Anime Spotlight: Ga-Rei Zero
DVD/Blu-ray Hybrid Collection
Released by FUNimation
Ga-Rei Zero is a solid horror action series that invites the tautology: if you like watching anime, you'll enjoy watching this one. It's a perfectly good mid-spectrum series. It's interesting in a number of respects; it offers enough complexity to turn over in your head, enough twists on the familiar to stay fresh and enough sensationalism to excite. However, none of this is so outstanding as to leave a strong, lasting impression.
The most exceptional bit of Ga-Rei Zero is it's opening and how that fits into the anime's original context. The first episode begins chronologically close to the anime's climax, before jumping back to the point where the anime's central relationship is established, and finally settling at the in-between period which in the status quo had been developed. These transitions do entail some whiplash and dramatic consequences.
The relationship to the original manga isn't the same, but in terms of structure, think Berserk: a violent look at the consequences of the characters' destiny, then a look at what brought them to that point.
For this anime's original audience, the turn that occurs due to that first story jump was likely more anticipated than surprising.
What's unusual about Ga-Rei Zero is that it isn't an adaptation of a manga series... it's a prequel to Hajime Segawa's 12 volume manga, created late in the manga run to showcase events before its first story arc. As such, the turn in the first episode amounts to Darth Vader showing up, the hop back is establishing Anakin Skywalker's meeting with Obi-Wan Kenobi, and a lot of the moments in between play to "oh, weren't they different back then" potential.
All of this is apt to be lost on a North American anime watcher who almost certainly hasn't seen the manga (it's not licensed) and very probably doesn't even know it exists. While the anime certain drops a layer without that juxtaposition, its closed circle narrative still works in its own right.
The Ga-Rei manga follows an otherwise normal boy who can see the spirits of the restless dead. It introduces this unhappy lead screwing up a date when he leaves his fast food joint table to punch out the maggot dripping Sengoku ghost hovering over his would-be hook-up. The girl is incensed by his seemingly nonsensical behavior and retaliates by snapping the lead's the cell phone. Then when buying a replacement, he's chased out of the store by a swarm of dead babies. In the escape attempt, he collides with and accidentally kisses a girl on a motor scooter.
This girl is Kagura Tsuchimiya, a cool bad-ass who nonchalantly chews on sticks of pocky while facing down all sorts of spirit world threats... who has the enormous dragonish spirit devourer inugami/dog spirit Byakuei chained up, ready to be release from a seal on her back.
The world of Ga Rei is defined by an interesting mesh of outright and more covertly engaged conflicts. There's a dangerous supernatural world that most of humanity is unable to see and unequipped to deal with. The Ministry of Defense has Paranormal Disaster Countermeasure military squads with the special gear and technology needed to at least put up a fight against beings from the spirit world. The Ministry of Environment takes an alternative route with its Supernatural Disaster Countermeasures Division, leveraging the talents of families who spent generations engaged in spiritual warfare with the supernatural. Then, within those exorcist families, there's the tension of defining lines of succession and between the mainline and its branches.
Kagura Tsuchimiya is the heir to one of those exorcist families, and the chronological beginning of the anime finds Kagura reeling from her mother's death in supernatural combat and her father's stern admonishments that she must train with the intensity needed to ensure that she never lets down the people that her legacy has tasked her to protect.
Ga-Rei zero fits into the Ga-Rei omnibus by showing how Kagura developed from an intense, sullen girl into the chill professional, by way of her relationship to Yomi Isayama, a surrogate older sister, and a foster child who has been named heir to another primary exorcist family. The route the tragic story takes is as much about what Kagura loses as it is what she finds. And, as the merciless flash forward opening demonstrates, the stakes can be quite grave in Kagura's violent journey.
That Ga-Rei Zero is generally and purposefully serious is a distinction from the manga, which is far more often smirky about its brutality... with a love of being messy, over the top or offering a ha-ha take on being angsty. Its male lead for example... he's the typical put upon guy, but fun-angry, more Daffy Duck than anything dour. Like many leads, he's without adult supervision due to his parents, being overseas; the Ga-Rei manga handles that with gleefully absurd photo of a manically intense kimono clad samurai and wife posing before the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
In contrast to the tongue-in-cheek original, the anime is earnest, with lighter and wackier elements stuck into the dark core. Yet, while the anime is consistently aware of the manga, I'm not convinced that it is making a statement or offering an intentional counterpoint. The world building background to all the relationships between exorcist families, government factions and such might be elaborate but I'm not entirely convinced that its human dimensions are thoroughly considered. For example, the tempestuous relationship between Yomi and her intra-department, intra-exorcist family romance is supposed to be cute, but when the two start decking each other after an argument, it looks more like assault and the foundation for a truly ugly relationship than an endearing lover's squabble. It has the manga on its horizon, so it doesn't need or what the viewer to speculate on the future. As such, its psychology has an at face value, it'll tell you want you want to know quality to it.
Though you can watch Ga Rei Zero and not know of or suspect that it is a prequel, it's worth noting the relationship to and tone of the original because there are some real "goof grief" mismanagement of elements inherited from the manga. "Mismanagement" being the operative word since the worst offenders weren't even necessary. The naked wackiness of the Michael Kohara elements are particularly eye-roll inducing. While it's the military guys with the tech and not the Ministry of Environment's psychic warriors, the Supernatural Disaster Countermeasures Division does have its share of guns, gadgets and cyborg drill arms. At a couple points Ga-Rei Zero halts to try and make a joke about their weapon smith - a loin cloth clad Australian with a giant haired afro. As he tries to foist weaponized irons and boilers on the group, the anime does itself few favors.
Fortunately, the bad jokes are the exception as the anime successfully transcribes its narrative loop. It punctuates that dark story with what you'd expect anime to conventionally use to entertain. And when these aren't diasters, they're generally well executed. Kagura and Yomi's warm relationship feels close enough to genuine. And, even if both are shown to be heterosexual, either in the anime or manga, the teasing yuri (lesbian) overtures, particularly with the two memorably Lady and the Tramp-ing sticks of pocky are light spirited enough to be charming rather than egregious.
Similarly, while the Michael Kohara dead-halt jokes are misfires, the anime can reveled in the craziness of high stakes ghost busting, with Koike-ish battle wheel chairs, brief cases that open up to fire hails of sonic mantra attacks and the like.
Ga Rei Zero is not so smart, original or well constructed as to rise to the level of great anime. Nor is it the flaws the keep it earth bound. As such, it is going to a favorite of few anime fans, but enjoyed by many.
Anime Spotlight: Highschool of the Dead DVD Complete Collection
Released by Sentai Filmworks
So, what happens when a manga writer who won awards for a series about an elite military team of saber tooth tiger handlers puts his head together with an artist who has done Soul Calibur, Witch Blade and Gurren Lagann porn doujinshi to unleash a zombie outbreak on a group of manga teens? Well, suffice to say, it's not a well considered examination of the effect of mortal peril on teen concerns.
Highschool of the Dead is decidely more focused on sensation than thought. It's not just offering the tableau of "them" (hah, hah, they're not explicitly referred to as "zombies"), swarming onto school grounds, overwhelming, rending and consuming the whole scholastic social ecosystem. It's sexualized and jiggly... very jiggly. Jello mold like chests heave and quiver as the girls run, get banged around, or even just converse.
What marks spectacle driven Highschool of the Dead as a success is that it does not invite the thought "I should just be playing this as a video game." Especially given how often two media are in competition with each other for the attention and cash of the consumer, as well as for creative talent, especially given how well suited the dynamic of gun and undead are for gaming, that I was inclined to just let it do the zombie was something of triumph.
Madhouse, the people behind Ninja Scroll, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Black Lagoon, Demon City Shinjuku and so on, animate the hell out this business. It spins with so much extravagant zooms, panels, switches in perspective, that its swirling impression flushes out any suspicion that a video game could might be a more participatory way of exploring the material. The ultimately expression of this is a gunshot scene that will go down in the anime hall of fame (or shame), in which the male leads grabs the rifle strapped to his crush, apologizes, balances on her bosom, and fires a shot under the short skirt and through the legs of a charging, wooden sword wearing peer. A second shot passes through sword girl's penduluming tits. It used to be a cliché that anime would repeat something dramatic like a death or server wounding from multiple angles. That old school repeat cuts, and negative images has nothing on Highschool of the Dead's drooling, slowing replay on what recoiling and the passage of rifling bullets does to girls bodies.
The blood spattered wiggling does get old, and after an inoculation, the excitement loses its ability to infect. There were no shortage of avenues for Highschool of the Dead to rapturously engage over the course of its not too long 12 episode run. It could have tapped into biologically ingrained fascination with survival and breeding. It could have been infuriatingly pandering. It could have even gone the Romero route and chase some charged commentary. Instead, it sticks close to a limited set of tricks, such that I was bored enough that it took multiple tries and a some effort to finish the series.
Given how I'd half jokingly called the series "Misogyny of the Dead" after its Japanese trailer featured the male lead slapping his panicking crush, I thought that the anime was at least going to get a rise out of me.
Of these, I thought that the anime was going to get a rise out of me. In addition to the bouncing, the anime's Japan's trailer had the male lead slapping his panicking crush, such that I jokingly called the anime "Misogyny of the Dead."
Along the lines of "the food's bad and the portions are too small," I was disappointed by how little the anime exorcised me. Sure, the sexual politics were wonky. When it gets to political politics, comparing right wing and left wing survivors at its conclusion, that's a little eye brow raising too. The ultra right wing parents agitate the group's straight A student, but they when righties are compared to a couple from the opposite end of the spectrum, the former look like bad-asses with their business together, while the later wind up looking like nonsensical chumps.
There's little sign that the series is thinking too deeply. For example, the right wing pater familias takes out his katana and removes the head of a zombie bitten former associate, dramatically sending the cranium flying into a nearby foundation. The sequence is all about how bad-ass the guy his, without any suggestion of a second thought that a water supply just got polluted. Evidence that Highschool of the Dead gave much of anything beyond weapons trivia and invented breast physics a second thought is rare.
As applied to its dramatic elements, when the characters start freaking out, its about their social pressures and conventional romantic tensions, things that really look like luxuries in a world where everyone is fighting to survive a global zombie apocalypse.
Highschool of the Dead doesn't provoke a dumbfounded "who thinks that!?" On one hand, it's not bat guano crazy in Go Nagai turtle demon with stolen souls in shell sense. It's not traipsing over the line with some natural affinity for transgression. On the other hand, it’s not a rage inducing product of cultivated perv or pandering. It's not trying to slime the viewer with shared ickiness in the way of an anime like Master of Martial Hearts.
Highschool of the Dead doesn't provoke "who thinks that?" because it's real obvious.
Madhouse animated the hell out a very male, very juvenile fantasy. In that, it's too comfortable, too easily excitable by the obvious to be too bothered by its pandering.
That's not too profound, but even if Highschool of the Dead was starting a step behind, these testosterone twitches still could have been more exciting to watch if there weren't two contradicting currents on the horizon that rob it of real urgency or discomfort.
On one hand, it really wants to suggest an impression of doom. It bookends episodes with a voice over about how, as bad as it is for the characters, everything is about to get unimaginably, unpredictably worse. The series certainly know how to promise big.
On the other hand, Highschool of the Dead sits on a status quo. These folks don't even lose their Humvee after an EMP has cooked everyone else's ride.
That it's based on a manga that doesn't offer it a logical point of closure is part, but not all of the issue. For all its talk of the human cost of survival, it's a very static set-up. The cast starts running, then travel around a bit. They talk a bit about how different they've become since zombie outbreak. They reveal the experiences that traumatized them pre-zombie outbreak. The anime explicitly says that the characters are changed, and that the cataclysm that changed them is getting worse. What it actually demonstrates is that they have guns and know how to use them.
What the anime does is offer specific stunts, like the famous rifle shots. None of the spectacles, or talk, or supposedly worsening events really builds to anything. This leaves the viewer to watch out, waiting for the next bit of gory or bouncy flare to spark up.
Anime Spotlight: Dance in the Vampire Bund
DVD/Blu-ray Complete Series
Released by FUNimation
To address the title for a moment. I've been surprised by the number of well informed people who have asked "what's a bund." Didn't they hear mention of the German American Bund in their history classes.
More to the point of the anime itself, I was prepared to either loath Dance in the Vampire Bund or like it despite itself. I didn't suspect I was going to be so underwhelmed.
Like Highschool of the Dead, Dance in the Vampire Bund is based on a mainstream (or mainstream-ish) manga by an author of explicitly adult/pornographic works. Though I believe in Nozomu Tamaki's case, the pornographic works are mostly original rather than paradies along the lines of Highschool of the Dead's Shouji Satou/Inazuma bibliography.
Dance in the Vampire Bund follows a regular highschool boy who doesn't remember he's a werewolf and doesn't remember that he pinky promised to eternally protected vampire queenling. Beyond being a vampire, reasons are given for why the latter character looks and acts 800, going on 8 years old. That doesn't stop the anime from featuring the kid dressed in just ribbons in the opening, sexualizing lingerie in the end credits, and a number of leery scenes.
Much to the agitation of fans, when FUNimation simulcast streamed the anime with its Japanese TV airing, the distributor used a less revealing edit of the material. FUNimation commented it thought it smart to offer an online stream of material that toned down "controversial elements which, when taken out of context, could be objectionable to some audiences." It's unedited version is on the DVDs, and I don't think context really offers a non-prurient justification for a scene in which the vampireling's sunscreen wears off mid-conversation, requiring her and the male lead to adjourn to a warehouse where she strips down for the male to apply a new coat of solar protection. What ensues is a surprisingly long sequence of a guy rubbing a naked girl, and then, because it's interrupted, a fight in the buff. I don't remember the last time an anime so struck me with a feeling of "I shouldn't be watching this."
On the other hand, I heard that the story featured some political intrigue. It's about the too young looking, acting girl, Mina Tepes building a vampire governed independent zone on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, along the lines of the periods of non-Chinese controlled Hong Kong and Shanghai. I'm always up for that sort of material when it's handled intelligently.
Beyond that, the anime is a production from studio Shaft and Akiyuki Shinbo, the flashy director of Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, Soul Taker, Pani Poni Dash, Maria Holic and Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase. There's some anime on his resume that I particularly dislike, but I am a sucker for watching his stylized direction with its repertoire of time dilation, negative space, glowing colors and visual reference.
Unfortunately, Dance in the Vampire Bund gets its best and worst out the way early.
Beyond that sunscreen scene, there's a bondagey not-virginity examination and there's the tone of the relationship between a teenage girl and her adolescent male neighbor that into hones in on something more than kindred spirits. The anime is hardly eschews sexualizing its kiddy lead throughout the rest of the anime, and it does remain a defining characteristic, but doesn't again rise to the exceptional peak it hit in that early sequence. I'm not a fan of anime that plays this sort of game with young looking characters, but Dance in the Vampire Bund is not generally difficult to watch the way that that early scene suggested.
The politics are more consistent in that they're entirely underwhelming. The male lead, is simply dutiful, so he's uninteresting, but no problem to write. Mina is more of an issue in that she's more intelligent than her writers. (Hiroyuki Yoshino also worked on Code Geass, so here's someone who is trying to write schemers). There are some plans within plans, but the writing far more often seems constructed by someone with an unsophisticatedly broad view of dirty dealing. It's all threatening finances and family. Without sharing specifics, Mina whips out some charts, says she controls assets such that she has the power to ruin a school or a nation, and says do want she wants or she'll bankrupt you. The level of financial discourse is pretty much just left at "She who controls the gold makes the rules," and Kenji Kamiyama/Ghost in the Shell this is not.
The disappointment with the direction is more to the point of the broader problem with the anime. There's a unique first episode which tell a one-off Mina Tepes experience through the lens of a TV panel show. An academic, a starlet, a hammy stage performer, and Nozomu Tamaki are brought onto a show to discuss whether vampires are real. So, Shinbo plays with a lot of motifs of television. You filming on the set, found footage, interviews and so on. The direction gets even more interesting when this erupts into chaos as some vampire business break out during the filming. It even manages aa nice twist on the conventions vampire lore. Like the sunscreen scene, this episode isn't really characteristic of the anime has a whole.
As uninteresting as the characters are, there are plenty of opportunities for Shinbo to do something visually exciting with this world of vampire lords, extravagantly dressed werewolf guards, outcast undead and monster assassins. The production is never lazy in the term of obvious shortcuts. Nor it is bad looking anime. It is however disappointingly routine. Though not as radical as they were in the first episode, Shinbo's trademark approach to color, perspective and reference are present. Since once the anime gets going, he doesn't modulate this, the look normalizes. Maybe this a case where the anime worked better as weekly show than it does packed onto a DVD, because I got used to the Shino effect real quickly, such that I had to rewatch the release to remind myself that the show was doing something unusual. More than remembering his tricks, I remember him not emphasizing the big or unusual moments with extra panache. I got real bored watching the anime hit singles on what it should have knocked out of the park. I remember a goofy Vampirella outfit on a character named Hysterica, I remember a character whose attack of choice was throwing hard candy, I remember being amazed how the anime largely shrugged off a Monkey King style kung-fu assassin who turns into a red-assed were-baboon, and I remember my attention glazing over waiting for some Shinbo style to elevate material that seemed well suited to. It left the impression of a workman Shaft/Shinbo production... that they had their standards, but weren't getting too excited about the work.