Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 3rd 2011
DVD/Blu-Ray - Complete Series [Limited Edition]
The members of the Supernatural Disaster Countermeasure Division of the Ministry of Environment tend to be a little different from your average bureaucrat. Even the peons have second sight, and the elite among them are descended from long lines of exorcists and magic-users and are often contracted to powerful demons. Yomi Isayama, the adopted heir to the Isayama house, is one of them. So is Kagura Tsuchimiya. Yomi took Kagura in when the younger girl's mother died, and the two are closer than real sisters. It is soon apparent that Kagura is a natural demon-slayer, more powerful even than the skilled Yomi, but she's also a gentle and in many ways fragile girl. Her kindness is a liability, one that may be her undoing when, by a cruel twist of fate, Yomi becomes one of the monsters she must slay.
Ga-Rei: Zero's marketing and first two episodes try to sell the series as a ruthless, gut-crunching action vehicle. And it has the squirting blood and indiscriminate death to back the claim up. But its true strength isn't stomach-turning violence or edge-of-your-seat thrills; it's the emotional power it invests them with.
Not to disparage its stomach-turning violence. There are only a few series that do violence as well as Ga-Rei: Zero. When unleashed, the series' action is brutal, frighteningly unpredictable, and almost beautiful in its precision and attention to composition. It's also full of all the decapitation, amputation and disemboweling that even the most juvenile of gorehounds could desire. It's not above having leather clad beauties mix it up with low-level nasties using motorcycle martial-arts, nor is it averse to breaking out the gatling legs and attack wheelchairs when need be, to say nothing of assault suitcases and rocket-drills. But it has the good sense to treat even its most outré fights with gritty realism and when the time comes for an important confrontation it's quick to strip things down to swords and fists. The latter are the series' stock-in-trade: vicious, intensely physical bouts where the emotions are as raw as the violence and even the most important characters are the tiniest mistake away from dismemberment or worse.
It is at such times that the series' sleekly streamlined character designs make the most sense: twirling and flying, clashing in athletic displays of killing prowess where speed and smarts are as important as strength and fancy weaponry. It is also at such times that it is hardest to believe that, prior to this, director Ei Aoki was best known for Girls Bravo. His direction is cold and hard, both assured and thoroughly unsparing. A far cry from Girl's candy-colored fluff. It probably helps that he had ample time to plan out the series and that its prequel nature freed him from the visual constraints of the manga. Even so, his clinical eye, aptitude for aesthetically splashed gore, and thoughtful use of AIC Spirits and asread's top-notch animation are eye-opening.
Far more unexpected, however, is the cruel skill with which he and screenwriter Katsuhiko Takayama go about making those bouts matter. The series' infamous first episode is one of the cheapest, most sadistic shots that a director can take at his audience (to say more would ruin for first-time viewers a very, um, interesting experience), but it does its job well: afterwards quite literally no one is safe from the horrors to be unleashed. And more importantly it and the following episode clearly establish the route that Yomi and Kagura's story will take. What follows is a surprisingly heartfelt tale of surrogate sisterhood that unfolds with the chilling fatalism of a Greek tragedy, delving deep into the bonds that the opening episodes tore asunder.
Which is in its own way more excruciating than any of the opening nastiness. It is Aoki's evil stratagem to force us to care deeply about these two girls even when we know full well where it all must end. And it works. The girls' friendship is at once complicated and touching, an ever-deepening bond that draws us in despite ourselves. And once the series' two sides—the opening bloodbath and Yomi and Kagura's intensifying sisterly love—finally converge, their story ceases to be an efficient if emotionally aware thriller and becomes a merciless yet moving drama...with breathtaking swordfights of course. If the pair's first unraveling or final showdown don't break your heart, then you may want to check that you have one to break.
Aoki luckily proves as adept at depicting inner struggles as outward. In his hands Osamu Horiuchi's designs prove surprisingly expressive, and he's as apt to apply the series' considerable budget to nuances of expression as to details of swordplay, or to the flow of tears as to the flow of blood. He is prone to using Noriyasu Agematsu's inventive (and varied) collection of themes as a blunt instrument, telegraphing the intent of each scene with hoary musical devices, but that's fine since the series' policy—at least outside of the first two episodes—is to work with complete transparency, trusting foreknowledge to heighten rather than ruin the impact of its developments. Perhaps his isn't the most innovative use of music, but he knows how to synergize score and visuals, and it's hard to argue with his decisions when the series' key scenes deliver such damage with such efficiency.
Ga-Rei: Zero's dub is one of those that is undone by a plethora of gnawing little problems rather than any overall deficiency. There's the rewritten dialogue, which loses much of the original's grace and careful timing and puts phony tough-guy banter in the mouths of Kagura and Yomi's SDCD colleagues. There are the weak performances in relatively small but pivotal roles such as Yomi's cousin May and uncle Yu. Most damagingly there's Leah Clark's Kagura, who is perfectly fine when asked to kick ass and be spunky but who just can't seem to sell the torment and tearful exchanges of the final episodes. All told, the dub does more right than it does wrong—Alexis Tipton's evil Yomi spits poison with visible relish, most of the cast comports itself professionally, and the script is solid more often than it is soft—but the ultimate impact is still noticeably lower in English than Japanese.
Aside from some promos (which bear witness to how far the first episode's trick was taken), the only extras are six twenty-minute location-hunting videos. They're somewhat crude, but offer up not only a candid portrait of the crew but also tours of some of Japan's most interesting places. If nothing else, you'll come away with a new appreciation for the ominous gloss the animators put on their real-life settings.
Make no mistake, Ga-Rei: Zero is a coldly calculated series. There will be those who will find its sadistic manipulations intolerable. Still others will be turned away by its extreme content, while those drawn to such content may be disappointed by the turn towards familial drama in its middle half. That it throws most of its punches from the hip with plenty of warning and little in the way of finesse will not please fans looking for surprises. When they hit, though, they hit like a ton of bricks. And for some of us, the ones for whom the wrench of the gut and the wrench of the heart are the best of bedfellows, that's all that matters.
This set includes both a three-disc (two series discs, one extras disc) DVD version and a two-disc Blu-Ray version. The limited edition comes in a nice chipboard box.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ A high-gloss, heavy-hitting dramatic take on demon-fighting clichés.
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