If Judge Kristin Munson ever gets reincarnated, she'd like to come back as a butterfly. No ever suspects the butterfly.
Five dead girls lying on the floor, one was dragged off and then there were four.
Created by the same studio that brought you Hellsing, Red Garden has all the typical supernatural anime tropes: girls with giant eyes and Olsen twin bodies, distorted monsters, mysterious powers, and the occasional musical number. Wait, what?
Actually, by focusing on characters rather than carnage, story instead of shock value, Red Garden feels more like an animated suspense thriller than a horror series. It's anything but typical.
Facts of the Case
Yesterday, Rose, Claire, Kate, and Rachel had only two things in common: a friend named Lise and places at an expensive private school. Today, they have three things in common: a dead friend named Lise, a wicked case of selective amnesia, and a swarm of butterflies no one else can see. When the insects lead them to an icy blonde, she informs the four that they're all dead, murdered during the blank hole in their memories, and if they want to keep their borrowed lives they'll have to kill on her command.
Now they have four things in common.
Red Garden, Vol. 1: Live to Kill collects the first four episodes of
In the opening credits for Red Garden, female silhouettes composed of swirling flowers, ribbon, butterflies, and pearls go dancing through New York like they're That Girl on LSD, setting the mood for a perky, big-city comedy. It then cuts to two limos, driving through the night, each with a bodyguard and an unconscious teenage girl swaddled in the backseat. The next morning, one girl wakes up warm and safe in her own bed, the other is lying dead in the woods, an apparent suicide. That's when you realize that Red Garden is a program that likes to play with its audience.
The first episode unfolds in four separate social spheres, introducing us to good girl Rose, party girl Rachel, rich girl Kate, and tough girl Claire. Dropping hints and sometimes moving slower than you'd like, the plot is just winding you up for the gut-punch ending. The rest of the episodes take the premise and run with it, sometimes taking cruel, twisty roads to explain the rules of the girls' new lives, sometimes leaving them (and us) hanging.
What sets the series apart is that the murder victim/reborn killer situation is that it's treated the way a real person would handle it and not a gang of magical sparkly poo schoolgirls. More time in Vol. 1 is spent exploring each character's private life than finding out who killed them or fighting man-beasts, but the quiet moments make the attacks that much more intense. When the girls do go mano y monster, it's messy and clumsy. They pummel bestial businessmen with their bare hands, attack them with car keys, and try to garrote them with purses, anything to stay alive. They're so inexperienced that each fight really could be their last. The screaming, crying, and carrying on can get annoying but it does add realism.
Not only are these girls not BFF, some of them actively hate each other. You'll probably hate some of them, too, until the story begins fleshing them out beyond their stereotypes. Shallow, catty Rachel is starting to come unhinged trying to juggle her old life with her new one—you'd think she'd be used to being pawed by panting older men. There's also more than a whiff of Sapphic subtext surrounding Kate and her social set: a group of uniformed girls called Grace that run the school with a perfumed fist. Rose, however, is still an insufferable crying, cowering mess by disc's end. Maybe she'll grow a bigger spine in Volume Two, or have her own ripped out.
Since the entire series was designed to be just 22 episodes long, each one feels like it's building toward something rather than tossing off clues to keep you tuning in. Where another show might drag out the amnesia story, peppering a season with frustrating flashback fragments and saving the big stuff for a finale, Red Garden gives us the whole story in the third episode. Or does it? Pieces of it contradict what was seen in the first episode and it leaves the "why?" for another volume.
That's the main problem with watching series like this on the installment plan. It's hard to tell what's a piece of the larger puzzle and what's plot oversight. Like, if Claire's so poor she can't make the rent, why is she attending an exclusive private school? How did the police find the corpses of girls Rachel saw dissolve to ash?
As for the disc itself, the sound is good, but on the 5.1 track the sound effects can overwhelm the dialogue, and sometimes vice versa. The picture is clean and bright, really showcasing the meticulous costume, set, and hair design. There are chapter stops but no chapter menu and the episodes are set to a default "Play All" mode. Rather than booting you back to the main menu after the end credits and preview, the next episode just starts rolling. There are also no extras beyond some trailers and the opening and closing songs devoid of credits scroll. I don't normally comment on overall disc design unless it's problematic, but the crimson butterfly motif on both the menu and the disc nicely represent the series' eerie beauty.
Live to Kill comes with an English dub and the subtitled Japanese original; both have their drawbacks. The subtitles needed another pass by the editors; there are several glaring typos and spelling errors on the final product. At one point, a suspenseful conversation about dead girl Lise's missing diary becomes a discussion about her missing dairy, instantly wrecking the mood. While the voice acting in the English version is unusually good, not all the actresses are up to the song portions, and cursing has been thrown in to make the title "edgy" and "adult." Nothing says maturity like a load of unnecessary swearing. Damn Hell vinegar douche.
Ultimately, Red Garden is creepy and intriguing and has a way of feeding you enough clues to stimulate and satisfy. The DVD may not be all it could be, but it's enough to make a body bloodthirsty for more.
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Studio: ADV Films
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