The beloved tokusatsu franchise took a side trip to a sword-and-sorcery-inspired Middle Ages for its animated début. Turned out 15th century Spain had just as many black-leather wearing brooding bad boys and salacious succubi as present-day Tokyo! With some help from Rage of Bahamut and Terror in Resonance animation wizards MAPPA and Kamen Rider alumnus Yasuko Kobayashi, however, The Carved Seal of Flames became a lot more than the sum of its parts. Bloody brothers Aqua and Gee bring the final verdict on this metal opera brought to life.
Aqua’s Final Thoughts
Garo is an anime that ends with our longcoat-clad hero cutting the face off of his immortal nemesis, fusing his superpowered armour together with his dad’s, going to hell and escaping surfing on a mechanical horse. It’s also one of the most intriguing character journeys and sincere epics of recent anime history. Garo is a show that refuses to compromise on its heavy metal album cover aesthetic and bombastic violence ripped straight off the pages of a disgruntled teenager’s sketchbook. Yet at the same time, it topples the bread and butter of dark fantasy that has brought the genre to a screeching standstill and restores old ideas that feel fresh again after years of pragmatic cynicism. In spite of its medieval waste land of a setting, considerable body count and shameless refusal to cover up any of its more unsavoury excesses, Garo is an idealistic story at core — providing two distinct views on heroism that for once, are treated as complete equals.
Garo is a mature anime, one of the rare examples of its breed to understand that ‘mature’ means more than sex and violence. There’s still a lot of that, of course, as Garo doesn’t hide its origins as a late-night pulp television series — but Kamen Rider OOO scribe Yasuko Kobayashi brings the depth and dignity to fit the dark aesthetic with her brilliant pen for characterization. For every scantily-dressed seductress, there’s a reflection on Germán’s self-destructive hedonism, for every slaughterhouse a rejection of the characterization cancer that is revenge. Garo is a show that refuses to stop developing its main character even after he has had his obligatory costume switch. Kobayashi knows what makes characters tick, as even well into the show’s final stretch and after their life-changing trauma, characters falter, waver, err and suffer from highly questionable oedipus complexes. Her pen doesn’t turn characters into untouchable super-humans, but into better regular ones.
It’s around the turn of the season, when the show shoves aside the brooding León in favour of his cousin Alphonso, the chivalrous kind of hero long thought lost, that Garo turns from Kamen Horse Rider into a morality play of sorts. The first episodes of its second half chronicle the journey of a vengeance-obsessed boy into a noble hero, all while sparing his honourable counterpart from the spiteful humiliation many other dark fantasy shows would put a man of Alphonso’s nature through. It’s easy to compare Garo to Game of Thrones and other such cynical drear at first, but the likeness is superficial at best. Garo never betrays the inherent idealism of heroic fantasy, and is all the better for it. Its action is delightfully over-the-top, its world colourful despite its bleakness and its characters shining with a swashbuckling sense of humour even in the most desperate of situations. While the production quality is inconsistent in places and the plot shambles a bit towards the end, Garo‘s first foray into the realm of animation is not only a strong début for the franchise in two dimensions, but a phenomenal entry in the ever-expanding universe on its own. Whether we’ll see León, Alphonso and Ema again in the already announced sequel remains to be seen, but even in their absence, the Garo lineage will never die.
Gee’s Final Thoughts
Garo is a melodramatic display of violence and theatrics, rife with ostentatious designs and ridiculous events. And that’s the best thing about it. Billing itself as the dark and edgy counterpart to the standard tokusatsu flavor, Garo accomplishes this with a kind of dramatic flair that really sets it apart, not just from its toku inspirations, but other anime airing this season. Last year I complained about the lack of good fantasy anime, but the standout darling Rage of Bahamut was a fantastic way to address that. Of course, Garo aired the same season, and perhaps because of the former’s impact, Garo ended up falling by the wayside in some people’s books.
And that’s a shame because Garo is in and of itself a very cool fantasy anime that takes a decidedly different approach than Bahamut’s swashbuckling antics. A dark world with dark people, Garo proves time and time again it could manage that steady balance between grim and fantastic. The constant fights probably help too, keeping things kinetic and exciting, no matter how depressing things got. And boy did things get depressing. I think Garo was a lot of fun to watch not just because of the monster killing, but because of the strength of its characters. You had people like Germán and Ema, who are decidedly cool fight from the get go, but you also have guys like Alphonso and León, who were distinctly not as cool starting out.
And that might be Garo’s greatest strength. It manages to take tired tropes like the brooding anti hero obsessed with revenge or the honest but naive crown prince, and turn them into believable and likeable characters with their own pathos and motivations. It was a lot of fun to see a standard hero type like Alphonso be played completely straight. Yes, he’s naive and perhaps a bit too pure for his own good. That in no way takes away from his prowess as a Makai Knight and as his time in Garo’s armor proved, truly a man worthy of taking upon the mantle. And León, oh León. I initially hated him for being everything I dislike about modern anime protagonists, but god bless the writers at MAPPA, who hated that too. León went from a walking cliche into the singlehandedly most compelling character in the show. It took strife, heartbreak, and nigh-comical levels of personal suffering, but it all served to further León’s character development. None of the terrible things that happen to him happen for the sake of shock value, instead acting as the catalysts that forge him into a man worthy of inheriting Garo’s legacy.
As an animator, I would be remiss to not talk at least a bit about the CG armor used for the fight scenes. Seemingly taking inspiration from the likes of Tiger and Bunny, Garo’s usage of CG actually works surprisingly well. Even ignoring the sheer complexity of the designs that basically mandate CG, the CG helps give them an otherworldly look that distinctly sets them apart from their mere flesh and blood counterparts. Additionally, they’re animated with a kind of smoothness that benefits CG. A mistake many 3D animators make is attempting to fit CG-shaped blocks into hand-drawn-shaped holes, which almost always makes one look messy. Garo avoids that entirely by giving the CG armor the kind of movement and impact befitting of a magical suit of transforming armor.
Overall, Garo is a joy to watch. It’s dramatic and over the top, and the crazy things it does, it does for the sake of the narrative. There’s little bloat and while the individual pieces don’t initially appear impressive on their own, they come together into a satisfying package. If you were feeling the anime fantasy withdrawals after Bahamut’s short run, you must give Garo a try. It tells an absolutely stunning tale of heroism in the face of adversity, proving that no matter how bleak things might appear, it’s the fact that people do good that make it all worth it.
Garo: The Carved Seal of Flames is available subbed from Funimation. Want more Garo? Check out the original 2005 live-action series, its 2011 sequel, Makai Senki, or the 2013 spin-off, The One Who Shines In The Darkness.