anime review: Red Garden

It’s a little unfair to review a series after watching just 7 episodes, but Red Garden is (so far) one of the most disappointing anime series I have ever seen, and I feel compelled to share that with the world before you waste a precious second of your life on it. Once you start watching, of course, you have to finish just to find out what happens. [Note: Kindly disregard that. I’ve updated this post.]

To be judgy-wudgy for a moment, I don’t think it’s terribly difficult to put together a decent anime horror series (aside from the animating). You come up with a surreal and bizarre and horrifying scenario, throw a motley pack of teenagers into it, add some kawaii moments to leaven the bloodletting a bit, and let the magic happen. As long as you keep the tension going and the characters strong, you can’t really screw this up.

So, what went wrong with Red Garden?

Let’s start with the title sequence. I’m something of a connoisseur of these things, my favourites being Serial Experiments Lain, Paranoia Agent, and the first series of When They Cry. But essentially any opening is fine with me, so long as it’s a mesmerizing blend of music and imagery. Sadly for me, the opening credits of Red Garden are a blend of girly psychedelic flowers, an ’80s commercial for ladies’ razors, and peppy disco-funk Muzac. It’s like the Sex & the City credits in some alternate cartoon universe full of puppies and rainbows. How very appropriate for a Gothic horror series.
The end sequence is worse. We’ll get to that later.

The Premise
So. Um. You’re a teenage girl living in New York City. You go to a posh private school and live in an apartment that’s bigger than some countries. One day you wake up feeling really weird. You can’t remember what you did the night before, but you’re pretty sure it involved being kidnapped, drugged, taken to a mysterious mansion, then returned to your bed by a group of strangers. At school, you learn that a classmate has been found dead in the woods. She apparently committed suicide, like four other girls who died recently.

After that day, you start to see clouds of red butterflies hovering over your head late at night and you feel compelled to go to an abandoned alley. There, you run into several girls from school who also see the butterflies. Then a creepy pair of adult siblings, Lula and J.C., show up and tell you that in order to survive, you must fight a man in a suit who acts like a dog. Or maybe it’s a dog that looks like a man in a suit.

He’s an insurance adjuster.

Without any weapons, you and the other girls manage to kick this guy’s ass night after night. Or maybe it’s a bunch of different guys who all look the same. Not really clear on that.
You don’t tell anyone about the butterflies or Mr. Cujo. You don’t say, “Hey, screw you, butterflies,” and go home. You just keep fighting night after night after night.

The part of Lula is played by James Woods.

One night, Lula takes you back to that mansion and shows you a room full of caskets. Inside one of them is your own body, looking a little peaked but otherwise OK. You’re not putrefied or anything. The other girls’ bodies are in the other caskets. Lula tells you that the bodies you and your friends are currently occupying are new bodies given to you on the night you were drugged and abducted. But if you fight Old Yeller successfully every night, you might get your old body back. That’s really important to you, even though your “new” body doesn’t seem to be any different from the old one. The only problem is, you’re really thirsty all the time. You develop a taste for sucking on lemons.

Oh, and sometimes you break into these melancholy, off-key songs for no reason at all. And then the other girls join in, and all of you waste five minutes of my life on this shit.
And in the end credits, you and Lula and the rest of the girls headbang to a freaking awful song that starts out “Rock rock the LMC”, which turns out to be the initials of some awful band. This chick makes you fight dog-men or man-dogs with sticks, and you … party with her? WTF, girls?

But hey, you still live in New York and your families are still super-gazillionaires. At least, you would live in New York if any of the animators had ever been to New York. Or looked at pictures of New York. Or watched movies set in New York. You’re actually living in Japan and pretending you live in New York, basically.

Your school is dominated by a battalion of female hall monitors in bizarre Victorian uniforms, collectively known as Grace. Grace gives you tickets for being late to class, disrespecting Grace, having poorly manicured nails, and just about anything else. There doesn’t seem to be any point to this. At all. Yet one of you girls, Kate, is proud of her Grace membership and doesn’t want to be kicked out. Which is unfortunate, because she’s very tired from secretly battling dog-men or man-dogs all the time.

Chip a nail AND THEY DOCK YA.

I’m pretty sure that Kate’s best friend is somehow related to Moaning Myrtle. Too bad you don’t all go to the same school.
Still, Kate is at least smart enough to follow Lula and J.C. to find out more about this whole butterfly-beckoning, body-replacement, dog-fighting thing. But she’s too timid to ask any serious questions, and the whole encounter is completely wasted.

The “Characters”

The other girls are just as boring as Kate. There’s Rachel, a poodle-haired hipster who’s spoiled, but not in an interesting, bitchy way. There’s Rose, a sweet kid who looks after her younger siblings a lot. There’s a butch chick named Claire who works at a diner.

Then there’s Herve. Who the hell is Herve? Dunno. He just shows up in scenes unconnected to any others, looking very Scandinavian and singing a sad song about his dead mother, who suffered a congenital disorder that turned her into that kid from The Exorcist. This probably has some link to the man-dog/dog-man, but instead of exploring that, Herve spends all his time and all his family’s money trying to find a cure for his younger sister and his niece. These two creepy-looking tots are kept in what appears to be a giant hamster cage decorated like Romper Room.

So that’s the set-up. Gawd, I hope this gets better.

Herve’s sister and niece. I think this is what would have happened if Josef Fritzl had a better job.

UPDATE: Happily, Red Garden does get better. The second half of the series is song-free, character-oriented, and reasonably compelling. Turns out the girls are caught up in an age-old battle between two “clans”, not unlike the one in Wild Palms. One clan is cursed with Cujo disease and needs some new blood. The other clan desperately requires the services of the Dog Whisperer, but has to settle for teenage girls. That guy is really busy.

We finally learn more about the girls’ weaknesses, fears, and desires. Rachel’s nastiness and vulnerability come out as she realizes her old life is over. Herve, the caring brother and uncle, begins to look pretty twisted; he “dates” shy little Kate just to mess with her head. The head of Grace knows more about the feud and Kate’s role in it than Kate does. In short, things get interesting.

The “Rock rock the LMC” mess is replaced by an edgy J-pop tune with a delightfully bizarre animation of reflections on a curved, rotating surface that turns out to be a spinning teacup. Unfortunately, though, the title sequence remains the same.