You have no idea how many gaskets I popped — out of sheer jealousy — when Adam Beck, that lucky dog, got to review Black Lagoon #1 for AMN Anime. Not just because the series kicks about sixteen hectares of butt, that’s a given, but because it would have been a note-perfect way to throw down a theory about anime (and to a degree, manga) that’s been percolating in my head for some time and which now seems more truth than mere theory: A good percentage of the anime coming out now, despite being in Japanese and despite airing on Japanese TV and being released in Japanese video markets, was created to sell specifically in America as a way to recoup its costs.
I’ve seen way too many examples to not take this theory seriously. The folks at Bandai have expressed that they wanted to make a third Ghost in the Shell TV series — but only if the Solid State Society movie sells well here, because the U.S. (and other English-speaking territories, really) is where they make back their investment. Black Lagoon, too — which sports two cast members that are American and is, if anything, even more watchable in its English dub than the “original” Japanese edition — it has the same smell of a made-for-export product about it. Is any of this bad? No, absolutely not; although it does mean that we might be seeing that many less animated productions that have an unmistakable Japanese flavor about them and more things that are — how to put it? — “mid-Pacific”. xfuni=73
I mention all of this as prelude to talking about Red Garden, because it’s even more of a perfect example of this sort of thing than Black Lagoon. It’s clear right from the opening credits, which treats us to a slew of psychedelic / Art Deco slices of New York City scenery over a swing tune, albeit with Japanese lyrics. Plus, the show itself is set in New York as well, depicted in the show’s art design with remarkable detail if not always great accuracy. (I partly grew up in the city proper, which makes all this feel that much weirder.)
Red Garden uses its New York setting as a backdrop for a teen-horror story that superficially resembles the ones used to turn quick bucks in Hollywood as of late (Blood and Chocolate, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty, etc.), but takes on the aura of novelty when used here. It deals with four high-school-aged girls: Rachel, the slacker, who trolls around with her gang of friends and cares more about the condition of her clothes and nails than her grades; Rose, the timid one, with two younger siblings that she’s been left to care for; Claire, the tough one and the dropout, worried about her job and her bills; and Kate, straight-haired and reticent, member of the student council at her school (“Grace”). All four were friends with another girl who apparently committed suicide the other night, a girl who contributed in some way to each of their lives.
When news of that tragedy breaks, school’s suspended for the day and everyone heads home, but these four are more troubled than most of the others. There’s an ominous gap in all of their memories, right around the time that girl died … and they’re all drawn to the same place in the city by a vision of a swarm of red butterflies. There, they meet a severe-looking woman and her silent male partner who drop the first of what promise to be many bombshells: “My brother and I — we are going to be your teachers. Let’s talk about last night. Last night … you four died. You’re living borrowed lives now.”
It gets worse. Within minutes they’re attacked by something that looks like a man in a business suit, but with blazing, inhuman eyes and the four-legged gait of a wolf. Their mission is to kill this beast with their bare hands, or die trying — and kill it they do, but not without a great deal of screaming and pleading and terror on their part. There’s actually an interesting bit of intercutting used in this segment, a hint that we’re watching something with a bit of ambition to it: we see them at school the next day, so we presume they survived the night — but how they survived, and more importantly what effect it had on them, are used to generate the suspense. It’s remarkably effective, and a hint as to how they try to approach this material.
The four of them are as aghast as can be — doubly so when the mystery woman shows up at their dead friend’s funeral. She offers them the chance to learn the truth, and shows them another cadre of four like them falling victim to yet another monster. “This is what’ll happen if you refuse to fight,” she warns the girls as the creature kills right in front of them. They have to stick together if they want to survive, even if they don’t even particularly like each other, but they quickly realize they’re being drawn together by something far larger than each of their lives — maybe even larger than life and death. And then there’s the puzzle of the dead girl’s diary, which may hold clues of its own as to what binds them together … and what happened the night they were all supposed to have died.
Tere’s a lot about Red Garden that works well, enough at least to hook us for the ride. It’s also genuinely interested in the girls as characters, not just story devices, and it spends a good deal of screen time on the devastating effects the manhunts have on them — as when Rachel bashes in the head of one of their attackers, over and over, in a fit of hysteria. And then there are other things that, sadly, do not work at all: at one exceptionally emotional moment all four girls spontaneously break into song, but it inspires bad laughs instead of the heartfelt awe they were probably aiming for (oddly, this part seems to work better in the original Japanese audio, if only because that puts more room between us and the fundamental absurdity of the idea). But those things are in the minority, and are not deal-breakers.
Red Garden was produced by the same animation studio that gave us Hellsing and Gantz (the accomplished Gonzo), and there’s echoes of Gantz here: the mystery woman tells the girls “You’re living borrowed lives,” a near-echo of Gantz’s infamous line “Your lives are now over, you bastards,” to say nothing of the similarity in plot lines between the two shows. They’ve also brought a lot of visual flair to this project (check out that amazing traveling shot of Roosevelt Island that mixes CGI and illustration art) and they’ve also very self-consciously modified the show’s character and concept designs to make it more “Western” from the inside out. The effect is weird if you compare it aggressively against other anime — the mouths, in particular, look downright bizarre, almost Erica Sakurazawa-esque — but on its own it’s self-contained and consistent, and most importantly distinctive.
From what I can see so far, Red Garden is one of those shows that has the potential to become something really worthy. I was prepared to dismiss it as something contrived specifically for U.S. export as a potboiler, but there’s more going on here than just commerce.