I’m going to spend the introduction drawing parallels between Berserk and Ga-Rei-Zero because that’s just the kind of guy I am. After all, I am always saying that I want more things like Berserk to get made. Well Ga-Rei-Zero is kind of the thing I’m looking for, though not in the manner I intended. Berserk is a medieval dark fantasy story filled with swords demons, while Ga-Rei-Zero is a modern supernatural story filled with swords and ghosts. The similarity is actually in the story structure and certain plot elements. Both series tell their story in a circular manner; starting in the present, then jumping to the past and working their way back to the present. Both spend the parts that deal with the past exploring the relationship between the protagonist and the antagonist, and how they ultimately became enemies. Both also have an evil little red crystal serving as the catalyst for everything going straight to hell. It’s like someone somewhere heard that I wanted more things like Berserk, but misinterpreted what I meant by that. Now that that’s out of the way…
Ga-Rei-Zero is a prequel to the manga series, Ga-Rei, and focuses on the past of the characters Kagura and Yomi. The two of them are members of the Supernatural Disasters Countermeasures Division known as Vanquishers, tasked with destroying evil spirits. When a squad sent out to deal with a large group of spirits is mysteriously wiped out, Kagura and her allies are shocked to find that Yomi was the one who killed them. The ensuing battle pits the two former sisters against one another, as Kagura is left with no other option than to kill Yomi.
While part of Ga-Rei-Zero does focus on the conflict between Kagura and Yomi, the main point of the series is to look at the relationship between the two, and how things ended up the way they did. It can come off as a little jarring to go from the brutal violence of the first two episodes to the much calmer and slower episodes that follow. It’s an effective story telling method though, pulling you in with the action and then slowing things down a bit. It also makes the episodes detailing the past have a sense of foreboding, as you know the happy sister relationship between the two girls is ultimately going to fall apart. The story could have easily been told in a straightforward manner, but knowing where things will end up ahead of time makes the intervening events seem much more interesting and captivating, and when events from the first two episodes are shown again later you notice things that don’t stand out as much the first time around.
The series as a whole is extraordinarily tragic. It spends several episodes making you feel attached to all of these characters, and then proceeds to let horrible things befall them. The whole thing is basically about watching one of the top Vanquishers, capable of beating any enemy, fall from grace and become nothing more than a puppet for evil, attacking the people she once cared about. Tragic villains are always the best kind of villain. One who was leading a happy life, only to have it snatched away from them, and ultimately treads down a path that they can’t turn back from. What makes Yomi such a great antagonist in the series is all the time you spend watching her before she becomes one. Not to draw more parallels to Berserk, but it’s similar to how we see Griffith in that series. When he’s finally close to achieving his dreams, they’re suddenly snatched away from him, and he’s left with no option other than to make enemies of those who used to be loyal to him. Like Griffith, Yomi is a villain who, while you hate what they’re doing, you can’t help but feel sorry for, as you’ve watched them hit rock bottom and in desperation make a choice that betrays everyone who cared about them.
Don’t go thinking that the whole series is super serious and depressing though. For the most part, it’s actually fairly lighthearted. Things get a bit heavier towards the end, but leading up to that there happens to be a fair amount of silliness. In an early episode the two girls start fighting over the last piece of pocky, and try eating it at the same time. One thing leads to another and Yomi pushes Kagura down and starts making out with her (it’s totally okay though they’re not actually blood related sisters). There’s also a gay character who, on several occasions, declares his desire to have sex with various other male characters. There are also a few occasions of bath time hijinks, which at one point leads to the series’ single shot of nudity, which seems out of place since every other time when they could have shown nudity the girls’ chests were obscured in some way. This sort of lighthearted silliness is necessary though, as it helps endear you to the characters before all the horrible things start happening.
On the more awesome side of the lightheartedness, you have the various weapons that are seen throughout the series. In the first episode there’s a motorbike with runes on its wheels, which the rider whacks enemies in the face with using what can only be called, “bike fu.” There’s also a pair of briefcases that are actually gatling guns, an iron which makes steam out of holy water, drill-knuckles with a rocket punch function, and a holy chainsaw. The best example of crazy weaponry comes from a wheelchair used by one of the characters, which hides gatling guns and blades. We get to see a scene where a woman engages in a sword fight using blades that pop out of the side of her wheelchair. That part of the fight only lasts about two seconds, but still, holy shit. It’s like someone took this series as an opportunity to design the most ridiculous weapons they could think of.
Despite being released on Blu-Ray, Ga-Rei-Zero was not actually produced in HD, and is merely upscaled. The Blu-Ray does look better than the DVD, but not as good as it should. It’s a shame since the series has some great action scenes that would look amazing in proper HD. While the various sword fights and other action scenes are visually impressive, some of the character design leaves a little to be desired. Kagura and Yomi are always in their school uniform. Always. It really seems odd that they would wear their school uniforms when fighting spirits in the middle of the night. Though, giving credit where it’s due, the two girls do wear different school uniforms. Similarly the other members of the SDCD wear simple black suits. For all the creativity that went into weapon design the character design is lacking in comparison. Also, much of the series takes place in nondescript locations, mostly around the city with the occasional trip into the forest. It’s all well animated, it just feels like it’s lacking in variety at times.
Funimation’s dub for the series stars relative newcomer Alexis Tipton as Yomi, and Leah Clark as Kagura. Both of them do an excellent job with the more lighthearted and humorous material that occurs during the series. However, during the scenes where Yomi is evil at the beginning and later on towards the end, Alexis Tipton doesn’t quite handle the material as well as the more comedic scenes. It isn’t a problem with her acting, it’s just that her voice doesn’t sound as intimidating as it should while brutally slaughtering people. She handles the emotional and comedic scenes well, but she doesn’t really have the voice of a villain. Most of the other characters are more minor and less demanding than Yomi, save for Kagura, but every character is played well. There aren’t any actual bad performances that stand out, and the problem of Yomi not sounding intimidating enough during her villain scenes is a minor one that doesn’t really hurt things overall. The dub script itself also differs from the subtitle script a great deal at times. There are a few instances of lines being changed entirely, though this never has an effect on the impact of a scene. There are points where trying to compare the two becomes difficult as sometimes an entire monologue will have things said in a different order. Despite the odd script choices, it’s still a great dub overall.
This is also another one of Funimation’s new limited edition releases. This one doesn’t come with any bonus item like Sacred Blacksmith and Requiem for the Phantom, but still comes in a nice chipboard box. The set is also a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack, and though most combo packs come in Blu-Ray packaging this one is in DVD packing, which has annoyed some people. Another minor gripe is that the discs are mixed up, with Disc 1 of both the DVD and Blu-Ray being in one DVD case, while Discs 2 and 3 of the DVD, and Disc 2 of the Blu-Ray are in the other DVD case. This would be less of an issue if the discs clearly indicated which was which, but the only way to tell is by a small DVD or Blu-Ray logo on the disc. The way they divided things up also causes a problem with the episode list on the back of each case, in that it only applies to the DVDs due to the Blu-Ray discs having different episode counts. They should have just kept the Blu-Ray and DVDs in separate cases, but it’s not that big of an issue since you can easily fix it yourself.
On disc extras include the standard textless opening and closing themes, and trailers for other Funimation properties, along with a few other things as well. One of these is a series of videos taken while the director and other staff working on the show were location scouting. They give an interesting look into how much planning went into some of the scenes involving the underground sewage system from the first couple episodes, as well as the inspirations for some of the later locations in the series. There are six of this location scouting videos in total, with each one being around 20 minutes long. Other than that there are promotional videos for the series premier and the Japanese DVD release. It’s nice to see some substantial extras in a release, even if it just happens to be two hours of location scouting videos.
Ga-Rei-Zero is a great series for action fans, provided they’re okay with the occasional bit of fanservice and wacky hijinks. It has great sword fights, engaging characters and a great tragic villain. Despite a few hangups with the character design it’s still a well animated series, with a great English dub too. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Pros: Great action and characters, great dub, amazing weapons
Cons: Character design is a little bland, as are many of the locations