anime that’s dark as ‘saving anime’. Here, mature doesn’t necessarily equate to more complex or morally gray narratives. In fact, Garo is just as straightforward as any of the other shows I’ve covered that are for tiny, tiny babies. However, it takes advantage of its 18-34 demographic by having loads of blood and tits. I’ve learned to accept it for the fifteen-year-old-boy fantasy it is since then. I mean, after all, if you had asked me what I wanted to see in my teenage years, it would have been a dude slicing off another dude’s head with a katana and a hot naked lady respectively. Even so, there’s a bit of sadness I find in not having a more deftly-thought and crafted show.
Garo has been going on since 2005. It had a sequel series entitled Makai Senki in 2011. Later, in 2013 The One Who Shines in Darkness aired which was made to be more of a jumping-on point for new viewers. It has had numerous series since of varying lengths, with Garo: Goldstorm being the most recent. Each series follows the Makai Knights and the Makai Priest who fight unspeakable monsters called Horrors. There are variations on that theme but overall it’s a very simple theme with bits of soap operas thrown in the midst.
Both the characters and overarching plot of the first series are pretty basic. It follows Makai Knight Kouga Saejima, who is familiarly stoic and badass. When he saves a girl named Kaoru, she becomes infected with demonic blood. Normally a Makai Knight is duty bound to kill infected humans to spare them a painful death, but Kouga is more interested in trying to find a cure. Honestly you could make this the plot of a PS2-era hack-and-slash game without changing much. The character developments are rather standard and honestly incredibly misogynistic at times. There are even times when the cameraman seems to forget that there’s a face attached to the thighs they’re filming. That said, the characters are charming enough that you never resent them for their cliché.
Garo has a lot about it that is unremarkable, so you may wonder why I even bother talking about it. Well, it’s because there’s something that Garo absolutely excels at, and that is presentation. While the super-serious overwrought drama can be hard to take seriously, the enforced moodiness and darkness actually adds to a level of campy fun, enforcing the idea of how much you would have loved this show at fifteen. The fights are creative and stylish, managing to keep a mood reminiscent of an anime or a JRPG. To me, it’s vividly similar to the Devil May Cry video game series, or at least as much as a show on a limited TV show budget. The ridiculous outfits feel like they come right out of a seinen manga, with guys in long coats carrying katanas around — which is weird that the cops never stop them — and women in preposterous outfits meant to display their assets. The monsters are also incredibly cool-looking. While a lot of toku shows have creative designs that are really cool, they rarely dip into the very visceral and creepy-looking horror monsters that populate Garo.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Garo for me is how it handles the transformation sequences. In most of the shows, you’ll see our heroes can’t wait to get into their outfits, transforming right away to fight the bad guys. In Garo, Kouga and his fellow Makai Knights save their transformations until the third act as a last resort. While those who want to see the armor and superhero outfits might be disappointed, it does give the Makai Knights’ true form a sense of power and sacrifice. You can’t help but think ‘oh man, shit’s gonna get real now!’ and the fights get more dramatic and exciting with the passing of the show. It helps that the show has gotten better at making the special effects more seamless and impressive-looking. Plus, because they’re used less than usual in your standard toku show, they look far better. Rather than the spandex that Kamen Rider and any of the Super Sentai don, the Makai Knights have full-bodied mystical armor, reminiscent of something you would see in a fantasy manga, something you wouldn’t be surprised to see in Berserk or Dark Souls.
The real tragedy of Garo is that the recommendation is half-hearted. Material for children has often been the inspiration for brilliant material. Naoki Urusawa’s love of Astro Boy is what got us the masterpiece Pluto. And without the campy sixties Batman television show, Frank Miller wouldn’t have been inspired to create The Dark Knight Returns. The difference is that those pieces use the premise of children’s shows and make them interact with issues confronted by adults that only those particular premises can handle. Garo is a brand of “mature” that wants to bring us quick excitement through titillation and extreme violence rather than bringing adult issues that elevate material. At the end of the day though, Garo is still a lot of fun for the juvenile part of your brain. Violence and titillation have their place and I can’t deny the cheap thrills I have, but I also can’t help but lament what it could have been.
Sadly, this is another show that is not available in America. Not the live-action version anyways. An anime adaptation called Garo: The Animation is available on Hulu. However, we cover live-action stuff on Toku-Talk, so I have yet to actually watch that. The live-action series did get broadcast in Italy though, so Italian readers may know more about where you can get this show. Not the highest recommendation, but if you want something that feels like a live-action anime, check this out.