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"Red Garden" Blooms

Often, a show will come along that has a really good premise but which ultimately fails in its execution. You watch it and realize something’s not quite right, and you can’t understand why it’s not as engaging as it should be. The tone of the series just doesn’t match what you were led to believe it would be like.

Red Garden is not one of those shows. This is one of the rare ones that fulfills its promise.

Red Garden, a 2006 Japanese animated series from Gonzo, brings together four high school girls who occupy different places in the social hierarchy: shy girl Rose, popular girl Rachel, outcast Claire, and rich girl Kate. Although they go to the same school, they had no previous interaction until the death of a common friend brought them together. They are then plunged into a world of supernatural battles, where every night brings the possibility that a butterfly will visit and summon them to fight human-looking but vicious monsters.

This is a cool premise, and the concept can go in many different directions, but Red Garden doesn’t shy from emphasizing the truly horrific nature of its scenario. Although the girls do possess some superhuman skill, such as the ability to take large leaps into the air, the fights themselves are down to earth, featuring punches, kicks, and attacks with baseball bats. There’s less blood in the first few episodes that you’d expect, but it does show up eventually. There is also profanity, though in truth it’s used sparingly for the most part, and always to heighten the situation.

The series does a good job showing the emotional cost of the girls’ battles. They not only struggle through a war they never wanted to be a part of, they also have to deal with personal problems involving friends, boys, and family. The characters are well rounded, and they deal with their problems in realistic, grounded ways. And even with their faults, they are highly likeable and relatable.

The character designs are pretty simple and, despite a few exaggerated features here and there, fairly realistic. The world of Red Garden is full of dark settings, and does a commendable job capturing the look and feel of New York City. The girls go to school on Roosevelt Island, there are shots of the subway, and many of the locations throughout the city are recognizable as actual places in New York. There are even some recognizable New York landmarks, like a billboard display for a play called Witches that bears a striking resemblance to the Broadway play Wicked.

The background music is suitably somber, and though the characters do actually sing a few songs during the series they usually have a melancholy tone. Although the opening theme song, “Jolly Jolly,” is a bit lighter and the opening credits are decorated by flowers and pearls in front of a New York backdrop, it still fits into the lives and personality of the four teenage girls. There are two end theme songs used in the series, both by the band LM.C. The first one is more of a rock song and often becomes awkward to hear after an emotionally charged cliffhanger ending, but the second one fits the tone of the series a bit better.

My only real complaint would be that they introduce the villains a bit late in the series. They develop a good mystery by stringing along the girls, and not letting them exactly know what they’re a part of, but because of that, we don’t see an actual face behind the happenings until about halfway through the series. The bad guys are fascinating characters, and it would’ve been nice to see them earlier on.

The series comes to a close after 22 episodes, but the DVD set also includes an OVA called Dead Girls, which is about their continuing adventures. Slightly removed from the main series, the OVA takes place in a futuristic New York. The girls haven’t aged and are still joined together in the fight against monsters. They have traveled the world and returned to high school life in New York City. They use the typical, technologically advanced vehicles and weapons you get in a future-set story, and it also throws in a giant robot. The horror vibe is still present, particularly when the plot really kicks in, but the futuristic flashiness doesn’t lend it the same charm as the dark, realistic tone of the main series.

Although the Dead Girls OVA doesn’t live up to the series, Red Garden itself is a great show. It’s fun, engaging, and even scary at times. The series is only 22 episodes, and although it goes by quickly, every episode works towards something bigger, and there’s no filler.

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