"Ga-Rei Zero": Does "Ga-Rei" Mean "Infinitely Less Than"?
Ga-Rei Zero is the most ludicrous anime series I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Glass Fleet. It is the most infuriating anime series I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Spiral. In fact, Ga-Rei Zero may be just about the worst thing I’ve ever seen—domestic or imported, animated or live-action—and I’ve seen every movie that Ed Wood Jr. ever made. Ga-Rei Zero proves that ineptitude on a massive scale can be neither covered up nor compensated for by any amount of money, polish, or professionalism.
The series starts off almost immediately on the wrong foot by subjecting us to one of the brassiest and brayingest collections of too-cool-for-school, gun-fu wielding fighters ever put on screen. Every cliché, from the glowering, twin-pistol-wielding guy to the motorcycle-riding gal, takes a spin, each just long enough to nail down their stereotype in the smarmiest possible way. Thankfully, relief—though not catharsis—comes at the very end of the first episode when, the viewer’s resentment and impatience with overweening arrogance having reached a murderous climax, the show kills them all off with a flurry of blood-splashing sword strokes. For a moment, in fact, it seems as if the series has been reading your mind, and I even briefly wondered if I had suffered a psychotic break and only imagined every repellent one of the bunch being chopped into proto-frankfurters.
This could have been a clever opening—a signal that the storytellers meant to upend genre conventions. From the second episode onward, though, such a hope doesn’t just go unfulfilled, it is thrown to the ground and repeatedly violated; for Ga-Rei Zero then introduces its real cast of characters, who turn out to be even more stereotyped, even more irritating, and even more deserving of a sticky end than the first batch.
First, though, the story:
The series is set in one of those modern-world analogues where special paramilitary teams have to battle the bad spirits that roam the metropolitan landscape. Many of said phantoms are both invisible and bigger than the average sauropod, which leads to only the first of many ludicrous conceits: Because the monsters are invisible, the public is largely oblivious to their existence, and knows little or nothing of the special Defense and Environmental ministry forces that have to fight them. Yet because the phantoms are enormous—and because they regularly attract or create hordes of zombies in the midst of large cities—the heroes fight battles that rage across whole blocks and blow up lots of infrastructure. And so, apparently, the public is also oblivious to the civil disasters that (even off-screen) break out with great regularity.
Now, the silliness of this conceit might be worth something as typical plot cheez-wiz if the show had any fun with it. But Ga-Rei Zero is determined to be glum, to be grim, and to take no joy in its pyrotechnics. It turns out that the kill team so happily liquidated in the first episode was done in by a rogue fellow agent, and the second episode ends with this rogue holding a sword to the throat of her former best friend; it also implies that she has just murdered her fiancé. The rest of the series, mostly, comes after we then flash back a couple of years, so we can learn how things came to this terribly unhappy climax. The story is supposed to be tragic.
Basically, it revolves around a couple of clans who are gifted at fighting phantoms; the villainess-to-be, Yomi, has been orphaned and adopted into one of them. When another, younger girl, Kagura, is also semi-orphaned Yomi takes the girl under her wing and they become “sisters.” But there are intra- and inter-clan jealousies and rivalries at work, and Yomi’s equipoise is further bobbled because she is being forced into an arranged marriage. Watching from the shadows, meanwhile, is a mysterious little boy who seems to be instigating the upsurge in paranormal activity that has the various kill teams running themselves ragged. Eventually the kid force-implants some kind of stone first into one character and then into Yomi, which has the effect of making them—cue thunderclap and cackling laughter—eeeeeeeeevil.
All this should sound very familiar, and it is, and there isn’t any fun to be had in this crumbty-bumth variation on a very old theme and set of motifs. Only three or four types of “phantom” show up, and the main ones don’t really do anything except stomp around and make lots of noise. (Worse for these scenes: CGI work is badly integrated with the traditional animation.) A few unusual weapons get introduced—there’s an iron that steams out holy water—but these are treated as throwaway jokes, and the show prefers instead to trot out the same old sixteen-year-old girls with their sailor suits, their Pocky fetishes, and their katanas. The narrative’s tedium is only exacerbated by the ponderous developmental pace and the pretended shock of revelations that aren’t the least bit shocking.
But where Ga-Rei Zero really excels—and excels it does at being both ugly and stupid—is with its characters. There was not one character in this aggressively unpleasant mess that I didn’t want to see disemboweled; and yet because I’d been forced to put up with them first I could take only a scowling satisfaction at seeing most of them slaughtered.
There is, for a start, Yomi, who is smug, arrogant, brattish, self-centered, boorish, pushy and incapable of humor that doesn’t involve the mockery or humiliation of other people. There is May, her adoptive cousin, who is cold, calculating, condescending, manipulative, snobbish, and so plainly up to no good that she might as well walk around with a neon “DO NOT TRUST” sign blinking over her head. There are the various clan paterfamilias, who act either as brusque and unfeeling martinets or as scheming backstabbers. There are the various ghost fighters, who have no character, only tics or gimmicks stapled to their unsmiling faces. There are the civilians, who exist only to get in trouble or stand as bland contrasts to the supposed-to-be-godlike-awesome protagonists.
Worst of all is Kagura, who is the oldest cliché of all: a naïve waif with super skills who is so tender and sensitive that she can’t do anything right (until the absolute end of the show) and who blames herself for everything that goes wrong (whether she is actually responsible or not). This is bad enough, but she’s a weeper when anything goes wrong, and something is always going wrong; the wonder isn’t that she survives her every fight, but that she can keep herself hydrated what with all the burbling and blubbering she does both during and after those fights. And worse even than that, she’s a weeper who screams when she cries: Her bosom heaves like a chest-burster is trying to escape her body; her tears spatter off the back walls; she wails like an air raid siren; and she screams (and screams, and screams, and screams) out her apologies in a voice that is as grating as steel nails on a blackboard.
The obvious excuse for all this is that the characters are supposed to be flawed. They are supposed to drive each other to bad places and to suffer the consequences. But there are two problems with its execution here. The first is that the series ceaselessly confuses “flawed” with “unattractive.” It seems to think that the only way to show someone is deeply and tragically flawed is by having them do horrible things; it also seems to think that bad and horrible actions can only be perpetrated by people with awful personalities. Hence, it explains all the horrible things these people do by making their very presence loathsome.
The deeper problem is that the existence of a flaw presupposes the existence of an otherwise unflawed substance; you can only see a flaw as a flaw (and not simply as a horrible habit, or the product of bad upbringing or a genetic predisposition to act like a jerk) if the person has good and attractive qualities that are marred by the flaws. (In good, classical writing flaws aren’t even flaws; they are talents that get their possessor into trouble because they misuse them.) But the characters in Ga-Rei Zero don’t have any genuinely attractive qualities; at best, they have the faux-attractive qualities that weak writers associate with “cool” or strong-minded heroes. That’s the obvious problem with Yomi: the writers try to make her a bad-ass, but they only make her a rhymes-with-witch because they have mistaken certain accidental qualities of bad-assery (smug smartassery, for instance) for its essence. In the same way, they try to motivate the plot’s treacheries and jealousies by populating the cast with scheming, envious traitors. But the consequence is only that everyone becomes odious and hateful to the viewer.
Even the supposedly “tragic” cast to the story is confused. It is explained that the magical stones that come to dominate and finally consume certain characters need hatred to feed on. But these characters undergo personality changes so extreme that it looks far more like brainwashing or demonic possession than corruption. And yet these episodes of quasi-possession are punctuated by moments of lucidity when the girls become overcome with self-loathing at what they’ve done. These moments are brief, however, and they quickly snap back into sneering villainess mode as though they had never left it.
Never mind the impenetrably opaque explanations for what has happened to these two girls. Even on the surface there is no making sense of it all. To the extent that the girls have been overwhelmed by an external force—the aforementioned stones—then they are not morally responsible for their actions; they are no more culpable than are lunatics. But that doesn’t make their situation tragic; it only makes it unfortunate. The point of a tragic story is that it discloses something about the characters: tragedies are as individual as fingerprints, because they arise from idiosyncratic flaws and traits. But being overwhelmed by an evil force is like being run over by a car. It is the kind of thing that can happen to anyone, and so it says nothing about the victim when such a thing happens to them.
This makes for a deadly combination, and it is what finally marks out Ga-Rei Zero as not just bad but evil-minded. In trying to motivate all its bad events, it gloatingly tortures its victims with a sadism that makes you hate the tormentors. But because the victims are as unattractive as their tormentors—quite often they took their own turn as tormentors—it’s far too easy to wind up hating them too. Thus, the series stimulates and aggravates the same feelings of hatred and contempt that it pretends to condemn.
All these problems come out of an attitude that can often be glimpsed in movies and television but which is rarely on such stark display as it is here: a terrible misunderstanding of the way audiences interact with characters. Characters are the most important part of a story. If we like them, we will follow them anywhere. If we don’t like them, we will either bail on the story or grit our teeth and clench our eyes and try to ignore them while taking in the spectacle and action. Ga-Rei Zero makes it impossible to like its characters because it is only interested in torturing them, and it pretends to give them depth only by piling up death, titillation, and soapy melodramatics to operatic heights. It also seems to think that audiences can be easily distracted from incompetent characterization with some shiny swords, some shapely female buttocks, and lots of windy pseudo-profundities. It takes the tropes of tragedy—the fights, the tears, the betrayals, the corruptions—and turns them up to eleven while completely failing to provide the structure that could support and justify all the razzle-dazzle.
This is what makes Ga-Rei Zero even more unbearable—even more incompetent—than the pitiably amateurish Ed Wood. His movies had stories that, though pulpy, were fairly modest in scope, conception and range. But Ga-Rei Zero is like Spinal Tap, and I don’t mean that it is a brilliant and subtle parody of the form. I mean it is the parodied item itself: a thing so self-besotted and so free of talent that it can’t even recognize its own catastrophic failures.