Hey, Kids! Do you like horror? Do like Sentai and Kamen Rider, but wish there was more blood and tits? Do you like your main protagonist to be an insufferable asshole? Then let me tell you about Garo!
Garo is a tokusatsu show, a type Japanese TV drama heavy on special effects, produced in 2005. The show is horror themed, and strongly reminiscent of older supernatural/horror shows from the early 90s like Highlander or Forever Knight. Each episode of the first season features Kouga, a Makai Knight, facing off against Horrors out to devour humanity. Yes, the monsters are literally called Horrors.
Kouga is joined in the cast by Kaoru, a young aspiring painter who is accidentally splashed with the blood of a Horror during a fight in the opening episode, thus dooming her to die an excruciating death in a hundred days unless Kouga chooses to kill her first. Kouga refuses to kill her, claiming to want to use her as bait to draw out more Horrors who are attracted to the smell of the blood of their fellow demons. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen. Kaoru pulls double-duty throughout the first season as both comic relief and love interest, with her bumbling attempts to fulfill her dreams of being an artist, or at least a self-sufficient adult, routinely foiled by Horrors. Man, why are monsters of the week such dicks?
The above illustrates one of my problems with the series: Kouga is sort of an asshole. He never apologizes, he never shows gratitude, and he never explains. He has one setting, and that’s gruff. Even when he supposedly likes things, he seems brusque. For people who like the moody loner badass archetype he serves well, but personally I find him too cold to be likable most of the time. Have the guy pet a kitten or something, geez.
Kouga enjoys the title of Garo, which means he’s the top Makai Knight of the Makai Order. The Makai Knights use a variety of magical tools and weapons to hunt down Horrors and seal the Gates Horrors use to possess people. Most notable of Kouga’s equipment is a magical talking ring called Zaruba, who works both as a mascot character and exposition fairy. Zaruba usually helps express Kouga’s inner fears and emotions, which is sorely needed for the character, and posits useful information about the various Horrors our valiant hero faces each week.
About halfway through the first season the show introduces Rei AKA Zero, another Makai Knight who is set up to be Kouga’s professional and possibly romantic rival. He makes an excellent foil for Kouga except for one thing: Zero is basically identical, a moody badass loner clone. Arrogant, ungrateful, and unapologetic, the biggest difference between difference between the two is that while Kouga’s expression is the same as if he had just stepped in hot urine, Zero appears to like it.
The two go around and around throughout the series. At one point, Kouga saves Zero, which among normal people might result in friendship or at least mutual respect, but instead results in the two having a who can give fewer fucks contest. The macho atmosphere cuts a bit thick; if I were a fangirl, I know what kind of fan fic I would be writing right now. The fabulously magical talking jewelry even says as much.
The Makai Knights are directed by the Watchdogs, mysterious entities that send out orders to the Makai Knights telling them when a Horror is on the loose, its capabiliites and where it appeared from. We know very little about the true nature of these characters, and the first season really only tells us one thing: that the Japanese are terribly frightened of little girls.
Of course for me, the most interesting characters in Garo are the monsters, the Horrors. Horrors appear in all shapes and sizes, and seem to have quite a variety of tastes and methods. The range from animalistic to near human. Some are mixtures of prostheses and elaborate makeup, while others are enormous CGI monstrosities. The Horrors are designed by Yasushi Nirasawa, who formally worked on various Kamen Rider series, and you can see the influence. Many manage to retain a sort of familiarity with the monsters normally seen in lighter shows, but usually have enough of a darker creepier edge to keep things serious. Usually.
Garo features some amazing martial arts action, with very impressive wire work. You really cannot deny the physical prowess of the actors, even those portraying side characters. Action scenes are very well done, and the series delivers on it’s fight scenes. At least, it delivers during live action sequences. One of the curses of liking this kind of show is dealing with CGI, and sometimes downright terrible CGI. Pretty much all fight scenes climax with Kouga transforming into his golden knight armor and finishing off the Horror. That armor looks like this.
Now you took one look at that picture and either thought that was awesome, or completely ridiculous. Personally, I still haven’t made up my mind about it. In live shots the armor looks really good for what has to be plastic – big props to the props guy on this one. In the CGI shots however, it becomes very obviously fake. Of course, for many of the CGI shots everything is CG – the armor, the Horror, the background, the whole-she-bang – so you get something that looks like a PS2 cut-scene. It’s another mark against CGI in general is that it really does not age well; Cinderella still looks awesome even after 60 (!) years, while Titan A.E. looks terribly dated after 10. But I digress.
My favorite thing about Garo though isn’t the action, but rather the show’s take on the nature of evil. While the show focuses on fighting supernatural evil, typically it’s mundane human evil that allows the supernatural evil to thrive in the first place, and often is worse. In some episodes it’s a matter of day-to-day vice, like simple greed or desire for control. In others the human element is downright psychotic, sadistic, or extreme to the point of making the cannibalistic monsters look almost harmless by comparison; the Horrors are simply following a natural compulsion to kill to eat after all. The show speaks to an evil we bring on ourselves; it’s almost like we desire a punishment for our darker natures, and it can start with the smallest things: a moment of weakness, a pang of loneliness, a petty desire. Maybe it’s best to have some silly CGI knight vanquish our fantastic foes, so we can have more time to face the real ones within.