Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD 1 - Live to Kill
As a wave of strange teen suicides washes over New York City, four girls who attend the same high school – Kate, a rich girl and member of the preppy corps of elites known as Grace; Rose, a more down-to-earth girl who devotes a lot of time to looking after younger siblings; Rachel, a diehard party girl; and Claire, a rebellious outsider – all wake up one morning realizing that they cannot remember the previous night. The following night a flock of butterflies only they can see draws each one to an isolated meeting place, where they meet a strange woman who informs them that they all have been dead and are now living on borrowed time. To continue to survive they must, on nights when called, battle for their lives against men monstrously perverted into dogs while maintaining a façade of normality during the day. Each struggles to deal with the situation in her own way, but they all soon realize that they have something else in common: they are all friends of Lise, a girl from their school who soon turns up as an apparent suicide, and that may have everything to do with their current situation.
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Seriously, though, the setting and style of this latest offering from Gonzo stand so far apart from the norm that this title immediately distinguishes itself from any other horror-minded and/or high school-centered anime out there. How often do we see a series about modern-day high school girls that isn't set in Japan? Or, for that matter, how often do you see a modern-day anime series of any type set in the U.S.? Given the research needed to make the artistry look realistic, that alone makes this an ambitious project, but it also sports a striking visual style as distinctive in its own way as Gonzo's earlier masterpiece Gankutsuou (which it borrows from for its opener) or Madhouse's Paradise Kiss (the closest visual equivalent).
For all that the style may scream “shojo,” though, the content heads in a radically darker and different direction than any normal cutesy relationship-oriented shojo fare. The closest structural comparison to its “you died but are now back alive and must fight when called to remain that way” premise and occasional intense graphic violence is Gantz, but Red Garden replaces the crassness and video game feel of Gantz with decided horror and mystery elements. Although the “why” and “what” of the girls' predicament gets partly answered in this volume, the “how” is not addressed at all, nor are any solid hints provided about the ultimate purpose of the mysterious brother-sister funeral directors or the oddly-transformed men. Also still left in question at the end of the first four episodes is the nature and extent of the superhuman abilities the girls appear to have gained, which play only a minor role in the events of this volume but seem likely to become a bigger factor later on. But this is a 22-episode series, so not everything is going to be answered up front.
The girls who comprise the core cast represent a standard cross-section of common school roles and personality archetypes, although Kate's combination of the preppy insider with the quiet, reserved girl is a little unusual. The bitchy role instead falls to the vacuous party girl Rachel, who also, somewhat surprisingly, gets more radically affected by the circumstances than the more predictable responses of the other girls. The first four episodes devote a lot of effort to showing how the circumstances impact the school and personal lives and relationships of the girls, and do set up some potentially interesting issues on that front, but ultimately the content is at its strongest and most effective in full-blown Horror Mode. Several factors contribute to this – the creepy mood, the disturbing ugliness of the flashback to what really happened that forgotten night, the undefended violence – but the sheer panic in the reactions of the girls, and their sense of helplessness over their situation, makes the horror element work. A lot of the credit goes to Gonzo's apparent decision to allow the voice actresses, rather than the visuals, to carry the weight of the reactions. (Think about it: how many times have you seen anime titles where a character's expression and trembling, moreso than vocalizations, shows fear?)
And that's exactly where both dubs shine brightest. Much of the dialogue in the first four episodes gets spoken in hushed tones, but this one also requires more terrified screaming and heaving sobs than probably any other anime title you could name. Both vocal casts pull it off convincingly well, though they differ greatly in other places. For instance, in Japanese the girls in Rachel's party crowd have the whiny blasé quality that only really sounds right in Japanese, while in English they have the Valley Girl-influenced drawl and inflection commonly used to typify brainless shallowness. Both are right for their respective languages, so there should be no quibbles about reinterpretation. In supporting roles little difference exists in tone, casting, or performance quality between the dubs, which both suffer from minor flaws; the Japanese cast thoroughly mangles the pronunciations of some English names, but the English cast balances that out with weaker singing in two songs. (English VA Melissa Davis, aka Kate, even reads one song as poetry instead of singing it.) The English script usually stays tight when not adjusting for American speaking styles or rearranging wording in longer soliloquies to better suit lip movements.
The soundtrack also plays a critical role in enhancing the drama and horror of the story. Instead of the heavy, ominous undertones often used in such endeavors, composer Akira Senju instead opts for a more subtle approach by using plaintive, understated orchestral pieces to unsettle and enhance the creepiness. Even at the peak of the most desperate action scenes the music never crescendos loudly or gets particularly urgent, yet it still works wonderfully. The opener and closer provide dramatic contrasts to this distinctive style, albeit in entirely different ways. Aptly-named front number “Jolly Jolly” by Jill-Decoy association uses an upbeat, swinging jazzy tune choreographed carefully to outlines containing moving floral patterns, while the boisterous rap-rock song “Rock the LM.C” by LM.C plays out like a music video of the band giving a park concert with the cast as spectators, complete with lip-synching. Both are great songs which would certainly contribute to an interesting, if highly eclectic, OST. Also noteworthy is the series' excellent use of sound effects, particularly in the dog sounds; those are not human actors pretending to be dogs.
No commentary about the series would be complete without also addressing its unique visual style. The lanky, long-necked, prominent-nosed character designs bear the telltale mark of shojo manga influence, with only the more rounded features of Rose and her siblings standing apart. More proportionate eyes also separate the girls from the anime norm, while oversized lips get greater animation attention than one normally sees in anime; supposedly this was an extremely rare case of the animation being constructed around the vocal performances rather than the other way around. The outfits of Grace allow Gonzo to insert at least some semblance of school uniforms into an environment that otherwise lacks them, but otherwise the costuming is very American fashion-conscious. Meticulously detailed background visuals, even down to signs of rust and wear, contribute to a good overall look, while a color scheme that looks bright in daytime scenes but dark and muted in nighttime scenes provides a nice contrast. Despite an occasional clunky-looking scene, overall animation quality stands among Gonzo's better efforts.
ADV apparently became so enamored of a hugely oversized font on their menu screens that it distracted them from putting more Extras in the volume, as the only ones offered are clean opener and closer. (But this is a series where you actually want both.) In many scenes the picture quality looks remarkably grainy, though whether this is a technical flaw on ADV's end or a carry-over from the original print is hard to tell. ADV's Web site is offering the individual episodes for download on a pay-per-episode price, however.
For all their dark overtones and unnerving drama, the first four episodes do have at least a little fun. Episode 4 contains an apparent reference to the Soup Nazi of Seinfeld fame – and yes, this was something in the original script, not one of ADV's little add-ons. It may have a shojo art style, and some of the story elements may give off a been-there-done-that feel, but they come together with the excellent soundtrack and voice acting to produce a remarkably effective start for a promising mystery/horror series. The primary job of an opening volume is to draw viewers in and get them interested, and this one certainly does that.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Great musical score, solid vocal work, effective horror elements.
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