Since I finished up my re-watch of Kamen Rider: Agito, I thought I’d shift gears a bit into something that I haven’t seen before, and something that’s NOT related to Kamen Rider. So for the next few weeks, I’ll be watching through the Garo series, “Makai no Hana” and posting my thoughts and commentary on it from a fresh perspective here.
Since this is a new franchise that I haven’t touched on yet in this blog, I thought I’d do a quick introduction to the series. I’ll also briefly explain the idea of tokusatsu for people who might be reading without prior experience to this, or even my Kamen Rider articles.
Okay, so what’s a “Garo”?
Garo is a Japanese tokusatsu series with an Urban Horror/Fantasy setting, an emphasis on fancy out-of-suit fights and action, and is generally aimed at mature audiences with darker themes and occasional sexual and adult content.
When I say “tokusatsu” most people will probably look at me like I just blew a particularly messy sneeze, but American and other western audiences will probably recognize the media that it refers to. “Toku”, for short, merely refers to live-action, action-focused TV shows that make heavy use of special effects. In the United States, most people are familiar with one localized version of a toku series, and that is the long-running Power Rangers.
Using partially recycled footage from the original Japanese “Sentai” show, plus new footage shot with actors, and dubbed over when appropriate, it becomes a hodge-podge of superheroes in bright costumes and full-face covering helmets who summon robots out of nowhere to fight an endless series of goofy comedic relief villains.
In truth though, that’s only one example within the genre, which has been a pretty influential staple of Japanese TV following the close of WWII and the westernization of the country from the 50’s and 60’s to today. Most Japanese toku that western audiences know of tends to be properties aimed at younger kids. Because, well, that’s what most of the popular series tend to be in the first place. Ultraman, Sentai, Kamen Rider, all are aimed at younger audiences, and while they don’t necessarily shy away from hard topics or some darker, scary moments, they’re typically kept within the context of a kid’s (or young adult’s, if you will) point of view. There’s not anything inherently wrong with that though, and these franchises all have some impressive seasons that hold up just as well for adult audiences.
But Garo is not aimed at kids. Instead of Japan’s equivalent of Saturday morning cartoons, Garo usually airs later in the evenings on school nights and is very much aimed at an adult audience with more mature themes.
I’ve spent the last few weeks on this blog largely talking about the Kamen Rider franchise, which was my first entrance into toku. However, Garo is worth watching as well, and I’ve been wanting to talk about it for a while, to introduce more people to the franchise.
Garo is a relatively recently-created series, as opposed to other more well-known franchises that have been around for nearly half a century. The first season aired back in 2006, created by veteran monster-designer and producer Keita Amemiya. He comes with bragging rights, being involved with the direction for other successful toku properties before this, as well as video games like the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. Amemiya has a distinct art style that’s instantly recognizable, and really does a lot to set this series apart from other longer-running franchises. The first season, despite being financed almost entirely out-of-pocket by Amemiya, found a solid fan-base and succeeded well enough to allow for multiple following seasons, several movies, and even two anime spin-off series.
This series of posts will be focused on one of those live-action series, “Makai no Hana” (translated, “The Flower of Makai”). While I’ve seen all the other live-action seasons of Garo, this one has been on my backburner for quite a while, in part because I’ve heard from other fans that it doesn’t really live up to the quality of its preceding seasons.
Well, honestly, I sat through both seasons that feature Ryuga and didn’t hate those too badly, so I figure this one can’t be any worse.
The story so far:
Garo’s setting is at once, rich, historical, detailed, and yet fairly recognizable and simple to explain. In the world of this series, “Horrors” are manifestations of humanity’s dark side, our fears, flaws, and sins. They gather to – and are strengthened by – places and people where these dark sides are particularly strong. And in doing so they can possess people to turn them into Horrors themselves, who will visit awful things on innocent human beings. Murder, at the very least. Often fates even worse than death.
To fight against Horrors, there are two groups that work side-by-side, in secret, in the modern day. On one side, there are the Makai Knights. These are men who have specially trained to be able to wield special magical swords and armor to hunt and kill Horrors. The titular “Garo” is the title given to the Golden Knight, generally regarded to be the strongest, most exemplary member of this group. The first two seasons of the franchise focus on one man who bore this title – Kouga Saejima – and how he came to be regarded with such legendary status.
And hoooooooo boy does he earn it indeed, I highly recommend watching the material that features the character on your own. It’s not just good toku – that run of the franchise represents some outstanding stories by any metric. Makai no Hana features his son, Raiga, who has taken up the family title in his place later on.
Along with knights, there are also Makai Priests who utilize the “Makai” or the system of magic in this setting to augment and assist them. Most priests can’t kill Horrors on their own (the main exceptions are leading characters featured across the series), but they are invaluable allies who contribute a lot to both the fight against Horrors, as well as developing the more spiritual, mystical sides of the setting.
The “Makai” itself is a fairly nebulous power source, both containing positive and negative elements. While the knights and priests wield power by directing its force, the Horrors they fight, as well as other mythical beasts that populate the show’s setting, draw their own power from it as well. This sort of yin-yang duality is developed a LOT over the course of the seasons, often times with characters having to make great sacrifices in order to gain the power necessary to succeed in saving the day, and with the understanding that their fight is one that will never have an ultimate end. As long as humanity itself exists, so will the Makai, and so will the negative aspects of it that create the monsters.
Despite this, the series manages to be strongly idealistic, romantically so, stressing the importance of integrity, honor, selflessness, and the responsibility of protecting others. It’s the fact that the lead characters are literally Knights in Shining Armor that endears me a lot to the series, in addition to its unique visual direction, excellent cast of interesting characters, and rich world-building.
I’ll be posting an article about once a week covering five or six episodes, out of a full run of 23 episodes. If you’ve followed my Agito posts, the structure will likely be similar to the last one, where I break down the article into the individual episodes in order to discuss plot events and thematic material. Although I’ve seen almost everything else in the franchise (the anime series will be the feature of another article some time in the future), I’ve never seen Makai no Hana, so I’m looking forward to finishing the live-action side of the property.
Although the series is not officially licensed for a western distribution, I’ll be using the releases from the fan-subbing group Over-Time for this. If you want to follow along at home, the same subs are readily available from their website.
That’s all for now, I’m very excited about undertaking this series, and will most likely put the first batch of commentary out on Friday or Saturday.