Garo: Crimson Moon
by Gabriella Ekens,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Garo: Crimson Moon ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Garo: Crimson Moon ?
What's that I hear? A JAM Project opening? Could it be...more GARO!? For its new season, the enthusiastic cries of “GAROOOOOO” and “BLOODY BROTHAAAA” that defined GARO: THE ANIMATION have been replaced by the sultry sounds of a Spanish guitar. Ironically, it's just in time for the series to no longer be set in Spain. In GARO: CRIMSON MOON, the golden armor's inheritance takes us to Japan, where it's wielded by a new and inexperienced master. That's right, we're doing this all over again, only this time our brooding boy is named Raikou, not León. Can Raikou distinguish himself from his predecessor, or will I always think of him after the Pokemon?
You don't need to have seen GARO: THE ANIMATION to watch CRIMSON MOON. It does, however, assume familiarity with the GARO franchise's premise, which I'll explain now: knights in power suits fight demons known as Horrors. Power suits are passed down from father to son, and the most powerful set is the Golden Armor Garo. The protagonist of each GARO series is the heir to this armor. They're all members of the secretive Makai Order, a coalition of knights and alchemists who work together to protect humanity from Horrors. Makai Alchemists (called Makai Priests in the original) are magic users who support Makai Knights. This property was originally a live-action tokusatsu series ala Power Rangers and Kamen Rider. That's all you need to know.
While GARO: THE ANIMATION began with a thorough explanation of Valiante's political situation and the hero's backstory, GARO: CRIMSON MOON drops the viewer right into an episodic adventure. Our new main trio consists of Raikou, Seimei, and Kintoki. Like León before him (or after – the Spanish Inquisition takes place centuries after the Heian period), Raikou's emotional problems interfere with his work. For whatever reason, Raikou can't transform without help from Seimei, a powerful Makai Alchemist and his adoptive mother. This coupled with her outrageous personality have given Raikou a bit of an inferiority complex. Like León, he's a stoic brooder overwhelmed by a strong personality, so this will all likely simmer until a critical moment, when he'll explode. Unlike the previous series, our heroes don't start out with a specific goal in mind. We're given no indication as to what the overarching plot may be. Based on the posters, the main antagonist will likely be Ashiya Douman, the scar-faced man who appears briefly at the end of the first episode.
The most immediately distinct aspect of GARO: CRIMSON MOON is its setting. Instead of a thinly fictionalized version of Inquisition-era Spain, this show takes place during Japan's Heian period. Due to the audience's expected familiarity with this historical period, they don't do nearly as much to ease you into the cultural context this time. This setting is about as familiar to Japanese viewers as Arthurian times are to us. While I'm not an expert on Japanese history, I can give you the basic rundown. The Heian period lasted from 794 to 1185. It was when the type of Japanese imperial court life featured in The Tale of Genji was at its height. This was also the peak of China's influence over Japan, largely via the religions Buddhism and Taoism. These combined with Japan's native Shinto into an eclectic spirituality. The arts blossomed, and the land was mostly peaceful.
GARO: CRIMSON MOON is already making use of all this. The characters are all based on historical or folkloric figures from the Heian era. Most prominently, the female lead Seimei is a gender-bent version of a famous historical onmyodo, Abe no Seimei. An onmyodo is a sort of mystic who makes use of yin and yang, the five Chinese elements, and the natural sciences. Onmyodos were part of the government, and Abe no Seimei worked for the emperor directly. Here, the character has been re-imagined as a Makai Alchemist to fit into GARO's cosmology. Ashiya Douman is Abe no Seimei's legendary rival. Not much information on him is available in English, but it looks like GARO's version wants to seize control of the Horrors like Mendoza from the previous series. The courtesan who gives Kintou orders during the first episode appears to be Fujiwara no Michinaga, a member of the Fujiwara clan and the real power behind the throne. During the Heian era, the emperor only held symbolic power. The real ruler was the emperor's secretary, a position that was consistently occupied by a Fujiwara. GARO's Fujiwara no Michinaga tries to use his power to force Seimei into boning him, but she always escapes. (I presume that this is 100% true to history.)
Raikou's birth name, Minamoto no Yorimitsu, also marks him as a real person. He's a member of the Minamoto clan, a regent family to the Fujiwaras who basically serve as their muscle. Here, I guess they're the carrier family for the Golden Armor Garo. Minamoto no Yorimitsu, aka Minomoto no Raikou, is immortalized in many Japanese legends. The most prominent is the legend of Sakata no Kintoki, the Golden Boy who completed many acts of superhuman strength. Sakata no Kintoki was probably based on a real retainer of Minamoto no Yorimitsu, and lo and behold, here he is as Kintoki, that kid who follows Raikou around everywhere. Interestingly, all of these characters date GARO: CRIMSON MOON to the 900s. (Although Seimei is presumably not 20 years older than both Raikou and Michinaga in this version.) As evidenced by the thousands of words I've written on the legends behind Fate, I'm fascinated by how modern artists reinterpret figures from the past, so I'm excited to see where GARO is taking this. I didn't know anything about the Heian period coming into this, so even if this GARO turns out to be narrative bunk, I'll at least have learned something.
The first episode's villain of the week, a wood carver who kills women to make beautiful bodhisattvas, is incomprehensible unless you know a little bit about Japanese Buddhist practices. Putting little bodhisattva carvings into statues of Nio makes more sense to a Japanese audience. Nio is the Buddha's bodyguard, but Nio's power can be destructive, so you might put a bodhisattva there to calm him. However, this Nio keeps rejecting this woodcarver's bodhisattvas. Obviously a Horror, it comes alive at night and meets up with the woodcarver. Together they hunt down beautiful women to kill and make into bodhisattvas. Raikou and friends take him down no problem. The next guy is a corrupted trainee knight who's on the hunt for his father's killer. It turns out that he himself did it and repressed the traumatic memories. (This part was confusing. He and his father were surrounded by Horrors, but the kid survived by...eating his father? He jumped up and bit his dad on the shoulder while the Horrors surrounded them. How did that resolve the situation? Like, “eating your father” suggests “so as not to starve in the wilderness,” not “to stave off dozens of assailants.” If someone could explain this to me, I'd be grateful.)
We don't actually learn the new Garo's deal until the second episode, but it's intriguing once we get it. Raikou was apparently a “cursed child” abandoned in the wilderness by the previous Golden Knight. Having heard rumors of a rampaging monster, Seimei goes out to investigate. There she finds a young Raikou encased in a feral version of the Golden Armor. This is strange – usually Makai Knights succumb to an irreversible corruption after more than 100 seconds in their armor. Raikou, however, is unharmed. A nonplussed Seimei declares that Raikou is a “chosen child” and takes him home to raise him. That's how our main trio ended up together. So as a replacement for last season's Germán, the lovable Sex Dad, we now have Seimei, the Sex Mom. She's not shown getting as much as Germán, but she's certainly lascivious and willing to use her feminine wiles to her advantage. It's only a matter of time.
Seimei is without a doubt the best thing about the show so far. This year at Otakon, MAPPA's head Masao Murayama announced that the new GARO will have a female protagonist. While GARO fans like me agonized over whether this meant that the new Makai Knight would be a woman, Seimei appears to be what he was talking about. It's ambiguous whether she was described as a protagonist or the protagonist, but without a doubt she steals the show. She's a character type I've never seen before – a maternal version of Sex Dad. My #1 fear is that they'll go for a romance between her and Raikou, like they did with GARO: THE ANIMATION's León and Ema, who had a similar dynamic. While it worked in their case (Ema was just a sexy older woman and not León's literal parent), Raikou and Seimei would be gross. Plus, it'd ruin something unique.
This season also appears to be aiming for more of a general audience than the first one. GARO: THE ANIMATION immediately established itself as an adults' only affair when the first episode opened with ten minutes of the protagonist's father in bed with a prostitute. One of its longest through-lines was the main character's sexual awakening. It was also going for a different look than most anime, with slick, simplified character designs and moody, atmospheric lighting. You could tell that the people behind GARO: THE ANIMATION loved the process of putting it together. CRIMSON MOON still has a little bit of that. A lot of the shots are framed to resemble Japanese landscape paintings, but it's all undercut by the decreased production values. It's also already more child-appropriate and comedic than its predecessor. The comic relief sidekick is a little kid and not the main character's slutty, middle-aged father. It's been two episodes and not a single character has gotten a BJ (although Seimei has certainly tried.) It's not what I, an adult viewer, want out of GARO, but I'll see where it goes. I do have some hopes.
I'm curious what Shou Aikawa might bring to the franchise. He's one of the longest-working screenwriters in anime and a prominent voice on many different projects. He's also extremely hit-or-miss, equally responsible for the sublime Fullmetal Alchemist and this season's nigh-incomprehensible Concrete Revolutio. Yasuko Kobayashi turned in a competent enough story for GARO: THE ANIMATION, but it had long stretches of filler and ended up largely boilerplate. I'm hoping that Aikawa's guidance as the man in charge of series composition will provide a more consistent and distinct experience. So far at least, the story and character's aren't GARO: CRIMSON MOON's main problem.
It's time for the elephant in the room. The production values have taken a serious downgrade. It's still MAPPA, so quite a bit of distinctive artistry is on display, but this is easily the studio's worst looking effort so far. It's surprising that GARO: THE ANIMATION got a second season in the first place, considering that it was likely a financial disappointment. (Its disc sales – the standard measure of a late-night anime's financial success – were very low, but I'm not sure how tokusatsu franchises make money.) I guess they had to scale back here. GARO's animation quality has always come in fits and starts, but it was never this bad this soon. The second episode in particular is almost entirely off-model. At one point, Seimei holds a skull that shifts from about the size of a tennis ball to that of a regular human head between shots. There's also very little movement beyond awkward lip flaps. At one point, Romi Park (who is excellent as always) lets out a huge burst of emotion, but Seimei's expression doesn't change at all. It's real bad. I don't want to break out the Sailor Moon Crystal comparisons, but if this keeps up...
The show's overall quality is up in the air. I like the story so far but have no ideas about its general trajectory. More than anything I want the next episode to not look like garbage. Also, I want more Seimei, but that's a guarantee. Please MAPPA, I have faith in your ability to make quality-looking television shows. Don't let me down now.
Garo: Crimson Moon is currently streaming on Funimation.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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