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You could say that GA-REI-ZERO has it all. Action. Drama. Romance. 3D effects. Furry dragons. Creepy twins. Enchanted swords. Secret government organizations. Lesbianism. Revenge. Everything!
When it comes to ticking off boxes on a checklist of anime badassery, GA-REI-ZERO absolutely refuses to be outdone. It’s as if there was a sale at Big Bob’s Violent and Periodically Erotic Cartoon Part Emporium, and the creators of this show proudly proclaimed, “We’ll take one of everything!”
Just how serious were they about out-doing every other anime that came before? So serious that at the end of the first episode, they have the entire cast sliced up into wet, bloody chunks by a sexy, sword-wielding schoolgirl, just to prove that yeah, they’ll go that far.
For a series that reboots itself just one episode in, the most striking thing about the remaining episodes of GA-REI-ZERO are just how sadly predictable they are. Perhaps that’s a lazy complaint, being that this show was invented to serve as a prequel, fleshing out characters who already existed in the serialized GA-REI manga. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read GA-REI and don’t intend to.)
And it’s not as if GA-REI-ZERO attempts any more plot-twisting shenanigans past that initial switcheroo - - the show immediately jumps into a flashback that aims to explain the opening events. But maybe that’s the biggest problem: it doesn’t attempt any more shenanigans. Instead, it’s just a straight march toward a conclusion you’ve already seen. It feels as though they didn’t trust us to wait for the end, so they opted to start with it.
As for what that journey entails, GA-REI-ZERO is the story of two girls forced to grow up too fast (no thanks to their enlistment in the war against invading demons from Hell... or someplace).
OK, so I’m still not entirely sure what the story is, but I know that when evil psychics and their zombie armies show up, school-aged Yomi and Kagura are called upon to strike them down with their awesome swords and extremely ugly pet spirit animal monsters. And in between fights, the older Yomi teaches the younger Kagura a thing or two about what it means to be a mature, self-sufficient woman warrior because you can’t count on anybody but yourself when things get really tough - - or so Yumi has come to believe.
Orphans, right? So independent.
Except, when things eventually do get really tough, it’s Yomi’s philosophy on life that is the first casualty. It turns out that isolating yourself usually only leads to - - go figure - - further isolation. And the forces of evil are strongest when taking on a single foe.
That brings us to my biggest problem with GA-REI-ZERO’s plot: EVIL! The show is content to linger on the budding friendship of two young girls, including their getting-to-know-you tea parties, bath-time backrubs, and LADY AND THE TRAMP-style Pocky-sharing kisses. However, when the time comes for something dramatic to happen, look out: it’s EVIL!
Need a character to do something heinous and unearned? EVIL made them do it! Need generations of family history to dissolve in mere minutes? EVIL will take care of that. Not content with monsters that only attack once? Add a boost of EVIL to their mystic fruit smoothies and watch ‘em come back again and again.
It’d be presumptuous to speculate on why specific creative decisions are made in the production of a series that ultimately only serves to entertain its audience (and sell a few extra comic books in the mean time) but... why let that stop me?
Watching GA-REI-ZERO feels like going over the results of a survey of what would make anime more awesomer. Where some creators choose to separate themselves from the competition by breaking the established rules and searching for a unique angle of their own, GA-REI-ZERO apparently choose to embrace as many “popular” ideas as possible. While I appreciate the enthusiasm towards being all things to all viewers, nobody can really deliver on that bold of a goal. The problem becomes that each episode, the show seems to be reaching for a different set of cliches, and the constant shifting left me feeling confused, irritated, and - - worst of all - - sort of bored.
So, despite its substantially shocking opening, maybe GA-REI-ZERO isn’t going to blow any minds or re-invent the magic sword. The characters who get more than a few minutes of screentime (read: not the creepy twins who exist seemingly for the single joke of having the same name) are actually quite charming, and the sisterly bond between Yomi and Kagura is more often right than wrong.
The animation is decent, and they do deliver on the occasional snapping limbs and splashing strawberry jam, if that’s what you like to see from your action anime. There are even a couple jokes in there, like when all the normal enchanted weapons are in the shop and Yomi is forced to fight the undead with a iron full of holy water.
"It’s not so bad," she quips... until it runs out of steam.
Alexei Bochenek is a lifelong tech nerd and film buff based in Los Angeles. He writes for various online publications and edits the Los Angeles events website LALookout.com. Follow his Twitter: @alexeigb.