Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Garden of Sinners
Movies+OVAs 1-10 Streaming
The first seven movies in The Garden of Sinners were originally released in Japan over 2007-2009, with an OVA following in 2011 and an eighth movie and short story collection completing the story in 2013. The first eight installments were released in the States in a pricey Blu-Ray set in 2011, followed by a slightly more reasonably-priced DVD set in 2012, while the ninth and tenth parts came out in a still-pricey Blu-Ray set in 2015. Their recent acquisition and streaming by Amazon's Anime Strike video channel marks the first time the whole series has been available in the States all together, so it's time to take a new look at how this ambitious franchise has aged.
Dark, bloody tales geared toward mature audiences have been common in anime for nearly 30 years now, but Garden of Sinners stands apart from most of its peers in a number of key ways. The most immediately evident difference is its unconventional chronology. The timeline jumps around a lot, with the actual chronological order of these entries being 2, 4, 3, the first part of 9, 1, 5, 6-8, and finally the second part of 9. (Not to mention three short stories interspersed throughout this timeline.)
Thankfully, the series always posts the new time frame at any point in the story where there's a big jump forward or back, so this doesn't muddle the storytelling as much as it might sound. Part 7 brings all of the earlier installments together, but prior to that point, the contents of any given movie don't absolutely require knowledge of previous chronological events, as they are intended to be viewed in order of release. The central character relationships between Shiki, Mikiya, and Toko can likewise be discerned quickly without much backstory, as crucial segments like how Mikiya and Shiki met or how Shiki came to work for Toko play out in flashbacks at pivotal moments. A flow chart for the plot would still be pretty complicated, as the circumstances of some films feed into others in complicated ways, but it helps that most of these story parts are largely self-contained arcs.
Because of that, the threads linking these installments together can sometimes be tenuous. It's not until Part 7 that the true underlying focus of the series becomes clear; for everything else that's happening, this is challenging love story between Shiki and Mikiya at heart, following the diligent efforts of a young man to convince a psychologically fractured young woman that she is capable of love. Shiki definitely doesn't make this easy, as her three distinct personalities come into conflict over the course of the story, with at least one of them wanting to kill Mikiya. Even her predominant personality is more than a basic tsundere type, giving Mikiya a hard time partly because she thinks that he deserves better than her, despite being unable to keep herself away from him either. By the end, Shiki and Mikiya's romance is extremely hard-won and satisfying.
That potent love story is the other big factor that separates the series from other gorefests, and while it seems to stand in stark contrast to the rest of Garden of Sinners' content, it actually serves as a complement to those bloodier aspects, with its message that no amount of hardship will stop this love. And boy, does this story get bloody! The most gruesome scenes are mercifully limited to brief flashes, but there's still no shortage of severed limbs, pools of blood under twisted bodies, or decaying corpses, and the graphic violence can be extremely intense. Sexual content is much more limited to content like an occasional shower scene, with the exception of a fairly graphic rape scene in Part 3. This is not a series for those with a low tolerance for harsh content.
The series also seeks to examine the darker sides of both humanity and the supernatural, whether it be a ghost compelling victims to suicide, a sorcerer creating an endless loop of tragedies in an effort to get to the heart of magic, or people who abuse the supernatural powers they've been granted in horrifying ways. All of the stories carry an appropriate sense of menace and lethal danger. Philosophizing to one degree or another is common in the series, but most of the time these dialogues do not encumber the story. When they do, however, they contribute to the series' biggest weakness: occasionally lax pacing. Kinoko Nasu works have a bad reputation for becoming so self-absorbed that they just plod along, and this problem is definitely evident in the OVA episode (one half-hour-long conversation in the snow) as well as Part 9, which easily could have been done in two-thirds or less of its allotted time; the only reasonable explanation for stretching out its second part is a desire to showcase an adorable new character. Even though that character is likable and presents great symbolic importance for the main story, the point could have been achieved much more succinctly.
The Garden of Sinners was far from the first anime that studio ufotable handled production for, but it's arguably the title that made them a household name among anime fans. The trademark visual style that would later dominate their adaptations of various Fate works is established here, from the character designs and animation to the color and CG compositing sensibilities. The consistent quality control through the first seven movies and OVA is all the more remarkable considering each one has a different lead director. However, this does not hold true for the last two installments, which update the character designs and not necessarily in a favorable way. Action scenes are still sharp and dynamic spectacles, though having a character like Shiki to drive them definitely helps; her willowy, kimono-clad build and the almost elegant way she carries herself give her a distinctively compelling look, as do her brilliant eyes when she has her power engaged. It makes for an eye-pleasing contrast to the fresh-faced Mikiya, who practically radiates a purity of soul that's unusual to see depicted in male anime characters.
Visuals aren't the only place the series' production shines, either. The moody musical score is one of Yuki Kajiura's finest efforts, fully capturing the intensity, drama, and sense of danger and mysticism inherent to the series. (I would say that few anime projects are as perfectly-suited to her musical style as Garden of Sinners.) Kalafina, who were largely formed as a group by Kajiura for this project, sing the ending themes for all of the episodes, achieving very atmospheric conclusions to each installment.
Aniplex of America never dubbed this series, so Amazon only has the subtitled version available. Each installment retains the claymation intros featuring various characters from the series in a theater; watch for cameos by various Fate/stay night franchise characters in these bits too. (These came out several years before ufotable had started animating Fate projects, so those cameos were fairly prescient.) Thankfully, this viewing option loses almost nothing compared to the expensive Blu-Ray and DVD releases. The double-paywall that must be navigated to access Anime Strike content on Amazon is understandably bemoaned, but this is still the most affordable that The Garden of Sinners has ever been.
Overall, The Garden of Sinners can be a challenging series to watch, as it requires a substantive time commitment to fully appreciate, relies on a lot of moral ambiguity, and it can be difficult to see how everything fits together until late into its run. Still, it's a rewarding experience for the time investment. Sadly, Part 9 of the series is more a detriment than a complement to the rest, but it can't put too much of a damper on a very memorable viewing experience.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ Great lead couple, lush visuals and musical score, spectacular action sequences, finally available in a more affordable format
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