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R1 DVD Reviews
Wednesday, 05 January 2011 00:00
Red GardenTake the forced-to-kill aspect of Gantz, remove its completely clueless cast, and replace them with a bunch of typical girls from an all-girl private school. The result is Red Garden - not exactly a typical mix of ingredients, it has to be said, but somehow it manages to work. The end result isn't perfect, though...

A string of five "suicides" in the space of a month, all under unusual circumstances, has caught the attention of the police. The latest death is that of a high-school girl, and the following day a number of her classmates have problems remembering what they'd been doing the night before. With classes cancelled as a mark of respect for the dead student, the girls find themselves at a loose end - until they each find themselves drawn to a park by clouds of butterflies that only they seem to be able to see. There, they're met by a man and woman who claim to be their instructors, and who tell them that they had all died the previous night...

First impressions can be deceiving. After the first 5 minutes of Red Garden, I was ready to hit the Stop button and move onto something a little less shoujo-y, a little more action-centered - but something made me keep watching, and it soon turned out that this show already had what I was looking for. So the girls are dead and living on borrowed time - the price for that time is to fight when they're called for. Refuse to fight, you die. Lose in a fight, you die. Does this sound familiar? Yes, on that level it's Gantz all over again, just with a decidedly shoujo feel to it. While it's explained quite early in the series how the girls died, why their instructors have chosen to revive them (or how they did it) remains a mystery, while the origins of the amok humans they've been tasked to fight against are only revealed as the series gets towards its closing arc. The only information the girls have to work with initially is that they have to fight, and with some enhancements having apparently been made to their natural abilities it seems they're now perfectly suited to doing that.

Physically, at least. Mentally, it's a different matter, and a large chunk of the series is devoted to examining how the girls deal with the situation they've found themselves in. As you'd expect, that comes down to "each according to their skills", which is where the very different personalities of the four girls comes into play. Rose is small and timid, having to look after her younger siblings on her own with no father on the scene and while her mother languishes in hospital. Her first response to trouble is to cower in the corner - something that quickly earns her the scorn of the more proactive girls, particularly Rachel. She's the school socialite - popular, moving in all the right social circles and treating school as much as a social event as an opportunity for learning. Almost the exact opposite attitude to Claire, who lives on her own, scorns her family and their many failings, and struggles to keep down the part-time job that she needs to pay her own way. As the most aggressive of the girls, though, she's the most useful in a fight - until the other begin to learn how to call on the powers they've been given. The first to do that is the final of the four, Kate, a member of the school's almost untouchable student council (aka Grace) but whose involvement with the others soon leads to questions being raised by the other Grace members about her suitability for the group.

All of this adds a whole level of personal development and character work to the series that takes precendence over the fighting that means that, while Red Garden undeniably shares some of Gantz's DNA, it's missing Gantz's trademark crassness. This show just feels more refined, with the private school setting and most of the girls - Claire excepted - being complete strangers to any form of physical confrontation. There are even a few musical interludes while the girls sing about their experiences and their feelings, which is a huge contrast from the more action-based side of the series and apparently caused ADV, who were the original licensees of the show before it passed to FUNimation, a few problems when the time came to cast the English dub. The more female-heavy cast does means there's an awful lot of whining though, especially from Rose and Rachel, as at least at first they simply can't handle the situation they've found themselves in.

We don't just get to see the girls' side of the story, either - there are two factions at work here. The first we meet are the Animus, who are the group that the girls have found themselves entagled with - their public face is "funeral director" Lula and her brother, who are in the perfect position for identifying people suitable to be recruited to their cause. Lula is the main source of information for the girls, but while she genuinely seems to want them to succeed, she passes on information only reluctantly and strictly as required. On the other side are the Dolores, who suffer under a curse placed on them when they stole a Book of Curses from the Animus, a curse that has seen the female side of the clan decimated. Now, down to their last two females, they're desperate to find a way to escape from the curse's effect - on the one hand is the clan leader, who sees their future in kidnapping young girls to use as breeders; on the other is Hervé, who has other ideas in mind - ideas which see him feigning a romantic attachment to Kate in order to get close to the Animus inner circle.

All of which sounds interesting enough, and up to a point it is. There are several problems, though. First is the general unlikeability of most of the cast - the four main girls are self-absorbed and have a tendenced to delve deep into self-pity at the drop of a hat, which is I admit not unbelievable in their circumstances but also makes them hard to connect with. Most of the Animus we meet at least seem to show some remorse at what they're putting the girls through (they're clearly pitched as being the "good guys" as compared to the Dolores), but you can't help but wonder why they can't fight their own battles - a feeling that's reinforced late in the series when you finally see them in action in their own cause. The Dolores, by comparison, are clearly painted as evil, with the ends they're trying to reach outweighing any means of getting there - but that's countered to a certain extent by the feelings that Hervé's seen to have for his cousin Mirielle and sister Anna, the last two surviving Dolore women who he feels aren't being treated as they should be. Hervé and his brother Emilio aren't characters without sympathetic traits - but the way in which they pursue their aims does leave them painted as a pair of bastards. Sadly.

The end result is something of a mixed bag. With a set of more likeable characters, the various aspects of Red Garden would have probably worked a lot better than they do here - but the series has to work with what it's got, and at least manages to make a decent go of it. Almost in spite of myself, I did eventually start to warm to the girls, especially when they reached the "point of no return", as it were, and decided to fight for the Animus despite having finally learnt what thier ultimate fate for doing so would be. At that point they stopped the angst and uncertainty and grew a metaphorical pair, and from there the show builds up to a suitably climactic ending that was very satisfying to watch.

On either side of that climax, though, things are a bit mixed. The main story could possibly have been done in 13 episodes - there's plenty of filler in there that's not strictly essential - while the closing OVA episode, Dead Girls, is enough of a departure from the main series that it's a bit of a wrench (the cast is the same, but their personalities are markedly different and that takes a bit of getting used to). It makes the overall package quite hard to pin down - there are passages of story and action that are very, very good, but a lot of the supporting material is hard to plough through. Did I feel the effort was worth it at the end of the series? Up to a point, yes - but I was left wondering at the end if a) if could've been done in shorter form (and I'm convinced it could have been) and b) if the story itself could have been done a better way, as there are one or two plot points that, if you're the nitpicking type, are hard to let pass without at least a puzzled "but surely you could...?". I won't spoil them here.

Overall, then: hmmm. I enjoyed Red Garden, I would probably watch it again, but it has a few flaws that are hard to ignore and may well put you off if you're the impatient or picky type. The ideas underneath are fine, there are just some issues with the way they've been transferred to the screen that let the show down somewhat - but at the end of the day, yes, it's worth checking out. Just temper expectations before you start.

Rating - ***