Ga-Rei: Zero’s beginning works like an exhilarating kick in the nuts. It comes out of nowhere, knocks our breath out, and then leave us just as suddenly to gather our whirling thoughts. In it, a team of special armed forces are trying to contain an outbreak of supernatural beings in the city. As their members fall one by one, they soon realise someone they once thought a friend has turned against them. It’s worth elaborating on how fantastic that opening is and how skilfully it introduces us to a complex concept of demons and demon hunters while neatly covering the main characters, because that is as sophisticated as the show gets. Two episodes later, the story doubles back to describe a tepid tale of friendship betrayed by circumstance that never quite measures up.
In the style of Berserk and Gungrave, Ga-Rei: Zero concerns a spiralling tragedy of two individuals who form a profound friendship that sadly cannot last, and how one of them becomes the enemy. Unlike Berserk and Gungrave, it attempts to depict this in half their running time, which has some important consequences for the plot. Primarily, the show manages only fifty percent of the intensity. In such revenge plots, the build-up to the unlikely enmity is what makes the rest matter. Not only must we care deeply about both characters, but we must feel convinced that their eventual antagonism is as natural as their initial friendship. Ga-Rei: Zero either has not got the required time to get us that involved or the creators did not have the talent to think up something interesting for the middle.
The show essentially exploits clichés to hammer home the fact that the protagonists, Kagura Tsuchimiya and Yomi Isayama, are TOTALLY BEST FRIENDS, LOOK THEY EVEN KISS LIKE LESBIANS, THAT IS HOW BESTEST FRIENDS THEY ARE! Much of the vital setting up of the friendship features them sharing baths, teasing each other during work, and even an entire episode of Kagura trying to set Yomi up with a lover. A lot of this, rather than proving insightful glimmers of joy in their staid existence as demon hunters, actually feels more like filler. We get mixed in with that the straightforward tale of a powerful family of demon hunters who hate the adopted Yomi and wish to stop her inheriting the position of head of the house. Finally, when the reason for Kogura’s and Yomi’s split becomes apparent, it turns out to hinge as much on silly, avoidable misunderstandings and some supernatural mumbo-jumbo as misfortune. Of course, there are Yomi’s evil relatives weaving nefarious plots, but some of the characters’ lack of common sense constitutes half the problem.
As for the backdrop of demon infestations and demon hunting, it feels superfluous. The mythology behind the demons’ existence never becomes a significant part of the story. The reason for that is that Ga-Rei: Zero is a prequel to the manga, Ga-Rei, and as such assumes the audience knows all the relevant details. For anyone unfamiliar with the manga, like myself, the omission will be understandable but nevertheless detracting.
Ga-Rei: Zero uses its budget to exciting effect during action sequences, although the memorable ones occur at too low a frequency to elevate this to the top echelons of animated works. Otherwise, the animation will largely fail to leap out and shriek demands of admiration at the audience. For a show aiming at constant ominousness, I find the milieu surprisingly tame. Splashes of blood here, a contorted demonic face there, and plenty of dark spaces which have little to do with well-placed shadow and more to do with the gloomy colour palette.
We get cinematic orchestral compositions for tense sequences and softer, nondescript ditties for personal pauses. Generic j-pop songs bookend the episodes. Anyone who remembers Ga-Rei: Zero’s token soundtrack by the end most likely paid no attention to the other, more interesting things on offer.
There are one or two noteworthy facets to the protagonists: I like Kagura’s contrasting shyness and super-powerful abilities while Yomi tries to smile through all adversity, leaving us to wonder what churns beneath her facade. Beyond that, they’re wholly unremarkable.
The problem is that the show has little room to develop them beyond the obvious using scenes that feel decidedly perfunctory. Setting aside that their friendship develops in leaps of cliché, their personalities leave no lasting imprint in our hearts. Consider the intense feelings the ingenious Griffith (Berserk) or brutally ambitious Harry McDowel (Gungrave) evoke - Yomi’s tormented teen performance, in anticlimactic contrast, evokes only pity and a vague frustration as she hurtles from one bad, emotional decision to another.
Ga-Rei: Zero also leaves its secondary cast in limbo. Some have moments of sheer irrationality not befitting their profession and life-long training as demon hunters, mainly so the plot has a reason to deliver a tragedy. But most don’t even get that.
Ga-Rei: Zero shares a setup and cluster of themes with shows like Berserk and Gungrave but executes them to a less successful degree. What it lacks are complex characters to suck us into its emotional storm. Kagura and Yomi are too predictable to deliver the wavering friendship dynamic required to anchor this kind of plot, and portrayals of their relationship often resort to superficialities. Nevertheless, with commendable visuals providing one or two highlights, and an easy-to-digest narrative, this is an effective marketing ploy for the manga. Those who like what they see here may just check out the literary version.
Kagura and Yomi are two girls who have a bond that cannot be broken. While once they fought side by side against the supernatural forces that threaten the planet, fate had something different in store for these star-crossed companions. Yet to understand the present, one must first experience the past – a time before Kagura’s involvement with the Supernatural Disaster Prevention Agency. Always cheery and good-natured to a fault, the young Kagura first meets Yomi when she is invited into her home. Over time, the two battle malicious spirits and grow closer together – but soon, more terrifying foes begin to reveal themselves. A swarm of glowing blue butterflies and a mysterious stone are harbingers of darker things to come, and one thing’s for sure: Kagura and Yomi will never be the same.
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