Friday, April 7, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Garo (2005-2006)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A secret war is raging (at least in Japan). Creatures from the Underworld known as Horrors regularly creep through the cracks between dimensions to possess humans whose darkest impulses accommodate the character of the respective horror and use them to commit various atrocities. Fortunately, humankind is protected by the Makai Knights, warriors of mystical bloodlines who are able to use a magical metal known as soul metal. When need be, a Makai Knight can conjure up full body armour made from the material, but (because that's how it goes in tokusatsu shows) they can't stand being clad in the magical armour for long.

Garo follows the attempts of the perma-scowling Golden Knight Kouga Saezima aka Golden Fang aka Garo (Hiroki Konishi, now called Ryosei Konishi to confuse everyone as much as possible) to keep his territory (which might be the Eastern half of Japan or of Tokyo) save from the Horrors.

In the first episode, Kouga protects the artist Kaoru Mitsuki (Mika Hijii) from the attack of a horror, but can't prevent the dying beast's blood spattering all over her. Horror blood is quite insidious. It makes the person tainted by it a magnet for Horror attacks, and - as if that weren't bad enough - also kills the victim after exactly one hundred days in a gruesome and painful manner. By the laws of his order, Kouga is bound to kill everyone tainted thusly by the blood, but he decides to let Kaoru live and use her as bait for the various monsters of the week. Not that he's telling her anything of this, mind you.

Of course, Kouga's scowl and his absurdly abrupt manners hide a very soft core, and in truth he has a plan of trying to save Kaoru through an obscure ritual whose existence makes the whole "kill people who came in contact with Horror blood" rather problematic. Later on, Kaoru will turn out to be closer connected to the fight between the Makai Knights and the Horrors than anyone would suspect.

Apart from the secrets of Kouga's and Kaoru's pasts and family histories, and the monsters of the week, the show does (of course) also feature an equally scowl-prone rival with a chip even bigger than Kouga's on his shoulder, and a terrible conspiracy that might or might not have something to do with the three little weird girls working as Kouga's bosses.

Would you believe that everybody will learn something about showing one's feelings and stopping the damned scowling before the 25 episodes are over?

The Japanese TV show Garo is another project by master monster designer Keita Amemiya, who here is also credited as creator of the show and as its "chief director". I suspect that makes him something comparable to a very hands-on show runner for a US show.

Garo is the rare case of a tokusatsu superhero show that isn't made with a kid audience in my. Themes and tone of the show are comparatively mature (even if the emotional lives of the main characters aren't), there's even some thematically appropriate - dare I say "classy"? - nudity.

Amemiya's monster designs for the show are frequently quite brilliant, often mind-bogglingly bizarre and always completely in tune with the thing the respective monster is a metaphor for. The show's tone is often quite close to horror, with the hosts of the Horrors usually representing (and living out) the least pleasant impulses and feelings of humanity. In most episodes, Garo aims for a mood of the creepy and the bizarre, and hits its aim more often than not. Of course, there are a few other episodes. Two of them ("Doll" and "Game") have the sort of weird acid-dream quality only Japanese filmmakers still seem to want to achieve with their works from time to time, a few others are doing some rather interesting world building (that even comes together to build something like a coherent philosophy, though not exactly a deep one), and some others are doing their best to melodramatically explore the lead characters' inner demons.

The latter episodes are unfortunately the least successful ones. While the older and more experienced actors are as solid as can be, the young lead actors are ill-prepared for what the scripts ask of them here. Mika Hijii is probably the best of them; at least she's really getting into the melodramatics her character has to go through. Male lead Hiroki Konishi (and his "brooding rival" Ray Fujita, too) is often rather dreadful and at times doesn't even manage to scowl convincingly. I did have the impression that his acting improved a little over time, though. However, it is also quite possible that I just got used to him.

What Konishi and Fujita are quite good at, on the other hand, is physical acting and stunt work. Unlike many other contemporary tokusatsu shows, Garo has a lot of fighting going on when its heroes aren't wearing their stuntmen and digital effects enabling armour. At least half of the fights is actual screen fighting between the actual actors, and it is this aspect of the show where Konishi and Fujita shine. Both really seem to throw themselves into their fight scenes with enthusiasm, a certain verve, and even competence, and manage - with the help of Makoto Yokoyama's more than solid choreography and direction that knows the difference between intense and fast, and impenetrable - to make the non-suit fights memorable and exciting.

Once the suits are donned, the fighting becomes nearly all CGI all the time. Those CGI fights are an acquired taste. Where the choreography of the real life fights is oriented on martial arts cinema (with a dose of wuxia), once the armours are donned the fights begin to look very much as if they came out of a (good) hack and slash videogame (say Devil May Cry). After a few episodes of getting used to the show's very distinct two types of fights I started to enjoy the contrast between them.

Amemiya makes it quite easy to enjoy the CGI elements of the show. While everything in these scenes looks as artificial and unreal as it gets, the things it represents are frequently so imaginative and bizarre and would not be realistically achievable through practical means anybody could afford, that it would need someone much more curmudgeonly than me not to be charmed by them. How else could you witness a giant monster clown bleeding fireworks?

While a lot of Garo's basic elements are pretty generic, much of the show is pervaded by a palpable feeling of enthusiasm - for silly monsters, for metaphors, for melodrama, for the genre its working in, for the healing power of art, for fights and for batshit insanity - that makes it utterly impossible for me not to be excited about it. It's the type of genre work I like the most, working inside the clichés of a given style, but exploring how far a show can go while doing that.

The Japanese public was at least excited enough about the show to lead to a two part special/TV movie named Beast of the White Night or Beast of the Midnight Sun (that turned out to be a very silly, yet entertaining cheese-fest front-loading the show's fantasy elements and mostly eschewing the horror) and an honest to Cthulhu big screen movie, Garo: Red Requiem that came into Japanese cinemas just at the end of this October. You'll sooner or later hear from me about the latter, I'm sure.

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