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"Red Garden" Collections 1 & 2: Looking for Life in all the Right Places

by on June 11, 2009

Red Garden‘s background plot is a well-worn one. Two groups, the Animus and the Delorae, waged a war against each other several centuries ago. They ended up cursing each other; the Delorae are in constant danger of losing their minds and turning into monsters, while the Animus are given the “gift” of immortality, with an eventual regression to a semi-comatose state thrown in as well. The only way for one side to break the curse is for them to obtain the other side’s “book of curses”; once the two are united, the desired curse will be broken. This is all revealed to us through the eyes of four young girls (Kate, Rachel, Rose, and Claire), who were killed as part of a plot by the Delorae but were rescued and re-animated by the Animus. The Delorae are still after them for their new, re-animated bodies, so the girls are forced to fight with the Animus in order to stay alive.

Plot intricacies are not my specialty, but even I can spot a few holes in that one. The conflict between the Delorae and the Animus, a very important part of the show’s story, is left ridiculously vague. We learn that the two cursed each other years ago, but we are never told exactly what the original fight was about, or, for that matter, why it needs to carry on today. If the curses can be broken simply by bringing together the two books of curses, wouldn’t that mean that the two sides could simply both use the two books? Do the books, like, disappear or something after they’re used once? For that matter, what is a book of curses, anyway? Is it an artifact that can be used to undo spells, or is it a literal book that has curses written in it? I get the strong feeling that if everyone stopped hitting each other with baseball bats and actually talked this over, they could come up with a much more helpful solution to their private war.

I’m not supposed to think about these kinds of things, though, and the fact that I did is a bad sign for the show. In addition to this main plot, there are also several sub-plots. Each of the girls has family trouble of some kind or another, and we also often go into the perspective of one of the Delorae, named Herve. Oh, and there’s a bit of nonsense about two detectives who come close to discovering the Delorae plot (this bit in particular seems to be going somewhere until… Well, let’s just say it doesn’t go anywhere). The show, basically, spreads itself too thin. It’s very tightly plotted, which means that some of these subplots have to be roughly wound up near the end of the show.

The characters are interesting, if familiar, personalities. Kate Ashley, the glorified hall monitor and unofficial leader of the group, is a polite young girl but is the least realized of the four. there is a moment where she sadly describes herself as “boring”, which is a terrible thing for a character to have to admit, even if in this particular instance it’s true. There is a potentially interesting sub-plot about her becoming disillusioned with the snobby school board that she is a member of, but this is unfortunately one of the storylines that gets cut off. Still, she’s a useful cipher, and that’s usually all the show requires her to be.

The other girls are a mite more interesting. Rose is a rather cowardly young girl who, despite some home problems, was reasonably happy before being forced to take part in the war. Claire is a Badass-from-a-Broken-Home, which is not exactly original, but she’s well written and there are also a few gentle moments where she learns that life might not suck as hard as she originally thought. And Rachel is a snobby jerk whose freak-out when she finds out she’s dead is a sight worth seeing. Lula, the woman who gives them their “missions”, starts out as a freakishly icy, almost villainous figure, but is slowly humanized as the show goes on. Finally, Herve, the member of the Delorae we see the most, is a fascinating figure, due to the ambiguity that constantly surrounds his personality and morals. It is to the show’s credit that, even if it can’t figure out why the two groups are fighting, it knows to portray both as human. There are no real villains in this show, just a bunch of people doing things that seem like good ideas at the time.

There are several very nice moments with these characters. They are likable and unlikable by turns, when they need to be, and are voiced quite well. The show is marred by bad dialogue in both the dubbed and subbed versions, though, which ruins a few otherwise great scenes. The show’s problem in the character department comes not out of the characters themselves, who are treated with care and are quite entertaining, but out of the incredibly unrealistic actions they are frequently forced to undergo. They all freak-out fairly realistically once they figure out they’re dead, but why do they not try to get help from anyone? Why do they believe everything the shadowy Animus organization tells them? The show is also frequently much too talky, so that up to fifteen minutes is taken up by the same thing being repeated by the entire cast; a thing which, I hasten to add, the audience has already figured out. The sub-plots involving the girls’ boy troubles, while occasionally touching, are over-played a bit; there are times when the show could just about pass for a shojo. And then, of course, there’s the show’s ultimate crime: it has singing in it. Now, I’m all for more musical anime, as I think it’ll help bridge culture gaps, but there’s a time and place for such things.

Obviously, this is a show with some problems. Yet, for all that it does wrong, Red Garden has so many strengths that I can’t bring myself to all-out condemn it. As I mentioned, the characters are depicted realistically, even if their actions are not; and, even more important, if you look at it as a work of suspense, then the show is a masterpiece. Very tightly plotted with no filler whatsoever, it will leave you wanting to know what’s going to happen; that the conclusions are not wholly satisfying is a moot point. The scary moments, like the ones featuring some dog-people and a flashback scenes depicting Herve’s mansion, are genuinely frightening in a way only animation can be. The fights, when deployed, are also spectacular, with fantastic choreography and nice visuals. Speaking of the visuals, the show has a very original mode of artwork and character design; it reminds me of nothing more than an animesque Mike Judge show, and that’s a good thing. The show also has a terrific score, including a beautiful opening sequence (that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the show, but still) and a hilarious “Rock-Out” ending theme. The show is concluded by a two-part featurette that itself has all of the show’s flaws and virtues, just set in the future and with a stronger emphasis on humor, which works out quite nicely.

I’m finding it a bit hard to recommend Red Garden, especially at 22 dollars for each collection; but DVD prices, as we all know, go down. When Red Garden drops about nine dollars, it’ll be well worth a look.

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