That was staggering. I need to watch more Keita Amemiya films.
Who is this guy? Keita Amemiya is best known as the Kamen Rider franchise's character/monster designer, but he's also a director, game designer and illustrator. Apparently a lot of his work has a very distinctive visual style. Zeiram, Mirai Ninja and Hagane all combine SF concepts with traditional Eastern motifs and symbolism. I'm having trouble imagining any of those topping this, though.
It looks like the world's most awesome Wizard of Oz movie. Occasionally I even wondered if the similarities were intentional, as our hero went into a magical fantasy realm and met a scarecrow, tin men and even talking trees while travelling towards the Green Castle (Emerald City?). The lion would of course be Garo himself. Forget the plot. Ignore the characters. This film is a riot of beautiful, playful design. The best point of comparison from Western cinema is probably Jim Henson's Labyrinth, with quite a few of the creatures here looking as if they could have walked straight off the Labyrinth set. It has that kind of quirkiness. Those little tin men made me laugh with no dialogue, just with the way they walked and moved.
It's brilliant. A naked blue girl climbs out of a painting (while staying family-friendly) and is suddenly dressed as a hair scrunchie. Little armoured dwarves sprout helicopter wings from the tops of their heads. There's a house that grows legs, climbs out of the ground and flies away with a pumpkin for a bottom. It's all gorgeous. Nothing is mundane. It's an entire world where everything looks like a mad illustrator's loopiest sketches.
There's even a bit that manages to be still more psychedelic, when our hero, Kouga, turns into a child and dances in a swirl of pure abstract animation, nothing but colours and silhouettes. Meanwhile the plot is pure fantasy too. Kouga has promised to visit a world populated by living objects, where he will recover (and befriend) his personal possessions who've acquired sentience and forgotten about the real world.
There's some Garo mythology, mind you. This is the third Garo film (if you count a straight-to-DVD one) and a sequel to the second Garo TV series, Makai Senki. I don't think this film ever really explained anything, but I was sort of okay. I managed. I've watched the anime, read about the show online and glanced at a few TV episodes on YouTube. In short, Garo is about Makai Knights who wear talking rings and transform into golden armoured lions that fight monsters. Do you need to know any of that? This is a deliriously long way from anything even remotely resembling a traditional Garo story. Kouga goes into a magical realm and finds magical items. That's about it. He has a conversation with his father's ghost (which is a good scene) and there are some real-world bookending scenes with annoyingly acted characters from the TV series, but those don't matter either.
They've also toned down the nudity that's a minor trademark of the TV series. We see no tits. They've sneaked in homages to it (e.g. a topless CGI bird, a topless stone statue), but I'm sure adult content was the last thing anyone wanted. This was a film released in cinemas and visually it's one of the greatest children's films of all time.
The plot is actually okay, until the big last fight against a CGI dragon. That was a bit boring. It's basically a magical quest in the style of The Wizard of Oz, but that's a perfect fit of style with content. There's also some potentially interesting material about loss of memory and identity, with all the living objects existing in a forgotten half-life and being themselves doomed to forget their friends.
The acting is problematic. Everyone except Anna Aoi (Meru) is overacting melodramatically to some degree and only one of them's made it work. Ryosei Konishi (Kouga) mostly gets away with it by playing it stoic, macho and almost personality-free. He's the kind of hero whose idea of effusive gratitude is a manly nod. Usually he's okay, but occasionally he'll get a bit too hammy with a head-turn. Meanwhile the two twats at the beginning were bad enough that I nearly ditched the film, but fortunately they're only in those bookend scenes. (Note to self: avoid the TV series.) The veteran Keiko Matsuzaka should theoretically be outclassing everyone else in the film, but I'm afraid even she wasn't always fully inhabiting her character. This doesn't suggest to me that Keita Amemiya is particularly good with actors.
One actor, though, is fantastic. Yuki Kubota plays Kakashi (the scarecrow) and he's mastered the trick of overacting brilliantly. He's doing it with charm and flamboyance. He made me laugh. He's nailed the tone and he's insanely entertaining, undoubtedly helped by a costume that matches all the other deranged visuals. He's less great in two-handed scenes, not really having any chemistry with Konishi, but he's still clearly the one actor here who triumphs.
In short, it's one of those vanishingly rare films that's amazing just because of its visuals. I bet Tim Burton would go apeshit for it. If this hadn't been a spin-off from a TV series, I bet the world would be raving about it. It's not always well-judged, mind you, with Kiriya damaging what might have been quite a powerful scene because his immobile rubber face can't emote. Great design, though. I found the whole thing astonishing.