Review for Red Garden: Complete Collection
This year has seen something of an ADV rediscovery, with a fair number of titles showing up again on UK shop shelves. 101 Films have led the charge with their releases of Elfen Lied, Lady Death and Rahxephon, while Manga Entertainment have found the ideal partners to some new releases, the original Hellsing to go with their Hellsing Ultimate, and Last Exile to go with Fam, the Silver Wing. But it’s MVM’s choices of ADV content that has tantalised me the most. They’ve gone for the titles that were never completed in the UK, shows which fell at the last hurdle when ADV UK gave up the ghost. Pumpkin Scissors only had one disc released, but a couple of volumes of Red Garden were released here in lacklustre fashion at the end by ADV. ADV were in such dire straits then, that the sales figures for Red Garden made for embarrassing reading, giving the impression that more reviewers wrote about the disc than customers actually bought it. But when I heard Red Garden described as Gantz with high school girls, I was certainly intrigued, especially as it came at the peak of the anime boom, and what Studio Gonzo did with the show was certainly experimental and unconventional. Welcome to what is probably anime’s only horror/action/sci-fi/slice-of-life/drama/musical!
Rose Sheedy is a pretty typical teen, a little shy, not all that outgoing, but has a loyal friend, and is devoted to her younger brother and sister, and through hard work and effort has managed to get a scholarship to an exclusive school. Claire Forrest is more of a delinquent, coming from a rich family, but shunning that money to live by herself, and work to pay her way through school, but not all that bothered with the school rituals or peer pressure. Rachel Benning on the other hand is the total it-girl, partying hard, and swimming in her social circle, hanging with the right people and avoiding the riff-raff. Kate Ashley has made it into the elite of the elite, a member of the Grace group at school, the equivalent of the student council and responsible for enforcing discipline among the other students.
You wouldn’t think these girls have anything in common, beyond the school they attend but they do... They’re all dead. So is Lise Harriette Meyer, but she is permanently dead, having committed suicide. The other four girls died the same night, but woke up at home the next morning, and that event has tied their destinies together. They alone see the butterflies, they alone are called at night to gather at strange locations, and they alone are informed that now they are dead, and possessing ‘New Bodies’, to maintain their new lives they will have to hunt and kill beastmen, beastmen that want them dead in turn.
22 episodes of Red Garden plus the OVA are presented across 4 discs from MVM.
1. Farewell, Girls
2. A Cruel Night
3. The Real Me
4. Where Are We Going?
5. Every Window
6. A Small Light
7. Another Fate
8. Go Love
11. Respective Thoughts
12. His Thoughts
14. Reason to Fight
15. Sorrow and Anger...
16. Painful Lie
17. The Truth
18. Slight Hope
19. Feelings That Don’t Come Across
20. The Room That’s Left Behind
21. The Last Morning
22. The Light
Red Garden gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer on these discs, and as sourced from Funimation in the US, these are NTSC transfers. It’s as close to native as you can get, with no PAL conversion issues to irritate, such as blended frames or higher pitched audio. Having said that, this is probably the worst looking anime I have seen in some time, although I get the feeling it looks bad by design. It’s a show from the peak of the last anime boom, and it’s when companies could afford to experiment with their shows. The characters in Red Garden certainly shy away from the usual anime stereotypes, having something of an old fashioned feel to their designs. It’s also not the most animated of animations, with a lot of still and static imagery, and a minimum of motion applied to tell the story.
The worst thing is the look of the show. It’s as if Gonzo, having set the show in New York, wanted to give the show a US TV feel, and a TV show of the eighties and early nineties. Consequently, there is a lot of digital grain effect applied to the image, and on top of that, it has had a deliberate blurring effect layered on, making everything and everyone look out of focus. It may be an attempt to emulate the video look of US television of the period, but it just winds up distracting. I have seen something similar in the low resolution striping effect applied to Kino’s Journey, and the deliberate grain and degradation applied to Gilgamesh, but those worked, Red Garden’s post-production treatment doesn’t.
The usual options are available here, an English DD 5.1 dub, and the original Japanese audio in DD 2.0 stereo, and you get translated subtitles and a signs only track. Constraints of time meant that I did little more than check that the English audio exists, which it does. I did watch the whole show through in Japanese though, and found it to be adequate. The voices are appropriately cast, but there seems to a lack of post-production to the audio, as foley and effects are somewhat undercooked. One noticeable example is the phone calls. You hear both speakers as if they were in front of a microphone, with the person on the other end distinguishable by a slight drop in volume. No filter has been applied to give them a ‘telephone’ voice. The theme songs are interesting enough, although I’m not convinced by the Limp Bizkit style end theme. I think there is a significant tie-in with the band L.MC, beyond just the end theme, and members of the band apparently make cameos in the show.
Once again we have the oddity of the MVM logo and copyright screen in PAL, but the rest of the discs’ content in NTSC. You get static menus presenting the episodes and the language options.
Other than the OVA, the discs are light on extras, with discs 1 and 3 offering the textless credit sequences, and with discs 2 and 4 presenting trailers for Claymore, Basilisk, Afro Samurai, Samurai 7, Burst Angel, Black Blood Brothers, STRAIN: STRategic Armoured INfantry, Witchblade, Moonphase, Baccano!, Solty Rei, and Trinity Blood.
But the big extra on these discs is the OVA episode, Dead Girls, and it’s on disc 4 and lasts 46 minutes. It sees the main characters return to New York in the distant future (don’t worry, it makes sense once you watch the series), and once more become confronted by their pasts. It sees many of the faces from the main series return in new, and on occasion familiar roles. I actually found the OVA to be more enjoyable than the main series, with an engaging premise, a lot more in the way of action and less melodrama, an entertaining sense of humour, and an interesting extrapolation on the characters. I’d much rather this had been the main series.
There’s a great series lurking in here somewhere. Red Garden certainly promises much, with an interesting premise, a tantalising mystery, and by setting it in New York, the potential of delivering something radically different from the usual high school anime dramas. The final result on the other hand is unsatisfying, rather mundane, and let down by lacklustre production values. I certainly enjoyed Red Garden, but always at the front of my thoughts was the lament that it could have been so much better.
The animation style is disconcerting, the animation itself is significantly limited, and the character designs are inconsistent and simplistic. You have to use a muscle that is oft neglected these days due to superior production values, you have to suspend disbelief and use your imagination. That hurdle crossed, you can begin to engage with the story. Red Garden really follows two strands, the supernatural mystery and the slice-of-life high school drama. It does neither to any degree of satisfaction, although I have to say that it is the mystery that is neglected most. One thing is that we begin in the middle of the story, with Lise’s suicide a matter of fact, and Rachel, Rose, Kate and Claire’s resurrection already having taken place. We’re in as much of the deep end as they are at the start of the show, and we learn just a little more than they do by the end, simply by the fact that we get the other side of the story as well.
There are two sides in this story, Animus, which brings girls back from the dead to fight demonic men turned beasts, and Dolores, the clan which is cursed to have its members turn into beasts when they reach a certain age. We learn that both sides became cursed when one of two volumes of text was stolen. The curse will be broken for one side when they are able to reunite the two books. Dolores are rapidly running out of clan members due to them turning into beasts and being hunted down by Animus, and there are factions in the group trying to cheat the curse by introducing the resurrected ‘New Bodies’ of Animus into their blood line.
Animus on the other hand are intricately involved with the school that Kate and the others attend, which goes no little way to explaining why the students become involved. The weakness of Red Garden is that it never really explains just what is going on. Just what is the curse? How did it come to pass? How exactly were Kate and the others killed? Who was responsible and why? The reasons why they fight are never really explained, why certain characters behave the way they do remains opaque. Without the background to the story, there’s just surface detail and that is never enough for the viewer to engage with the story, the various convolutions and conspiracies, and the character machinations. You never know why things happen in this show, they just do.
That leaves the character arcs, the slice of life aspects of the show, and there is a fair bit of soap opera to Red Garden, which quite frankly is more interesting than the main story. Will Rose find her absent father, will her mother come home from the hospital? Will Claire reconcile with her estranged father, will she finally understand her feelings for best friend Yuan? Will Rachel’s complex love life ever come under control; does she actually have feelings for her English teacher? These little story arcs often take precedence over the main storyline, and quite frankly I found these little moments of inconsequence far more meaningful. I very quickly lost interest in the tale of Dolores versus Animus, about Hervé’s duplicity and his devotion to his sister, playing both sides against each other, and toying with Kate’s feelings into the bargain. When you don’t understand why a thing is happening, it’s hard to have any empathy.
It’s also uneven and inconsistent. One of the things that did hold my attention, and indeed attract me to the show was that for the first half of the series, it was actually a musical. Moments of emotional turmoil or joy would cause characters to burst into song, complete with backing track. It was unexpected, wacky, not all that professional (a bit like that Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode), but it was different, and it made the show stand out. Then halfway through, the musical is dropped completely, forgotten as if it was never there in the first place. I would have given the show more respect if it had just stuck it out.
If you can get past the animation style and lacking production values, which I agree is a big ask, there is enough in Red Garden to make it worth watching once. After that, you’ll be left with the lingering impression that you got less than half the story. The little soap operas are more rewarding than the main storyline. The OVA episode, daft though it is, is easily the best thing in the collection, and since it requires knowledge of the series for it to make sense, it at least makes you glad that you did watch the series through.