Most anime are adaptations of established light novel and manga series, which can lead to problems when an anime runs out of source material to adapt before the season’s end, or equally runs out of broadcast time with whole shelves of manga still to go. Complaining about deviations from the sacred canon is something of a sport for certain anime fans, whether it be original endings for anime that can’t follow a continuing manga, or new episodes, so often casually dismissed as “filler”, while animators mark time before another adaptable manga story arc is completed. I hesitate to leap in with the same angry enthusiasm though – anime studios aren’t just glorified Xerox factories, they do have a creative impulse themselves that is a waste to leave unexpressed. Even if content is different from the manga, the manga still exists, and with new content you get more bang for your buck. Some of the most highly-regarded shows of recent years have been “anime originals” (notably Puella Magi Madoka Magica) and Ga-Rei-Zero is a signal example of what loosing the fetters on anime producers and letting them stretch out can achieve.
Ga-Rei-Zero is derived from the manga The Enchanted Spiritual Beast Ga-Rei by Hajime Segawa, which ran in Monthly Shonen Ace from 2005-2010. The Ga-Rei manga has never had an official English translation, but multilingual readers can find licensed French, German and Italian editions still available in continental bookstores. Although we haven’t seen it in the UK then, Ga-Rei-Zero has a somewhat notorious background which has secured it a very distinctive place in anime history.
Rather than being a direct adaptation of the manga, Ga-Rei-Zero is a prequel created from whole cloth by the anime production team, and telling us about the development of its lead heroine Kagura and the fall from grace of one of the manga’s early villainesses, Kagura’s adoptive sister Yomi. Despite the fact that the original mangaka was not at all involved in the writing of the anime’s new story, audiences reacted extremely positively to Ga-Rei-Zero – in fact, it was such a rip-roaring success that Segawa found himself being eclipsed by the derivative spin-off and, to try and recoup some attention, he began retconning his own story to fit in with the anime! Leaving aside the competing texts, the Ga-Rei-Zero anime is also well-known in its own right for the gut-punch of its infamous bait-and-switch first episode, and the deliberately misinformational promotion campaign that preceded it. These completely yanked the rug out from under unsuspecting audiences and such stunningly effective blindsiding ensured that it was talked about earnestly and installed as a classic. We come to Ga-Rei-Zero several years afterwards, though – the anime was originally broadcast back in 2008 – and after the power of these surprises has long been fired and spent. Events surrounding the anime have ensured that Ga-Rei-Zero has been remembered, but is it only as a historical curio?
Since time immemorial the task of purgingunclean souls and restoring karma’s balance in the world has fallen to families of Vanquishers, long lines of spiritual warriors who turn evil against itself by using monster-infused gems known as banestones to bind great beasts to their will through complex rituals and unleash them on the foe. This task has continued up into the modern day, cosmic truths not stopping for cars and the Internet, although now the Vanquisher families are controlled by a government office known as the Supernatural Disasters Countermeasures Division to co-ordinate an invisible metaphysical war that allows the common man to continue his life of blessed ignorance.
Kagura is the young daughter of a prestigious family of Vanquishers, but her already tough life and severe upbringing are uprooted completely when her mother is killed while battling a monster. With her father assuming the family banestone from his late wife and becoming a monster-hunter full-time, Kagura is sent away to the city to be fostered by another Vanquisher family. In their care she meets the older teenager and aspiring demon-slayer Yomi; keen to look after her ward, Yomi helps to break the anxiously and studiedly serious Kagura out of her shell and the two become fast friends, sisters in all but name as they grow close together and begin taking on work for the SDCD. However, Kagura and Yomi will not be allowed to enjoy their happy life together, and circumstances are conspiring to tear them apart in blood and misery.
Ga-Rei-Zero was directed by Ei Aoki, who would later go on to direct similar dark urban fantasies Fate/Zero and the first Garden of Sinners movie; the formative influence of Ga-Rei-Zero on his later work is visible when you go back to them after watching this. Speaking of links to other titles, I can start out by reassuring viewers that they won’t feel as though they’re only watching half a story. Although Ga-Rei-Zero is associated with an unreleased manga, the story it tells and the setting in which it takes place are entirely self-contained. There are a few background shots scattered throughout the series of characters that will later feature in the manga, but it’s never intrusive and if you didn’t know who they were you’d be no worse off for it. The ending is left, if not open, then slightly ajar, but all of the plot arcs of the series are tied off and you won’t feel as though you’ve had a truncated experience. You can enjoy the series without any outside references being required.
There is also plenty to look at as well, because the anime has appealing art. The CG used for some of the larger monsters is crude and plasticky, but it’s not used too often, and the other details are quite attractive, with detailed backgrounds as part of a living world. There is a little nudity (one short bath scene, and a brief bit of backside when someone is transforming into a monster), but while Kagura’s and Yomi’s miniskirts show off their lovely long legs, magic keeps them firmly stuck down on their shapely thighs so there are no knicker flashes no matter how many flips, rolls, jumps, spins and high-kicks they do. That’s actually something worth mentioning because Ga-Rei-Zero is very well-animated. Everything flows slickly and smoothly and action scenes aren’t just yelling spells at each other but are elaborately choreographed with movement, tactics and active use of the environment, serrated with the odd touch of outrageous spectacle and all slashing by with cutting, lethal speed. While the music in the show isn't especially distinguished, the opening theme "Paradise Lost" is one of my all-time anime favourites and really fires you up for what's to come - the animation of the opening sequence itself is also pretty efficient shorthand for Yomi's and Kagura's sisterly relationship too. With a crisp, clear DVD transfer on this release, you should be able to enjoy it all fully even without a Blu-Ray release here in the UK.
Coupled with the interesting action is a great sense of inventive design. I love the diverse weaponry used in Ga-Rei-Zero, particularly how it integrates the Eastern-mystic milieu of its supernatural forces into its tools. Whether it be tyres that flay burnt-rubber incantations into the road or sword blades that blast out with pneumatic bullet-force – or a couple of comic-relief moments where a character “straightens out” monsters with a magic iron! - they really add a lot to and ingeniously elaborate the battles that the characters fight. Even apart from anything else, Ga-Rei-Zero stands up as a great actioner.
Bizarrely, each episode begins with a disclaimer reassuring us that the organisations and characters depicted in the anime are completely fictional; don’t worry, everyone, we do not need to fear being torn to shreds by grotesque monsters that resist Dharma. I’m reminded of urban legends of microwaves with warning stickers telling you not to dry off dogs inside of them. I know that otaku have a bit of a reputation for being socially ignorant, but this is really a bit much, and it may take a wee bit more than promises of safety from ghosts to coax them outside.
They may have left that information in because they do spend a bit of time talking about government departments when setting up the role of the SDCD, in that dull officious way that only salarymen can manage. The undead are shambling over Tokyo but civil servants and small-minded socialists would rather spend entire scenes bickering about jurisdiction over who gets to blow up what zombie. While there is some self-awareness of this later on in the series – characters on the ground remarking that they’re getting fed up with bureaucratic pissing contests raining down on them from up above – it nonetheless deadens the pace of the first act. That said though, it does contribute to the aforementioned early twist of the first episode, lulling us with all of the world-building and then suddenly and shockingly slicing it to shreds.
One of the reasons why Ga-Rei-Zero had such an impact when it was first broadcast was that really, while the art did have a Kuboesque sense of style in its costumes, the Ga-Rei manga was still pretty much your usual lightweight shonen battle-manga. Ga-Rei-Zero is a different beast entirely, though, striking gold in an initially unpromising seam and exploring a great deal of emotion as characters are drawn in impressive depth and detail. Yomi and Kagura have tangible arcs with credible reactions and believable changes, learning to love – and then learning to hate. It’s compelling to witness and you feel the rawness of their wounds. Even side-characters enjoy some focus as their weaknesses are laid bare when confronted by developing horrors.
It’s not all stodgily grim, though, and it is to the show’s credit that before the main plot kicks in it finds the time for light-hearted incidents as Yomi fumbles with establishing a relationship with her arranged husband and some comic relief as the SDCD tries dealing with their armourer’s quirkier weapons with... specific applications. I wouldn’t have minded having another episode of this stuff really, but I appreciate them finding the room to include what they have.
When the time comes to transition from the lighter fare to the dramatic plot, though, unfortunately the anime grinds the gears while making the shift. It’s unfortunately the case that a lot of the problems that arise are inflicted on the characters only because they’ve decided to play a game of catch with the Idiot Ball. Any modicum of communication could have relieved multiple characters of so many traumas, but in its rush to get disaster going the anime dispenses with such logic. A character has faked a contract – another character knows that it’s been faked, and even calls the forger out on it, and then... does... nothing... and... lets it slide? Eh?
In another glaring example, the Agency suspect a character of murder, believing her M.O. to be that she murdered the victim and then self-harmed to deceive people that the killing was self-defence. This character is a quadriplegic. You know what? If she was as guilty as sin I’d say fair play to her and let her go. I mean, that’s dedication, that is. Further still, there are also a raft of problems that arise from that queerly Japanese trait of an inflexibly absolutist imposition of the law. Good grief, guys, even Judge Dredd understands the concept of extenuating circumstances! It’s such a shame – the writers have put more effort than most anime into crafting full characters with significant development far beyond mere haircuts, and yet the circumstances that compel much of that development are a series of clumsy contrivances that leave you howling at the screen in frustration at how people can suddenly get beaned with the Stupid Bat.
The English voice cast do work around this with some strong performances – it seems a bit flat at first but as the story builds up towards its tragic climax, there is a real sense of emotional pain behind the cries. The script also has room for some lively exchanges that give the speech vim and colour, and I do like the translation of some terms. There are however a number of lines that I’d quibble with... what I mean to say is, J. Michael Tatum’s assumption that kids today wouldn’t know who Led Zeppelin are makes me feel old...
Ga-Rei-Zero comes in a three-disc set. All of the episodes of the series itself are split between the first two discs, while all of the extras are loaded onto the third disc. I quite like this idea – I always enjoy extras as a value-add it is more convenient than having to go hunting for the listed extras across discs. The extras are fairly interesting as well – in addition to a few trailers for other MVM titles and the obligatory clean OP/ED set, you can get a flavour of the misdirection that danced around viewers before the series aired with a selection of TV spots and promo reels. There is also a series of live segments following the studio staff location-scouting for background environments to depict in the anime – now, I admit that at first that might sound about as riveting as the home video of Great-Aunt Glenda’s visit to her sister in Crewe but it’s actually well worth your time. I always enjoy getting a peek at the machinery under the bonnet, and these videos aren’t just self-congratulatory jolly junkets (studios like setting anime in foreign countries where they can because they can then travel abroad for a knees-up... erm, research expedition) but does have genuine relevance to the anime’s production, including a number of comparison shots between the sources and the final product. The studio team also seem to get along well also and listening in on their banter is actually entertaining in its own right.
Altogether I greatly enjoyed Ga-Rei-Zero. Its pacing doesn’t hit the beat in early episodes and it stumbles through a few mis-steps when resolving its plot, but that’s not to say it has club feet – with superb action that isn’t just a superficial gloss but used to enunciate and highlight real emotional depth, it’s an affecting and rewarding series.