Ga-Rei -Zero- starts with a very loud, deafening bang. (Okay, not literally.) The first episode starts with a captivating premise, an interesting approach and a very real conflict; it does nothing short of taking breath in the most awesome way possible. Smooth animation provides for an intense feeling of the conflict, the stacked odds these characters go against. Fortunately, this is a pretty hard opinion to refute; the anime has a ridiculously strong start and it draws up a whole lot of potential for a great premise and a great anime.
Unfortunately, only after it raises our hopes high does it show its hand-- a mediocre mockery after playing a full house, it presents-- at best-- a two-of-a-kind from this point onward.
I should say I really want to like this anime. The premise, the world, the characters-- it's all really set-up. But its execution falls flat-- say a chef is given all the most exquisite ingredients to bake a cake. That's the great set-up. Then he up and overcooks it. That's the execution. It's not unwatchably bad, but it's... well, lacking.
A retrospective of the intertwined lives of young girls Kagura Tsuchimiya and Yomi Isayama; they are 'Vanquishers,' who fight demons that terrorize alternate-reality Japan. The focus is largely on the bond the two share, and how the plot begins to affect that...
...except in the first two episodes, they blow that out of the water, showing their full hand right away, revealing exactly what happens at the end of proceeding events. It could've been a good way to catch breath, except the build-up is practically non-existent, the events feel very mish-mashed into the last few episodes, and the characterization does a poor job of giving the events the gravity they should have. The old 'torn bonds of friendship' is a tried and true way to get a good dramatic effect, so long as the characters are there to back it up.
There are, however, awesome fight scenes. They have a creative approach to wheeled vehicles.
Kagura and Yomi are the best of friends. Bound by similar tragic pasts and similar stoic futures, they endure life day to day together; Kagura is shy, gentle of heart and demeanor, who would extend a helping hand to any and feels remorse for her soulless enemies. Yomi is the outgoing, forward girl who silently endures her pain and resolves herself to her duty no matter what she might be going through. Together, as part of the group known as Vanquishers, they thrash demons and look pretty good while doing it. Interestingly, the show begins with its crux; that Yomi and Kagura, though best of friends, will be pitted against each other by some means or another.
There are some other underlying story elements; Yomi is adoptive in her family and nobody wants her to inherit its name, and there are demons terrorizing everything and some... thing is manipulating them somehow and just generally making everyone's life bad. I can promise you that of these, Yomi's little arc receives the most exploration and even that is horrifically minor and doesn't really feel justified. It's just a flat approach with no depth.
Ultimately, the problem with the story is that it crutches on characters who cannot support it while shirking the elements that would otherwise make it somewhat compelling. Whether this is because it is twelve episodes long or because the writers just had the wrong grasp of this, I do not know; they had everything laid out quite well and just flopped when it came time to build upon it. A 5/10 adequately describes the utter mediocrity that the story thus becomes as a result of its mismatched direction.
Edit: I guess this really is just a direct prequel to the manga. I still don't excuse the weakness of its story, as this does not make the very dry, boring and filler-fueled conflicts any more enjoyable. They should have decided whether they wanted a tragedy focused on characters, or a drama focused on story.
You can tell where the budget went here; the animation is smooth, fluid, and gets the point across. There are a few oddities here and there but ultimately nothing game-breaking. It delivers an enjoyable product with little to complain about. The demons are pretty interestingly done up, and certainly adhere to the 'otherworldly' appearance. 8/10; a great delivery that shows well for its budget.
The music has a flair of its own and has some memorable tunes, but I'm not sure that I can recall much besides the opening and one insert-- Tamakui by Yousei Teikoku. Definitely an awesome song, fitting for its theme, and it makes it all the more powerful. However, the rest of it just doesn't stick out-- maybe that's because it's attached to a rather bland anime to begin with. I feel the 6/10 for the sound might be shortchanging it, but I'm just not sure higher scores are justified over two songs (and one of those being the opening, really).
Probably the nail in the mediocre coffin that seals Ga-Rei -Zero-'s fate is the fact that it crutches very heavily on creating an effect through its main characters, but ultimately fails to adequately build up an attachment to them. They seem very one-dimensional, act predictably and seldom seem to represent any conflicts that are terribly relateable, or at least conflicts that one can empathize with. They're not necessarily poor concepts or created poorly (as I may have said before, heh)-- they're just not pulled off with all the potential they have. There's no feeling of growth until the very, very end and that is debateably 'growth' at any rate. Besides Yomi and Kagura, the secondary cast of characters are more or less relegated to one-trick pony acts, each with their own little quirk but never really going anywhere-- or even coming from anywhere. By the time we arrive to the end of the anime to pity the fallen bond of Kagura and Yomi, the anime should have us crying on the edge of our seats. No, we should say, this is not alright. We should look and think, These two were the best of friends, they endured hardship together, stuck it out through the tough times. Instead of being delivered through scenes trying the strengths of their friendship, they are left to justify their friendship though silly scenes full of suggestive content. Even the anime makes cracks at that (though they never follow up... bah!).
And, see, that's exactly where the anime falls flat. It could have been an astoundingly sad anime with a lot of thematic feeling and quite an impact, but it just doesn't build up pity for the characters. Most of the anime is filler fights against demons that sometimes have vague influences on the characters, most of which are punctuated by scenes depicting Kagura and Yomi as 'best friends' (like eating a stick of pocky together and then kissing...) right off the bat with this sort of implicit three year gap. Had the anime covered those three years, the delicate and young Kagura being cared for by Yomi, who she idolizes as a big sister, then it might have had more of an impact. Had the anime's scene choice followed more closely to the characters than to the conflicts they face as Vanquishers, it may have given a stronger sense of their bond. As it stands, there's just too much it wants to assume we believe or relate to, and as a result the impact of the whole anime takes a huge hit. There's still some effect and some scenes are still well done, but it's not nearly as breathtaking as it wants to be.
5/10. They're fun, and for that fun, the characters will be remembered. But they won't hold fond places or be striking characters that define their archetypes.
Ga-Rei -Zero- loses a lot of effect through poor characterization, which is unfortunate because it crutches very heavily on the characters as I've stated many times. This is only exacerbated by a rushed plot with missing elements and a poor conveyance of the story. Had Ga-Rei -Zero- opted to shoot over 20 episodes, perhaps, or 25, they might have accomplished what the anime set out to do; I have no doubts that if it had been a little less episode-by-episode for conflicts, everything would have felt far more dramatic, and held much more impact. All the implied content and loose ends left untied, presumably followed up by the manga, make the anime a poor standalone performance. Alas, it is a potentially great anime marred and all but ruined by the over-dependency on a pre-existing material of a different media-- where Asura Cryin' does something similar, it's linked to a follow-up anime, and that's of the same medium. Ga-Rei -Zero- places much story value in something that it claims no explicit links to, it just assumes the watcher may have read the manga-- generally a poor assumption to make, and it does a poor job of upselling the manga... which is a pity, since the manga's release precedes it. In fact, with a little more effort drawing viewers into Kagura's conflicts, it might well have paved way for an anime adaptation of Ga-Rei. But I digress...
Ga-Rei -Zero- is thusly an ultimately disappointing experiment in misused potential, and abuses its capacity to rely on the manga. Had it aspired to be a little more standalone, it would have gone much further than it does; as it stands, it's not thoroughly unenjoyable but doesn't exactly roll socks up and down. It settles an uncomfortable medium of having a few grand ups punctuated by many annoying downs.