DDA Top 10: Number 1…

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Here we are, after so many months. Number One. What does Doll consider the best anime of all time? Is she really doing this tired blue-balls gag?

I’ve talked about this series before, it’s buried in the comments several times throughout the blog, but I don’t prop it up a lot because of how very specific it is, and how unknown it is.

I reference Madoka a lot as an example because it’s one most people are familiar with. Like a common language for contemporary anime fans. But also because Madoka, on the whole, is probably superior to today’s outing from the purely technical level, in terms of structure, style, and literary reference.

But as we said in the beginning, that is only part of the battle.

Today we examine one of the first series I watched with my girlfriend.  She isn’t as big into anime as I am, and arguably it’s one of the weaknesses in our relationship that I wish I could share this thing with her but don’t often get to.  But this was something she wanted to see, as she heard me watching it and liked the dark atmosphere she saw so she said, sure, why the hell not, let’s watch it together.

During the course of watching this series, she came to associate our relationship with the two main characters (something apt to happen to a lot of couples, I know. Hell we did the same thing with Madoka), but this has a unique distinction.  Perhaps less so for her counterpart, but in part because I am so physically alike with the character attributed to me, and likely similar shades in our personalities, but at one point she turned and hit me in the shoulder, like really hard, shouting “what is WRONG with you?!” I share this to illustrate how close our focus character is to my own heart.

I’ve mentioned all those things in the introduction about what changes my scores.  In a sort of foreshadowing, I was essentially explaining away why this series comes in at number one.  It has girl love elements, I have used it as forum avatars and facebook icons and cosplays, and it is ripe with dark elements.  Unlike Madoka, which had darkness IN it yet is still a relatively optimistic show, this series is a grand tragedy. A Shakespearean bad end that ends in death and suffering, and that’s the end. It holds out no hope, and I love it for that.

And above all, it is, I would argue, the single best character study series in all of anime.

So with that, let me introduce you, to Dataport Doll’s Number One Series of all time.

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Number 1: Ga Rei Zero

This is going to be a terribly spoiler-ific review.  One the one hand, that doesn’t matter, as this was a prequel to a moderately popular manga series. And the “gag” about the format would be lost on you if you hadn’t read Ga Rei in the first place.

On the other hand, if for whatever reason, you never saw this series, and you loathe spoilers, well now’s your chance to back out.

I mean it.

Last chance.

You sure?

Alright then.

So if you DIDN’T read the Ga Rei manga before Ga Rei Zero aired, you probably are totally lost on the switcheroo that occurs in the first episode. This was the gag and surprise for the manga fans.  Ga Rei Zero was advertised as having a completely original story that wouldn’t appear in the manga, rather than being a direct adaptation.

“Oh, well that’s interesting” people said.  So they tuned in for episode 1 to meet this new cast of characters, literally the B squad of the apparition division.  So far so good.

Until they all get killed by the manga villain, Yomi.

There is a lot of hate for this change. I will sum up the majority of the complaints about this switch.

“Waaaaaaaah, why are we following a GIRL through this action series? Waaaaah.”

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Remember, this blog only posits the facts.

Personally I was relieved.  Watching the first episode I was like, “What? THESE dipshits are the people we have to watch with? No. No way. Nuh uh. I ain’t gonna survive 12 episodes of THESE losers who have all the depth of an unmarked grave.”

People think that the Episode 1 cast is full of interesting people. They must have been watching some other Ga Rei Zero, because the B squad here was utterly 1-dimensional and bland.

This gimmick kind of loses its punch now that people will tend to stumble into the Ga Rei series by chance these days.  The manga finished years ago, the anime is eight years old or so as of this post, and fortunately, at the very least, the first episode does the business of explaining the universe to us before we get to our main characters, Kagura and Yomi. It allows them freedom of movement without being tied down to expositing EVERY tiny detail about the universe to us, they have enough backstory to exposit as it is.

However, I think a big part as well, was that the story is only really nine or ten episodes long. It does not feel like we have TOO much extra dragging us down. So a filler episode in this manner? It is infinitely more preferable, even without that context, than a beach episode would be.

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Spirit Eaters

Ga Rei (the manga) is a story of exorcists and how they fight ghosts and demons in modern day Japan. It’s a fairly typical shonen series, following our hero Kensuke and the veteran exorcist Kagura, who takes him under her wing as they tackle a number of threats.

The anime takes place some years prior to this, where the introductory villain, Yomi, is still alive. And still partners with HER trainee, Kagura. Kagura’s design is the most significantly altered from the manga, particularly her hair. It’s only about half the length of the manga, a fitting metaphor for Kagura only being half done.

Our story picks up, after showing us the climax first, when Kagura’s mother, the wielder of Byakuei, has died attempting to seal a power Bane Stone, and failed. Her father, Garaku, has assumed the spirit beast and leaves Kagura in the care of his head retainer family, the Isayama family. Kagura falls under the care of Yomi, heir to Isayama family, who mentors her in her job hunting phantoms and demons.

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First Thing’s First…

We don’t have a Rebellion to settle matters for us, so we must, instead, fall back on that old tried and true section when we analyze the Yomi/Kagura relationship: Who’s Got A Case of the Not-Gays?

Obviously I’m sure you can tell I fall into the camp of romance. That’s not to cheapen the compassion they could have. But much like in Korra, this pairing just makes sense to me. And yes perhaps that is coming from someone whose formative years were with a culture that did not encourage intimate relationships with the same sex, but regardless I think that it’s difficult to examine the series with adult eyes and not draw the conclusion.

And, like Korra, Ga Rei IS a shonen series. It isn’t trying to be a romance as much as it is that primary point: an action-oriented character study.

Further, it’s sometimes really hard to appreciate how far stuff moves in ten years. 2008 was the period where we were just emerging from the dark ages of “GIRL LOVE IS THE PUREST LOVE! NO SEXINGS! SEX DOESN’T EXIST BETWEEN WOMEN!” in anime. Do I think Ga Rei Zero would have shown kissing and more definitive orientations today? No, not really, because it was still a series being written towards the manga. And at the time, those elements didn’t exactly exist. But I also posit that BECAUSE those elements emerged due to this anime, it speaks all the stronger to the natural chemistry between our heroines.

To address Noriyuki and Yomi: One, the manga, which follows the series, addresses their relationship. To be blunt: it kicks it out the door like your wife on the highway. When Yomi was brought back the relationship between the pair was addressed, and ultimately axed to focus on the Yomi-Kagura dynamic. To me, that implies that Noriyuki’s contribution to Yomi was negligible, and it is Kagura who helps Yomi be a “Complete person” and vice-versa.

Two, I don’t doubt that Yomi was disposed positively towards Noriyuki. She was, after all, arranged to marry him. If you enter those relationships 100% downer you’re setting yourself up for failure, so, not to be too blunt, I’m sure she made the most of the situation she felt obligated to be in. But the series frequently shows Yomi acknowledging her engagement is an obligation, and only really ONE incident of her showing positive feelings towards it without prompting. And Yomi was suffering head trauma at that point so we probably have to asterisk the point. When Naraku asks Yomi about her feelings on the engagement, though? Not once, ever, does she use the word “I” (metaphorically speaking, I mean in Japanese and all). It is all about her family, and her father, and the trust she places in him.

The pair are even ready to call it off, like rational human beings, after ABUSING THE FUCK out of each other, until Kagura steps in. Goddamnit Kagura.

There’s other things but we’ll address those in their own time. The short of it is, if anyone REALLY objects to this conclusion it’s easy enough to argue in the comments section at this point.

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Become Stronger

So let’s talk a little bit about Kagura, our viewpoint character and ostensibly our protagonist, the imported hero from the manga.

Kagura’s rather young, a 14 year old girl who has trained all her life to fight, but still with little practical experience. She has difficulty battling humanoid phantoms, but her natural talent is readily apparent.

Her arc was rather solid, but spread very thin. On the whole it is a tale about a girl raised to perform a duty, in this case to slay phantoms. She is rigid in her dedication to the cause, but the anime is about her choosing that path herself. Her tragedy, befitting this series, is that she only comes to peace with her work after she hates herself for what she has done.

Now that alone? That’s a pretty solid foundation for a compelling character. Yet for me, Kagura never quite achieves being a good character, so much as a passable one, if I am being objective.

I think this primary weakness of the series is that Kagura comes across a bit weak if you have never read the manga.

It is easier to appreciate Kagura in Ga Rei Zero if you know the calm, distant, and joking girl from the manga. One of the driving forces to watching her in the anime is “How?” How did the calm, collected battle genius start out this way? What changed in two years to make her the way we are familiar with her?

Sixteen year old Kagura is borderline sarcastic with her humor, which can sometimes be a little dark. She sees a laugh in most things. Fourteen year old Kagura isn’t quite that. She has an appreciation for the fun in life, no doubt. She isn’t too serious, but considerably more so than the professionals she works with. Usually. The exception is when it has to deal with a very specific person…

And that is ultimately the story being told when it comes to Kagura. The Kagura we know in Ga Rei proper, who smiles, but never engages, who laughs, but never hugs, who swallows pocky like it’s going out of style and is ruthless with her fighting skills. That Kagura is emulating her mentor.

That mentor, ultimately, is who this series is really about.

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Bestest Girl

Yomi is probably my favorite anime character ever, as a whole. Even in a post-Saitama world, I know.

Yomi’s characterization is strong, and almost cripplingly subtle. She is strong, a tad reckless, and extremely confident in her abilities. And she has a very singular orientation that overshadows all the other facets of her life. And she is exceptionally violent with Noriyuki when he pisses her off. This last trait is mostly played for tsundere-type laughs, but after Yomi becomes a phantom it is almost chillingly threatening in its foreshadowing.

I think one should liken Yomi to how Anakin Skywalker was characterized in the Clone Wars series. Not in the movies, god no not the movies. George Lucas was convinced the only way to show us someone could become a bad person is to show them murdering children even when they’re a “good” person. So don’t think I mean this.

But in the cartoon, Anakin is characterized exceptionally well. He is often shown putting his emotional attachment ahead of the greater good, such as when Bane forces him to open a holocron in exchange for Ahsoka’s life. Anakin knows that doing this dooms those children listed on the holocron to certain death. From every angle, excepting the personal one, this is a bad call. But he makes it. He’s also, as a product of the war, much more authoritarian, seeing the Jedi not as an independent entity allied to the Republic, or its own separate branch, but as servants of its people, therefore the Senate, therefore the Chancellor. The shades of Darth Vader are there, and heroic in a certain light, but with hindsight lead to an almost inevitable fall.

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Yomi is given the same kind of shades. Elements that you don’t think about too much on the surface, but when taken as a whole, obviously contributes to her fall. For instance: Almost every exorcist Yomi’s age has difficulty handling fighting human shapes. Kagura is the most obvious form of this, but we see, very briefly, into Tooru’s difficulty doing so at first, as well. We are never given an indicator Yomi was ever this way. In fact she berates Tooru in his flashbacks.

Add in that Yomi is exceptionally proud of her skills, but does not consider herself a “real” member of her family, more a visitor who happens to carry the name (being adopted this is no surprise), and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happens when that skill is taken away from her. It is her identity.

And at the very beginning, when she and Kagura are little children, we see that Yomi, while she takes her training seriously, doesn’t seem to like all the ceremony the rest of the exorcists stand on. She is awkward when Kagura states she doesn’t really play games, she openly teases her father for being so serious even at 13 years old, and openly insults Garaku as being a jackass in front of Kagura without even meeting the man, but knowing full well he is the head of her expanded clan.

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But the beauty of all of this, is that Yomi is presented as a sort of everyman. We agree with her that Garaku is harsh on his daughter, to the point of psychological abuse, even. We agree that you can’t allow a job to dominate your life. We agree that we must weigh moral choices and not see the world as absolutes. We agree that WE would make time for the ten year old girl in our care who was terrified of the people in her life dying, because that is all she knew.

And in Yomi’s world, these are all bad things. Yomi is not just a great character, but in my mind an iconic one because we clearly sympathize with the villain, while still MAKING them a villain. Few series can pull that off, and fewer still do it so well as this one. Yomi is NOT misunderstood, but she is EXTREMELY sympathetic.

Despite all this, though? These “bad” traits that destroy her, also save her. Yes, Yomi has self-entitlement and nothing to live for, and if she had been more dedicated to the rigid code of the exorcist she never would have given in (theoretically. We don’t know for sure.) But someone who didn’t love others as passionately as Yomi would have never been able to be killed in the manner that she was. She would still be rampaging across Japan for all we know by the time the manga starts. Well, okay, she IS still rampaging, but she’s a ghost, at least! Kagura is given an opening because of Yomi’s feelings for her, and other than perhaps Noriyuki, who actually stood up for Yomi alongside Kagura, we don’t know any other exorcist who would have done the same.

Garaku indirectly compliments the way Yomi does things, saying he himself was not strong enough to shoulder emotions with his burden. Kagura’s conversation exposes this to us when we look at her in the manga: she is emulating Yomi, and trying to be strong enough to bear the pain, because she cannot kill the love she felt for the people around her, particularly Yomi herself.

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Generating Sympathy

So Yomi’s fall is not so simplistic as to be one thing. It is a pretty fitting metaphor for suicide in that regard. Yomi’s challenges are enormous, and painful, but ultimately was does her in, is a loss of hope.

It starts with Mei. Mei is a destructive force and she plays the forebearer to Yomi’s own demise. Mei takes away her family by cutting off Yomi from the protection of her father, and she is thus cast out of the family and loses Shishio. This isn’t insurmountable for her, though. She still has work, she still has her engagement, the last attachment to her father, and she still has Kagura.

When she battles Mitogawa, that ability to fight is taken away.

Noriyuki’s family calls off the engagement, cutting him off from her, and again, the last hope her father had for her goes with him.

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And then, the wounds Mei suffered from her battle with Yomi apply all at the same time, slicing the corpse apart into dozen of pieces, because the bane stone is removed post-mortem. Stark contrast to the sequence of events we saw, which were more like Yomi just cut a switch from a willow tree and slapped her with it. It doesn’t just look like Yomi killed Mei, but did so brutally and for revenge (which is partly true). Soon the agency is suspecting that she mutilated herself to avoid suspicion in killing Mei.

Which is, frankly, the most ridiculous part of all this. Yes, Yomi attacked herself in over 90 individual wounds to paralyze herself. THAT makes a lot of sense. There comes a point where it stops being convenient, and the physical ability to DO so to herself is so astronomical it feels like a masochist would never be able to do it fast enough before they lost motor control. But see! This is what I’m talking about, it is very hard to blame Yomi for turning on the people who wanted to demonize her.

But, either way, even Kagura suspects her. Yomi’s last rock shatters. Kagura outright abandons Yomi, even if only for a moment.

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There is certainly a little bit of arrogance in the emotions that Mitogawa gives voice to. Yomi knows others have suffered. Kagura lost her mother to the fight with demons. Yomi’s father was crippled in his fight with them. Mei’s status as leader of the clan was almost lost to Yomi. And, though Yomi doesn’t know it, the director lost her husband to a bane stone.

At the same time: it is possible to make a completely objective case that no one suffers as much as Yomi. In any anime. Ever. Don’t believe me? Go to 4chan or Reddit, and ask. Any thread about suffering characters will eventually devolve into pictures exclusively of Yomi, I guarantee it.

But in this chain of tragedy, just when Yomi awakens from her coma, when it seems like the hump might be behind her, like there will be a long road to recovery, but it CAN be fulfilled somehow, one day, what small stability she has shatters. Everything is taken away. All of the hardship Yomi endured, bearing the engagement she never wanted with Noriyuki long enough to like the idea but then have it taken, her parents lost to phantom attacks, the loss of her father, and being forced to kill her cousin, and then being crippled in the line of duty, it meant nothing. The department was going to just dispose of her and be done with it. And the person she cared about most turned on her, and joined them, not even sticking up for her.

From our perspective, how can you NOT hate the world after that? When the world regards your best as “not good enough”, particularly when they’ve called YOU “the best”? If the best isn’t good enough, what do these people WANT? The audience completely sympathizes with Yomi’s choice, even while we know it is a wrong one.

I think, perhaps, that was why we had the cold-open at episode 2. If you ran straight through the series, without knowing what this choice would bring her, we might just be TOO tempted to root for Yomi. We might just be too eager to see everyone die at her hands.

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Za Best End

One of the elevating things about the series is that the villain is not beaten by the heroes. We are shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Yomi allows herself to die at Kagura’s hands.

It’s a tangent, but this is always the ending we should have seen in InuYasha. And it is a similar set up. In that series, Naraku has become SO powerful absorbing a full jewel, that the only logical choice was to end him with his wish: To be with Kikyo. Who was dead.

Yomi obeys a similar rule. She desired to protect Kagura. The only logical choice for the Bane Stone was to obey her wish. But it is the very specific way this wish is asked. Yomi asks, even demands, to be allowed to die several times. First Noriyuki, then in the alley, and that’s just the ones we know of.

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It isn’t until the third time that this wish manages to succeed. Why? The answer is clearly in the wish. Yomi frames it in terms, the third time, as to affect Kagura. Protect Kagura. Destroy all those who would try to harm Kagura. Not for herself, not because of her shame, not because of her guilt, but because she focuses on that love for Kagura. That is the item that makes the difference.

These endings can feel cheap. Like, what was the point of the heroes if not to beat the bad guy? On the surface that is true.

But Ga Rei Zero is much deeper than that, and the truth of it is, not only is there a moral in “different kind of strength”, but also, Kagura’s physical power played a significant part in it. She presented Yomi with a situation where she would have to kill Kagura or die (which she could have easily done), and it was only then that Yomi allows herself to die, with no way out. Kagura didn’t have to beat Yomi in a fight, she simply had to be strong enough.

And, let’s not neglect Kagura’s final victory. If we can call it that. But it’s a wonderful theme. After spending the series having difficulty attacking humanoid apparitions, Kagura finally snaps with the dying Yomi in her arms. “I hate myself!” and her barrier is broken.

The cost of protecting humanity ends up being the self-respect of a fourteen year old girl.

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What’s the Harm in a Little Fanservice?

Okay, enough about the lone wolf. Sort of.

I’ve talked about this point in the Yuri Goggles post, but it seems prudent to raise it again.

One of the most unintended consequences in anime occurred in Ga Rei Zero. After all, the anime is headed to production, why not have a little fun? It’s unlikely you’ll get a chance to tell the real story. Why not insert just a little fanservice?

What harm could it do?

Turns out, it could do a lot. Not harm, but Ga Rei Zero altered the course of its source material in a VERY dramatic way. After the anime aired, the current manga arc was VERY quickly wrapped up, and made way for Yomi’s resurrection.

Yomi was a minor villain, at best, in Ga Rei proper. You could even say, at best, she existed to give Noriyuki some pathos, who is really the jester of the manga, to show why he was so aloof and care-free. It gave Kagura some pathos, and also served to highlight the relationship between herself and Kensuke, that one day, this may be THEIR fate as mentor and student.

But really? Yomi was at best a Zabuza. She was an introductory villain who presented a threat, but she was a small time, chaotic force of her own power. She didn’t play into the grand conspiracy that was being developed at all.

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Now some divergence is to be expected. Even George RR Martin, however much he might insist otherwise, is almost certainly a LITTLE influenced by what’s popular about his adaptation TV show. For Ga Rei it was massive, and the entire series shifted to focus almost exclusively on the relationship between Kagura and Yomi.

The fact Kagura became a focus character at all is a testament to the series. In the early manga she is pretty apart from Kensuke’s plots. She is the mysterious, talented warrior to his bumbling everyman. But Kagura became a fan-favorite and the manga adjusted accordingly, because she was so compelling now that the anime had shown us her history, and we saw a tragic, complex hero in place of the unattainable elite goddess trope she was before.

I think because this was fanservice in service to the plot. Plotservice, if you will. Because the first 5 episodes (that is to say, 3-7 to make this REALLY confusing) were SUPPOSED to show us how intimate Yomi and Kagura were before they turned on each other. By sexualizing their relationship, even if only a little bit, it dramatically reinforces those ideas, even if you didn’t notice it (but your brain did).

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EE-YEAYIS!

Art in Ga Rei Zero is quite effective. It’s primarily centered around its shonen roots, but it significantly pulls from horror for its aesthetic.

The show is pretty much straight billed at mature, and it earns that pretty well from the blood splatters that are trapped in the 1990s.

But the art is asked to do so much. The manga style could not be directly adapted, there was no way. Hajime Segawa is a talented artist, but he often inserts quite a load of comedy. One of the more famous Yomi images from the manga makes her look like she belongs in a Garfield cartoon.

Such a thing would not suit Ga Rei Zero, because it has to juggle all those things we’ve talked about. It has to present Garaku as harsh, but without changing his look, make us sympathize with him before he dies and see his inner warmth. It has to make Yomi a young, attractive girl, and a vicious, terrifying psychopath without changing her looks significantly. And perhaps most challenging, it had to craft an animated Mitogawa, a sinister child with an unsettlingly effective villain presence, and yet make him look like he was from the same universe as some of the more cartoonish and innocent heroes, such as Master Michael or Kagura. Not a terribly easy task all told.

All those ideas taken together, the horror style works remarkably well. It ended up as a perfect vehicle to tell the relatively straightforward story. Ga Rei Zero is pretty much just a Shakespearean tragedy, it didn’t need excessive blood or disturbing imagery to get its primary points across. But the fact it DID truly elevates the series into something special.

There was some fantastic direction here, too. One of the scenes that sticks out most to me if the funeral for Kagura’s mother. The moment Yomi first sees Kagura, and the world around them breaks down, first losing substance, then losing form, then fading to black, leaving the pair alone together. It is one of those moments where you clearly see a character’s intentions that doesn’t always work in other, weaker attempts at the “fake yuri” I rail on and on about. It’s not oversold, no rolling monologues about fate, just one girl little out for another.

The supporting cast was remarkably strong, as well. The conversation over the phone between Iwahata and the paramilitary guy, asking to talk to Kazuki, was such a moving moment, even if it was so brief. Master Michael is always great for comic relief, and I thoroughly enjoy Garaku and Naraku as looming figures of the previous generation.

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Nabu Nabu

Ga Rei Zero remains, for me, the definitive anime character study. More than Death Note, more than Monster, more than Code Geass, heretical as that may be. If you’ve never seen it, I hope I have given you enough reason to check it out. If I have given you something new to think about, I hope you might give it a second viewing.

It was, overall, a well rounded series, with some pretty decent humor buoying up the first half. If you wondered what Noragami might look like if it was much bleaker, this show is pretty close to what you’d get.

And that’s the end of the Top 10. Took us some time to get there, but we made it folks!

So let me leave you, once again, with a tribute to our time together

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