Where there is light, shadows lurk and fear reigns…yet by the blade of Knights, mankind was given hope.
-Opening line to Garo TV series
This fall’s been shaping up to be a very good season for anime. While popular sequels to franchises like Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works and Psycho-Pass are certainly carrying the mainstream wave, Garo: The Carved Seal of Flames (Honoo no Kokuin) has been a hit, pleasantly adding a much needed spark of diversity in a market swollen with hyperactive moe girls, uninspired shonen fights, and cookie-cutter harems.
Not that the tale that Garo tells is anything original. If anything, it is decidedly committed to the well-trodden path of the hero’s journey. What makes it stand out, though, is the confidence in the story it tells.
Quirky art style aside, what makes Garo so competent is how efficient its storytelling is. In part, I do think that the source material–largely altered in the anime–and its core thematic components do contribute to the rich, thematic flavor of Garo. For those who aren’t familiar with Garo, Garo is a Japanese tokusatsu series. So yes, something along the lines Super Sentai and Kamen Rider but with a different audience and marketing goal in mind. While the former franchises are heavily marketed towards children and push for toy sales, Garo occupies a steadily shrinking niche market of dark tokusatsu, which repackages the classic superhero tale for adults, pulling fewer punches with unsavory characters, graphic violence, and fantastical horror.
It’s not just kids, adults need superheroes too. And as Garo shows, adults may be the ones who need them more. We don’t just need heroes to save us from the dark horrors of the world–we need heroes who have been hurt, who are just as broken as we are, people who can relate with our suffering.
Garo protagonists come from a similar mold. Like his predecessors, Leon Luis (Daisuke Namikawa) is serious with a touch of snark and saddled with some personal demons of his own. He is younger than any of the live-action Garo protagonists and seems a little less sure of himself and is mentored by his father, the womanizing Germán (Kenyu Horiuchi). The father-son dynamic works to give Leon a greater fragility and while Leon is not a particularly charismatic man (most Garo protagonists, interestingly enough, aren’t), you can’t help but sympathize with the heavy burden he’s got as Garo as well as the deep bitterness Leon harbors in his heart. He’s killing Horrors out of necessity, rather out of any strong passion to protect people. As far as Leon’s concerned, people can be just as monstrous as Horrors.
Garo is the kind of show where you can get as much as you’d like out of it. It’s certainly got plenty of action, and plays on more character archetypes than you can shake a stick at, but it also raises important questions about human nature. Funny how stories show that monsters tell us more about people than they often do about themselves.
While the Horrors represented in the first few episodes are your typical, run-of-the-mill, monster-of-the-week flunkies, I should mention that Horrors come in all sizes and shapes. We have ones that are easily identified with a flick of a Madou flame (also good for lighting cigars!) and ones that take on more subtle forms like common objects. As the series progresses, I’m hoping they’ll introduce the more terrifying Horrors, ones that are not only monstrous in appearance and power, but also in intelligence.
Yes, there actually monsters who do things like eat people or manipulate them into doing terrible things like cult sacrifices and whatnot, but where do these monsters actually come from?
I can’t speak for the anime since I don’t know how much of the source material will be retained (they did keep Zaruba though!), but there have been hints that the Horrors may originate in humans. Or more precisely, the darkest, most vulnerable feelings of humanity. At the very least, they feed off of humans’ negative emotions, feasting on feelings like despair, suspicion and fear.
One new aspect they introduced in the anime was the medieval setting, somewhere vaguely European. I actually prefer this over the modern Japan backdrop they’ve got going on in the tokusatsu series, which just feels out of place (there is something to be said for how Garo can just pull out a longsword and start smashing up skyscrapers and vehicles in pursuit of Horrors). The witch hunt also works nicely with the Horror concept because it clearly lays out for us early on what Makai Knights can’t and can’t do.
And what they can’t do is kill or punish humans, even if they are utterly despicable and horrible people. They can’t even defend themselves in said horrible people go after them.
And this idea, though underplayed a bit in the source material, is what I think is the true “Horror” in the world of Garo. It’s not the Horrors themselves, which are wicked and malevolent in their own right. Horrors can be slain, curses can be lifted, but the potential of darkness in humanity is not so easily exorcised.
Makai Knights live with the burden that while they know they are saving the lives of innocents that they happen across, they are lost when it comes to truly seeing an end to that fight. They are condemned to keep fighting in the shadows, defenders of people’s souls, while they receive none of the protection they offer, from the people they protect. Makai knights can kill a Horror that’s wreaking havoc but they cannot save a soul that has already fallen.
Despite the bleak landscape Garo paints, it’s not condemning us to accept the world as it is. Instead, Garo offers us a taste of despair infused with a hint of hope. The Makai Knights go about their duties with a sense of acceptance to their inevitable destiny, which runs dangerously close to apathy. But apathy, or the closing off of feelings, is not the answer. Empathy is, and in a world where your next-door neighbor might have a son who’s seduced by a creepy doll to kill people, having the strength to show compassion, to make oneself vulnerable and open, is true strength.
Of course, having a really cool sword or a totally badass father doesn’t hurt, either.