Review for Garden Of Sinners Movie Collection - Limited Edition
Perhaps the most anticipated release of 2014 is finally here. You might have thought that the most anticipated release was Attack on Titan, Kill la Kill or Gurren Lagann, but a niche cult favourite that has picked up fan acclaim and plaudits over its release, which further was subject to a two month delay, is actually the most anticipated anime release of the year. It’s not just hyperbole from an overeager reviewer. You should have seen MVM’s Twitter and Facebook feeds from the minute that Garden of Sinners was announced. Every single mention of this DVD only limited edition was met with plaintive cries of “When will the Blu-ray get released?”
There isn’t going to be a Blu-ray, or if there is, not in my lifetime. There was a Blu-ray release of Garden of Sinners with English subtitles, in Japan, a very limited release. Of those rare few boxsets, Aniplex US managed to import some and put them up for sale to the English speaking world, at a ‘bargain basement price’ of around $1000. They sold out in a matter of days, and that was your chance to own Garden of Sinners on Blu-ray. You missed it. Give it up! It isn’t going to happen, unless you import one of the last few remaining sets directly from Japan. Just take advantage of this release from MVM, which itself is a limited edition release, low in number and a one-time-only thing. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. The Australian DVD release, on which this release is based, is itself sold out in Australia. The Blu-ray had a mayfly existence, but the US DVD release from Aniplex US is itself too sold out. Don’t expect to see Garden of Sinners on sale anytime soon after this.
You can bet that I was eager to watch something as rare, as lauded as Garden of Sinners, except that it’s an example of a genre which is my least favourite, horror. Having said that, it’s from creators Type-Moon, the people behind the Fate/Stay Night franchise, Canaan, and Lunar Legend Tsukihime. Canaan was fun, and while I didn’t appreciate the first iteration of Fate/Stay Night, I loved Fate/Zero earlier this year, and Lunar Legend Tsukihime has slowly grown from a decent vampire horror show into one of my perennial favourites with each re-watch. I’m more than willing to give Garden of Sinners a fair shake.
Garden of Sinners tells the tale of an unconventional agency investigating and dealing with supernatural occurrences. It’s run by the Magus Touko Aozaki, and in her employ she has a powerful girl named Shiki Ryogi. Shiki has the Mystic Eyes of Death Perception, she can see the seams in living things, the blueprints to their lives which she can cut to devastating effect, but for that power she’s had to sacrifice a part of herself. Touko also employs a seemingly normal boy named Mikiya Kokuto, but he’s a boy who has a connection to Shiki, a link to her humanity, and Kokuto and Shiki have a shared, dark past.
The first seven Garden of Sinners feature films are presented in this collection, along with an OVA spin-off, across eight discs from MVM. After this collection was released in Japan, an eighth Garden of Sinners movie, a side story was also released, but that is yet to receive a home video release in any country outside of Japan.
Garden of Sinners Disc 1: Thanatos
September 1998. There’s been a spate of suicides at the rundown and abandoned Fujou apartment building, all teenage girls with nothing else apparently in common. It could be that the police aren’t investigating the right connections. Not that Shiki Ryogi would be that motivated to investigate, until she learns that Mikiya Kokuto went looking into it, and since then his body has been missing its soul.
Garden of Sinners Disc 2: ...... and nothing heart
August 1995. There’s a killing spree going on. People are being found murdered, mutilated in increasingly horrific ways. Meanwhile, high school student Mikiya Kokuto is trying to be friends with the odd girl in class. Shiki Ryogi determinedly doesn’t fit in, heir to an elite family, the sole girl in class who refuses to wear the school uniform in favour of traditional dress, who keeps herself to herself... and has multiple personality disorder, and gaps in her memory...
Garden of Sinners Disc 3: ever cry, never life
July 1998. On the way home, Kokuto finds a bedraggled girl, collapsed in the street. She’s obviously been through some trauma, but she doesn’t even seem sure if she’s in pain or not. Kokuto takes her home, gives her shelter, but the next morning she’s gone without a trace. Then there’s the news report about a gang of rapists, all found murdered, dismembered. Shiki’s next job is to find and if possible capture the suspect in the killings, which won’t be made easier by the fact that one of the rapists is still at large. Shiki finds that she has more in common with her target than she expects, and that makes capture nigh on impossible.
Garden of Sinners Disc 4: garan-no-dou
March 1996. Shiki Ryogi is admitted to hospital suffering severe head and chest trauma. Accompanying her in the ambulance was Mikiya Kokuto. It’s a battle to save her life, and she slips into a coma. It’s a coma that last two years, and while she lingers on the border between life and death, she loses a part of herself. When she does wake, she finds that she’s gained something she would rather not have, the Mystic Eyes of Death Perception. That’s a talent that could drive someone to claw their own eyes out, but the new hospital speech therapist, Touko Aozaki offer to help her through her problem. Of course Touko’s no therapist, she’s actually a magus looking to recruit Shiki, but there’s something else Shiki will have to lose first...
Garden of Sinners Disc 5: Paradox Paradigm
November 1998. Kokuto may be out of town, but Shiki has made another friend. She saved Tomoe Enjou from a gang of street thugs, and took the homeless boy in. This isn’t just from the kindness of her heart, as she has something in common with the boy. Tomoe’s on the run having murdered his parents, and he’s trying to come to terms with the trauma. But when after several weeks of hiding out at Shiki’s place, there’s no mention of the crime on the news, Shiki takes him back to his apartment to find out what has happened, only to learn that Tomoe’s parents are alive and well at home... and so is Tomoe? There’s something seriously wrong with this apartment building.
Garden of Sinners Disc 6: Fairy Tale
January 1999. Kokuto’s sister Azaka goes to a catholic school by day, but she’s also training to be a Magus, learning from none other than Touko Aozaki. That puts her in prime position when it seems that fairies are disrupting her school, stealing student’s memories, and quite possibly responsible for one girl’s death. Touko gives her the mission to track down and deal with the fairies, and to help her she sends Shiki Ryogi. That’s the Shiki Ryogi who’s her main rival for her brother’s affections.
Garden of Sinners Disc 7: ...... not nothing heart
February 1999. The finale to the story, which sees the resumption of the serial killings in the city. Once more the streets are unsafe as a series of brutal murders is committed, and once again, Shiki has no alibi for the killings, leading to an awkward chill in her relationship with Kokuto. As Kokuto starts investigating the murders, Shiki vanishes. Could she really be responsible? Whatever happens, the truth about the events three years previously is about to be revealed.
Garden of Sinners Disc 8
Another winter’s night, with the city blanketed with snow, and Kokuto makes his way up the hill where he first met Shiki, and where he meets Shiki again, the same Shiki that he hasn’t seen or spoken to since that first night. It will prove to be an enlightening conversation.
Yes, it should be on Blu-ray. Let’s get that out of the way first. A film series of this quality really should be distributed at its best, and it’s such a shame that Aniplex in Japan are so rigid about this.
Garden of Sinners thus gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer across these eight discs, all but two of which are single layer. The films also get native PAL transfers courtesy of Madman in Australia. The image is clear and sharp, presented without problems, certainly no aliasing or compression to speak of, and only the digital banding prevalent that anime just can’t seem to get away from, on DVD or on Blu-ray. The Garden of Sinners is a horror anime, and one thing I’ve found about horror animations is that realism is the key. When you have primary colours and representations of the world and characters that are removed from reality, it becomes harder to accept the spookiness or scariness of a situation. The Garden of Sinners on the other hand might just be the most photo-realistic anime I have yet seen. The world designs are exquisite in terms of detail and colour, while the character animation is fluid, consistent, and not too far removed or distorted from the human norm. These aren’t characters with massive eyes or cutesy faces. The aim is to get the world and the characters looking and moving as real as possible, and then the animators can go to town introducing atmosphere, chills, and horror elements, slowly distorting this world away from reality. I have to say it is astoundingly effective.
Garden of Sinners gets a DD 5.1 Japanese soundtrack with English subtitles. This is a subtitle only release. It’s a really nice soundtrack, a fully realised surround track that conveys the action, music and atmosphere of the movies well. The music soundtrack from Yuki Kajiura is perfectly suited to the material, supporting it without overwhelming it, as happened on another spooky OVA, Le Portrait de Petite Cossette. The actors too really give performances that a production of this calibre deserves. The subtitles are accurately timed and free of typographical error. They flow well, and the one time they don’t in movie seven, there’s a story reason as to why. The audio also bears up well to the 4% PAL speed-up on these discs, with no obvious signs of pitch correction, distortion or clipping.
The discs present their content with static menus and jacket pictures. I only received the check discs for review, and thus cannot comment on the rigid boxset packaging, the eight thin-pack cases with individual cover art, the 36 page booklet, or the 14 postcards.
The sole extras on disc are the Pre Show Reminders, short minute long Claymation shorts reminding theatre-goers of the correct cinema etiquette. There isn’t one on the final disc though. Disc 4 also gets a 2½ minute DVD Promo Trailer. Disc 8 has trailers for other MVM releases, Kamisama Kiss, We Without Wings, and Ikki Tousen: Xtreme Xecutor.
Garden of Sinners certainly deserves the accolades and acclaim that it receives. It’s an achingly beautiful collection of films, astounding animation bordering on the photo-realistic, complex and intelligent writing for the most part, and engaging and interesting characterisations. It’s also hauntingly effective as a horror/thriller, establishing just the right level of atmosphere and style to keep the audience on edge, off-kilter, offering the perception of a world that isn’t quite right, but you can’t quite figure out just why. And that’s in a genre that is my least favourite. I don’t like horror much, and that’s just as true for anime horror, but I can see Garden of Sinners standing the test of time, and growing on me, the way that its Type Moon stablemate Tsukihime Lunar Legend has done.
That’s not the only thing it has in common with that story, both feature ambiguous protagonists with untrustworthy memories, dealing out death with a blade and the Mystic Eyes of Death Perception, both called Shiki, only differing in gender. I’ve since learned that although Garden of Sinners was only recently animated, with an eighth spin-off movie (not in this collection) just released last year, it was actually Type Moon’s earliest creation, and you can see how the Tsukihime story actually develops and expands on certain ideas in the Garden of Sinners. It’s got me wondering what Tsukihime would look like if it got the same level of budget and care that this did.
It’s all one story by the way, despite it being split into seven films plus a bonus animation. It’s all arranged in a wonderfully convoluted way, offering little bits of story, jumping back and forth in the narrative, instead of just simply unfolding in chronological order, as it spans the years from 1995 to 1999. It makes it all the more rewarding to have to work at it, because the actual ordering of the films has a narrative sense to them, in that you learn the critical bits of the plot as and when it’s most important to, it’s not just a random re-ordering as happened with Season 1 of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya.
The first film offers a strings free introduction to the world, introducing the characters, and what they are about, the supernatural issues that they have to deal with and the stakes that they play for, as well as setting up the relationships between them. It’s almost like a great stand-alone supernatural mystery, although as you learn later, there are important bits of plot revealed here. It’s the second movie that really kicks off the main overarching storyline, as it takes us back to the beginning, and shows us Mikiya and Shiki as they were in high school, especially who Shiki was. It’s a revelatory and fascinating story, and you think it’s told you everything, but it’s really just setting up what happens in the later films, which when you watch them will make you re-evaluate everything you had previously seen.
Actually, why am I telling you all this? This is venturing perilously close to spoiler territory, and one thing that you don’t want is Garden of Sinners spoiled. Let me just put it this way, Garden of Sinners is definitely worth the effort that you’ll put in to unravel its mysteries and fathom its plot. Its depth of characterisation and complexity of narrative exceed what you normally get in anime, and make this a very special collection of films.
That isn’t to say that it’s perfect. Far from it! It makes a couple of missteps along the way, one of them an almighty misstep at that, and the epilogue that is presented in this set of discs is a substantially deflating experience following the vicarious euphoria of movie 7. The first issue might be with the fifth movie, which is where the writers verge on being too smart for their own good. It’s a complex story, told from three different character perspectives, one after the other. On top of that, those three stories are told out of chronological order, skipping back and forth within themselves. This is where the viewer needs to be paid overtime trying to hold onto the thread, and I found the narrative structure a distraction from the story, not an enhancement, which given what happens at the end of the film, is the last thing that it needs. It’s not a fatal issue though, and it certainly does invite you to re-watch the film more than once.
The second misstep is the penultimate movie Fairy Tale. Up to this point, Garden of Sinners has been a dark, adult, intelligent story, one with a comparatively realistic approach to characterisation. Fairy Tale is almost a side story outside the main narrative, with just one or two points that you’ll need to keep in mind for the overarching story. The rest of it is pretty much a standalone mystery set in a Catholic School, focusing on Mikiya’s sister Azaka. And here the tone switches drastically, beginning with an opening sequence that culminates with a cutesy turn and wink to the camera. We’re very much in clichéd, otaku sating mainstream anime territory, the sister with a crush on her brother, the jealousy of said brother’s perceived girlfriend... If there is one disc that this collection could actually do without, it’s Fairy Tale, although I did get a kick out of the Negima reference.
The final issue is the final bonus disc, an epilogue to the story which offers half an hour of conversation between Shiki and Mikiya as they obliquely dissect what has happened by trying to understand who Shiki actually is. It’s still got the fantastic animation, but this time the depth of writing, the character complexity is of the pretentious philosophising sort that I have come to associate with the more recent Mamoru Osshi movies. Up to this point, I’d been at the edge of my seat with the collection, movie 6 notwithstanding, a smart, intelligent, and gripping horror thriller, and with its last roll of the dice, Garden of Sinners tries, and nearly succeeds in putting me to sleep.
The great thing about this collection is that I don’t have to watch disc 8 again. Don’t wait for the Blu-rays; you’ll be depriving yourself of a milestone in anime. Garden of Sinners is definitely worth the hype. If the limited edition boxset from MVM is still available at the time this review is posted, avail yourself of the opportunity, and enjoy these discs. Should the Blu-ray version actually make it to the UK, trust me by that time you’ll have saved up enough to double dip several times over. It’s not going to happen anytime soon.