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This is certainly one of the overlooked gems of this season. Which in a sense is good because it makes my decision to blog it seem less futile, so I might just do it on some sort of regular basis. It’s a GONZO anime and it stands out for a number of reasons. The art is odd and especially the character designs are bound to turn off a lot of people but in general the art is at least memorable and does not scream in your face “just another anime ” or “we didn’t have a big budget so we decided that zero originality in the art was the formula for success”. It has a very gripping and somewhat heavy, gloomy atmoshpere and amazing sound – the effects, ambient sounds, seiyuu work and music are all essential parts of what makes Red Garden special, at least for me. Last but not least, the series seems to be a mystery with supernatural elements but with a heavy emphasis on the character’s development, something that was sorely lacking in some of the crucial chapters of Higurashi, for instance.

After last season’s fiasco (not even getting to episode 10 of Simoun with my reviews for instance), I have decided not to write detailed summaries often, I will leave that to the more enthusiastic bloggers out there and mostly to those who know Japanese since I myself read such summaries only when I watch raws and want to know what the characters have talked about.

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So what’s Red Garden all about? Well, it tells the story of four girls from New York. They go to an elite private school but one day their lives turn upside down. No, they does not even turn upside down – it’s worse – they find out they are actually dead and live on “borrowed life”. At least that’s what some strange woman says. She charges them with fighting for their lives against some lunatic who tries to bite people, just minutes after shocking them with the revelation they are dead. And that’s just the start of their troubles…

So far the plot has provided quite a lot of answers to the different mysteries for such an early stage of the series, so I am not sure how much of a mystery this will turn out to be. But it seems the focal point is not the characters’ search of what isgonig on but the characters’ emotional struggle to cope with the desperate situation they were suddenly thrown into. This displayal of raw emotions will probably lead a lot of people to denounce the show as “emo-crap” or “tearjerker” but you can’t please everyone.

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The portrayal of emotional struggles is simply brilliant and totally works as far stirring my own emotions is concerned. One of the main reason is that even though the situation might be supernatural, the girls behaviour comes out as very real – instead of being confused at first and then calmly dispose of the monster in their first battle, some of the girls get hysterical, they begin to quarrel among themselves and indeed are saved by their hunger for life and luck, rather than by someone exhibiting awesome fighting skills out of the blue as the cliche would have it. The atmosphere is so engrossing that it just seems one can actually smell the fear of the girls, the tension is very much palpable, the feeling that your life has just gone down the drain and you can’t do nothing but accept it is very much obvious on the faces of the characters after the first episode. I can’t help but feel compassion to them and cheer them in their uphill struggle to regain some semblance of normality in their life.

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Talking of characters, three episodes have been enough to show us quite a lot of the personality traits of the main ones. Claire is the rebellious type who hardly seems to fit in such a school. I can’t help but thinking ofShinku from Rozen Maiden when I am listening to her, not only because of the same voice but because just like Shinku she has loads of determination and willpower. Kate is the typical “good girl” from a rich family, she takes part in the organization called Grace which is something of the school police. I guess the Japanese scriptwriters just could not help but include a few girls who wear uniforms, even though the majority of the student do not. Kate seems the most rational of the four and though more emotional than Claire, she is not as prone to rash decisions. These two have been my favourites thus far.

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The other two girls so far have not been as interesting – Rachel is a party loving girl and Rose is clumsy and shy but the combination of their characters ensures thrilling group dynamics. This is not youravearage hero or heroine and his or her trusty sidekicks. These are just ordinary people trying to make sense of the terrible plight they are in. I really hope they stay like that and not suddenly pick up some random heroic traits like nerves of steel, blind luck which to save them every other episode or a brain that does not function well because there is no need for that due to all the “cool” superpowers.

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I was a bit surprised how quickly some of the mysteries were revealed but if the emphasis continues to be on the characters coping with the new reality rather on random monster of the week that they get rid the world of, I won’t mind much the loss of the mystery element.

The art is something of a love it or hate it affair. It is a far cry from the cute moe faces anime girls usually have – with big eyes and almost no nose, the type that often gets so bland that the main way to distinguish between the characters’ is their hair colour. The approach is similar to the one used in Monster – the facial features are a lot more distinguishable and prominent, some characters are rather ugly, something that’s almost impossible to see in mainstream anime. In Red Garden we have some very thick lips, weird haircuts, sharp noses, etc. But this just adds to the gothic and dark feeling of the series, just like I cannot imagine Monster with ordinarily looking characters, I shudder to think of a hyphotetical Red Garden with its characters looking like those in Lovely Idol for instance. Not much to say about the backgrounds, they are neither horrible, nor jaw-droppingly great but I like the contrast between the brightly coloured characters and the dark, gloomy New York. Well, the city does not look foreboding and dark all the time, it seems to correspond to the mood of the characters in a way which is a bit of cheap trick but it works.

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The sound however is sublime. So far the cast has done an absolutely brilliant job of putting feeling into the lines they pronounce and making their characters look more real. Even the screaming feels like something caused by horror and not just another scream of a dumb damsel in distress which. Among the seiyuus there are stars like Tanaka Rie and Kaoyasu Takehito but the lesser known voice actors that voice the main characters don’t let themselves to be outshined by them which is no small feat. I have seen people complaining about the singing but it really managed to move me – Kate crying and singing at the same time in episode made me somewhat sad. Bear in mind that I had no real reason to be saddened by the death of Liz, it’s not as if we had seen much of her. The singing was off-key – so what? That’s not a musical, ordinary people sing like that, the important thing is that the singing really painted a poignant picture of Kate’s mental state at the time.

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The sound effects are also top notch. All the characters talking at the same time really managed to come across as a real heated argument, instead of something artificial and scripted. The sound of bodies being hit, stabbed and so on seem to have been recorded with pedantic attention to detail and while the camera tends to stay away from the more gruesome scenes, the sounds don’t leave much to the imagination and if anything make me picture things as even more gory than they probably are. The music is doing its job to enhance the atmosphere nicely but apart from the song the girls sing, no melody has stayed in my head for long or had made me wait impatiently for theOST.

Up to now I haven’t really included many spoilers, now it’s time for a bit of speculation and spoiler-full musings so if you haven’t watched the first episodes, I’d suggest to stop reading. Liz seems to be the key to it all. The four main characters were looking for her when they met their demise (the flashback of their deaths was absolutely brilliant, I loved the red and blue filters that were used to make it look like some horrible dream-like memory). After that her body was not recovered by Lula. Seems kind of obvious that Liz will have some role to play in the future, despite being considered to be dead. And I really want to know what’s this borrowed life Lula talks about, who are these beast-like people the girls are fighting for, why were they killed so ruthlessly and so on. But most of all I hope Red Garden does not turn into a monster of the week action type of show, with the heroines learning how to wield their new found powers. This would be a real waste of nice character development. I hope the emphasis stays on the changes in the characters’ life caused by their “deaths” and new duties. If it does and the emotional intensity remains as strong as in the first episode, this could even turn out to be a real masterpiece, although of course, it’s too early to make predictions for the direction in which the series will go.

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