Episode 1-3

by Gabriella Ekens,

GARO THE ANIMATION opens with perhaps the most metal birth scene in the history of anime. While being burnt on the stake for witchcraft, a woman spits out her baby, who is promptly rescued by her demon lover, a man clad in bestial armor and riding atop a roof-spanning metallic horse. That baby is, of course, our protagonist León Luís, and with an entrance like that it'd be more unusual for him not to have a heroic destiny of some sort. Fortunately, he inherited his mother's status as a Makai Knight, a supernatural warrior equipped with power armor and charged to hunt down the man-eating Horrors that plague Valiante Kingdom.

First debuting in 2006, GARO is a recently established franchise by tokusatsu standards and differs from its predecessors in that it's aimed squarely at adults. Unlike its Kamen Rider and super sentai brethren, this isn't a kid's show, and GARO THE ANIMATION reflects this full force. The entire middle chunk of its first episode consists of León's dad using his son's backstory to try and bed a prostitute. Don't worry, though; besides a borrowed cosmology this series is completely standalone, so no toku-homework required. While the main GARO series takes place in modern Japan, this one is set in a fantasy kingdom resembling inquisition-era Spain, complete with accented names and evil priests. The horror elements aren't too severe so far. The violence is nothing compared to last season's Tokyo Ghoul or this one's Parasyte, although grisly tortures are certainly implied. The monster designs are pretty cool, all swirling masses of tangible black goo that sprout faces, hands, and bladed pendulums from an inhuman main body, in a style that echoes the shadows from the Persona series. It's even impressive that this show manages to allude to rape in an inoffensive way (two quick shots of nonsexualized female figures in a barn as men leave, tightening their belts), when other series haven't been able to go there without setting off an understandable firestorm. I like this show's integration of adult content into an otherwise juvenile genre story so far, and I hope it continues to balance tokusatsu fun with a grittier edge.

The gimmick for this incarnation of GARO is that the tables of the hunt and the hunted have turned - the Horrors have infiltrated Valiante's royal family through the grand vizier-like Mendoza and enacted an inquisition against the Makai order, who they condemn as "demons" and "witches." Meanwhile, these Horrors can feed unprovoked, wreaking havoc on the population they claim to serve. León and his father, Germán, have to defeat Horrors while on the run themselves, occasionally stopping to break allies out of their clutches. Complications arise as León, traumatized by his mother's horrific death, doesn't have full control of his powers as the Golden Knight GARO, so the pair have to embark on complicated sidequests in order to stabilize him. There's also a plot against the king's son, Prince Alfonso, who seems to have inherited Makai Knight powers of his own, and whose story will no doubt intersect with León's in the near future.

This show's biggest issue is its CGI integration. The battle suits (a tokusatsu staple) are CG rendered, but they also clash horribly with the general art style. It's a shame, too, because otherwise GARO THE ANIMATION is not only a good looking show but a distinctive one. It most resembles last year's Gatchaman Crowds with its simple, dynamic, and vibrant character designs, but unlike that show, it doesn't follow through with this aesthetic to the CGI suit models, which look like cheap toys in the worst way. They're all sharp edges and subtle metallic gradations. I'm actually having trouble coming up with designs less suited to this show's overall art style. There's even one unfortunate scene where they decided to render a suit in 2D, contrasting it badly with the 3D suits and making it just look bad all by itself. Although fight scenes are frequent, the traditionally animated ones involving unsuited León and Makai Alchemist Ema Guzmán are the most memorable. There've long been issues with integrating CGI and traditional animation, but previous shows have done it better than here, and GARO's so polished otherwise that it mars the production. (On a side note, Studio MAPPA, the guys behind this, are also responsible for last season's gorgeous Terror in Resonance, and this season's even lovelier surprise hit Rage of Bahamut. They're absolutely killing it and I can't wait to see more from them.)

All in all, GARO THE ANIMATION isn't falling into the trap of believing that something "for adults" in terms of violence or sexual content also has to be exploitative or even deep. It looks like a rip-roaring fantasy adventure with a little sprinkled in there for the lower brain, and that's fine. I'm excited to spend 20 minutes a week on this, even if I won't think about it much in the meantime.

Grade: B+

GARO THE ANIMATION is currently streaming on Funimation.

Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.

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