Red Garden is a 22-episode anime series which aired in 2006.
Red Garden is a show full of weird little quirks, but there's nothing particularly quirky about its premise: four girls are forced to fight supernatural forces. Each evening, at any time before midnight, a team of female students from a prestigious school in New York may be summoned by a mysterious woman named Lula to engage in a deathmatch against fast, vicious, zombie-like monsters. Surrender and nonparticipation are not valid options. The girls know nothing about why they've been chosen or who they're really working for, but they hope to find out before it's too late.
Studio Gonzo's artistic work here is wholly different from the norm. Red Garden's characters are tall and lanky, distinctly European-looking, mostly pale and thin, as if to emphasize their fragility and their proximity to death. Their hair and their hard, angular faces are rendered with an attention to detail that borders on obsessive. The backgrounds do a competent job displaying the ins and outs of a big city, from elegant party halls and bustling streets to half-vacant, slummy apartments; none of them draw the eye in quite the same way as the characters, but the effort is nonetheless appreciable. Shortcuts are taken in the animation here and there, but for the most part they're at least placed in such a way as to not be obtrusive, neither adding to nor detracting from the visual experience. The fight scenes are more about the emotional element than the actual combat, so I'll look past what could generously be described as uninspired choreography on that front. Red Garden is at its visual best during moments of calm, when its uniquely stylized character designs can draw a breath and do their job.
The soundtrack is orchestral, almost exclusively low and atmospheric, sometimes rising with a subtle and foreboding crescendo during developing scenes of action. On its own two legs, it's humble, not what you're likely to remember as an awesome musical score, but it blends seamlessly into the show, quietly touching the right notes and enhancing the mood from its place in the background. That merits a certain amount of praise. It does its job, and does it well.
Red Garden's biggest strength lies in its characters, who are drawn from different backgrounds and social circles to fight for their lives. We meet Rose, a shy and caring everygirl; Rachel, a rebellious partygoer; Kate, the daughter of a wealthy family who is held to high expectations in school; and Claire, a tough loner with few friends. In the past, they've all been passing classmates at best, and they have no common ground. They simply don't like each other. Their personalities don't mix. Two are meek and timid, two are strong and overly confrontational. They bicker, judge, and throw insults without considering the consequences, as teenagers are apt to do. Combat only amplifies these difficulties—how can you entrust your life to (or risk your life for) someone you don't even respect, someone who talked down to you earlier that same day? The end result, curiously, is that all of the girls are too hesitant. No one makes a move during a fight, out of fear that none of the others will come to their aid.
But necessity's hand is at work. The girls soon realize that the choice between cooperating and dying is really no choice at all, and they begin to work as a team, slaying their opponents with newfound proficiency. In the process, they find their common ground: a strong desire to live. Trust in battle leads the group to new highs, and eventually the stilted pseudo-friendship turns into the genuine article. Interactions under the moon and those under the sun bleed together. The team meets in everyday life, and its members warmly help each other work through personal problems. The girls are well-written, well-developed, and believably frayed. Red Garden's drama can sometimes seem over-the-top, but it's usually justified. After all, its characters live each day on edge, trying to get through school while dreading the summons of Lula, never knowing what might happen at night, frequently haunted by what happened the night before. Anyone would be a nervous, screaming wreck in that situation.
If only the story were handled so gracefully. Early in the series, the girls reach the realization that they're being forced to fight because of two ancient families who cursed each other, and the series takes it from there, delving deeper and deeper into a labyrinthine backstory about the two families and the set of rules by which the curses can be removed or applied. Now, that's a neat (if somewhat trite) idea in its own right, and it could have lead to something rather slick; it has a certain sort of dark, modern folklore appeal to it. But suffice to say that no matter how many ways I look at the dozens of details piled upon this story, they simply don't add up to anything coherent. Every time something is revealed, more inconsistencies and unanswered questions are revealed along with it. At almost any point, they could have (and should have) stopped adding to the top of the structure, and reinforced its base instead. But they don't, they keep stacking and stacking until the house of cards falls. It is a brute-force approach to storytelling which relies on the incorrect assumption that the sheer number of elements is what makes a story intricate and involving. It is dense but ultimately nonsensical, and it ends up serving as a vehicle to carry the infinitely more interesting character drama to us rather than serving as a strong addition to the show.
One other thing: the characters sing. Much as I wish that were a joke, an exaggeration, or just a bad dream that I had, it really happens. Red Garden's characters sometimes burst into song at the drop of a hat, and it is every bit as awkward as it sounds. Where this idea came from, the world may never know; there is nothing else in the show that hints at it being a musical, and the songs occur once per episode at most, sprouting spontaneously out of normal dialogue like tonally-challenged tumors. The singing itself is mediocre (in both Japanese and English) and the lyrics are cringeworthy. I wish I could pass this off as just another little quirk in a series that's full of little quirks, and some might choose to look at it that way, but the truth is that even without this element Red Garden would be a bit of a confused experience, and the moments of song produce an even more heightened sense of unreality, as if begging the viewer to ask: am I really watching this right now? In fairness, they appear to have scrapped this idea about eight episodes in, and the last two-thirds of Red Garden are blissfully singing-free, but the “what were they thinking” damage is pretty well done by that point, and it's not easily forgotten.
I don't see any of these as fatal shortcomings, though combined, they might come close. When Red Garden works, it works surprisingly well, with a unique artistic presence, fitting music, and a group of interesting characters serving as the high points of the series. It's certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but if it sounds like it might be yours, giving it a try couldn't hurt. I can't sing its praises, but I'll give it a soft recommendation.
Score: 6/10; cautious recommendation.