The Garden of Sinners (Films)

Content Warning: Discussions of the third movie will involve gang rape and the fifth movie involves scenes of domestic abuse.

The Garden of Sinners is free of its bonds! Well, sort of. To say this series of movies from the impeccable craftsmen at ufotable has had a problem with accessibility is an understatement. Producers Aniplex took control of their own U.S. distribution in the way Japanese companies do when they want to try to repeat what they do in Japan; that is, price gouge on physical media because there are way too many middlemen involved and do head-scratching things with the streaming rights. You can buy Garden of Sinners in its full glory on Blu-ray any time you please... for over $300. The cheaper sets for "only" $150 are long gone. When the rights first came over here, they did make each movie available for individual rental... on the PlayStation 3. Eventually, there was the whole Aniplex deal with Amazon's ill-fated double-paywall service Anime Strike. As that fell, so seems the deal with Aniplex and The Garden of Sinners is at last on Crunchyroll, a reasonable service where a decent amount of anime fans can finally see the cult series; likely a cult series because the botched release wouldn't allow it to be anything else.

I will start by saying the movies don't give the best first impression. Oh, the opening shot of a character reflected in an eye is gorgeous as is a good lot of the imagery to follow. That's not it. To describe it, I'll have to dust off the word portentous. The first movie is far more of an introduction through mood than it is through plot or character building. There's enough information to get by. There's this doofus Mikiya Kokutou who seems to look after a brusk woman named Shiki who lives in a bare apartment. They work with Tokou, a woman who makes realistic, human-sized dolls, and together they appear to take on cases of a supernatural nature. In this instance, a series of suicides that occurred at a rotting apartment complex which has seemingly caused Mikiya's mind to "drift elsewhere." There are character interactions, but they're defined more by their responses to philosophical questions about what it means to be a human who flies or floats and other such ponderings. What it feels like is one of those dark, episodic supernatural series like Hell Girl given a slight gloss of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence's esoteric feel. It doesn't help that the title, Overlooking View is tagged with the Greek god/Freudian concept Thanatos, giving it that feeling of trying too hard to establish its importance.

I suppose the main draw for certain audiences is it's an "alternate universe" to Tsukihime and Fate/stay Night as its source material light novels are written by Kinoko Nasu (AKA Natsu), but not to worry if you have no knowledge of the other works. This is not a case where you need to know anything about them to proceed with these movies. Despite his need to overwrite and have lengthy mythology and explanations about everything, it mostly sticks to the mythology within this specific series. And while one of Garden of Sinners' trademarks is a timeline that jumps around like crazy (You get used to it), the second film starts at essentially the beginning of Mikiyu and Shiki's relationship, where they meet as strangers in the night and again as high school classmates. Between an oddball nerd and the heir to a massive Japanese company who wears traditional garb to school, they make a weird friendship even if  Shiki is cold half the time. There's a reason for that, as Shiki reveals she has two personalities, one of whom likes Kokutou quite a bit. Unfortunately for him, that personality also seems to have an innate thirst for bloodshed, and a batch of serial murders investigated by Mikiyu's detective brother points to Shiki's night wanderings as the cause. The second movie mainly focuses on this relationship and a great worry of what will happen to Kokutou when he learns too much. His doofy belief in everyone becomes part of his charm and his tragic flaw.

The next two movies essentially iron out the rest of the concept and explain how Shiki became a fighter of the supernatural, why she has an artificial limb, and how she came to work under Tokou. It should be noted that each of the first four movies clock in at about 40 minutes to an hour, so it's not like these entries are spreading the story incredibly thin. They play heavy on atmosphere and their approach is more centered on piecing the characters together in little bites. There are climactic battles and a healthy dose of the supernatural, sure, but their main arc is essentially looking at Shiki from all angles as a person, a monster, a being who straddles between the two, and otherwise. It all works aside from the third movie which I'll address soon, but it neither takes off nor falls flat. Still, there's something about it....

It looks fabulous. It's ufotable's finest artistry on display, and if you need to know what their baseline is, check out an episode or two of Tales of Zesteria the X. 3D CG's a little wonky, but everything's beautiful and sharp with a firm eye for detail. But rather than their usual working off a popular game to pay the bills, this has some real ambition to go with their expertise in style and detail. The music is by renowned composer Yuki Kajiura around the start of her group Kalafina where she was starting to get more clout under commercial and critical successes such as the Madoka franchise. Like much of The Garden of Sinners, her music is not openly spectacular, but it takes hold in a weird way. The melodies and motifs slowly absorb into your mind until they linger for weeks at a time, and the reason to stay through until the end of the credits is not the Marvel-esque tease to the next feature, but the Kalafina tune that plays during it. Seventh Heaven, the Kalafina album that collects all of these songs, is available domestically on at least iTunes and I highly recommend taking a listen. As a final addendum to the music, the opening to the fourth movie may arguably be the best thing Yuki Kajiura has ever done, and as a piece of visual and aural storytelling, is a small masterpiece by itself.

There's more to it than aesthetics. There's a real curiosity about these dark places Shiki goes to and how they evolve, especially within her mind. It's like getting to close to a beautiful animal you know will tear you apart. The fourth movie especially gets into her psychology as it's a talky affair between her and Tokou. What holds it back is elements that feel too superficial. Oh, what, ghosts that cause the people possessed by them to commit suicide seems made up? No no, not so much that. What I'm talking about is what ultimately makes the third movie not work. Here we get into full-on TRIGGER WARNINGS FROM HERE ON OUT. SORRY, BUT ITS UNAVOIDABLE.

The third movie's story centers on a girl whose inability to feel pain leads her to become a victim of multiple gang rapes until one night, a sudden surge of pain causes her to explode most of the gang and engage on a revenge rampage on the other members. The issue here is not that it's about gang rape, but that every element is artificial and has no understanding of the massive weight it carries. All of the gross aspects are simply in service to a plot-twisty mystery and are utilized solely as shock value. The movie lingers carelessly on scenes of rape and the slow dissolving of a human soul in an undeserving way. Since none of it has any human resonance, it all feels tacky and cheap. The only real thing to come of it is why Shiki has a real disdain of Kokutou's kind side when he shelters one of the gang members that hadn't been murdered.

This is all build-up, mind you. Every series such as this really needs a standout centerpiece to truly make an impact, and boy howdy does Paradox Paradigm, the fifth movie, deliver. From the first moments on, there is something different about this movie; something special, and if the makers went through the endeavor just so they could make this, I would completely understand. Gosh, explaining it is my job and I don't know where to begin. Take a Japanese horror setting, add in the surreal, psychological rot of a David Lynch film that exists within the "normal" confines of modern society, fill it in with the convoluted-but-approachable mythology of a Steven King novel, give it an unwieldy title, and you have this. But while I have all of these works as a basis of comparisons, Paradox Paradigm is unlike anything I have ever seen.

It is one of those movies that breathlessly dashes from one wonder to the next, and while the dense nature of the plot and the intentionally loose attitude towards the passage of time left me dizzy and not entirely understanding everything that's happened, what I do know is I've watched something great. I checked into the career of director Takayuki Hirao, and this seems to be his breakout work after flirting with some heavy duty projects (He did the OP to Texhnolyze and was a unit director on Paranoia Agent). It doesn't seem like he's used it for much since, and after being in charge of the production disaster that was God Eater, I don't know how many more opportunities he'll get. He'll always have Paradox....

I don't want to tell you too much. The plot starts on a boy named Tomoe who dreams of his family murdering him every night until he snaps and murders them first. He's convinced he committed the act and there is even a homeless vagrant who walks in on the bodies and reports it to the police, but the authorities return to the condo to find the parents alive and well. This is only the beginning of a twisted and engaging tale that eventually brings in Shiki and Tokou to sort out the mess. The first half-hour is rather unflinching to the point of Tomoe literally watching his family break, violently abusing each other, ultimately leading to visceral stabbing. For the people who are sensitive to this kind of thing, it's extreme, but unlike the third movie, it serves a purpose. This entire film's style is to be disorienting and disconcerting with each individual's perspective in mind. In Tomoe's instance, he's literally living a nightmare.

To put it simply, the movie is a tour-de-force of visual storytelling. It has the usual anime plot of ridiculous and occasionally silly points taken straight-faced seriously. Eventually, everything leads to attempting to discover a place that has access to all written history, past and future. Um, sure. Then there's a point where Tokou casually talks about her old friends from magus school who did stuff like help attach souls to puppet bodies. Because people just do that. However, this is one of those titles that defines why people like me watch anime. It's over-the-top and overwritten, but by God, it has a sincerity and determination where every scene feels like this is the defining moment the makers must get exactly right for this slapdash of insanity to hold together, and they do, winning over the viewer in spades. Even scenes where a screenplay would only write, "Time passes....," are delivered with an effort usually reserved for climactic wars. Waiting in the wings in all of this is a Yuki Kajiura score that is made for works such as this.

It feels like I've been saying the same thing over and over. This movie is an incredible experience, and I would urge you to get through the previous entries to get to it. Skip the third flick if you have to. It's almost disappointing The Garden of Sinners has two movies after this, and even moreso the follow-up seems like filler. It only seems like a lark of a story as Shiki goes undercover in a Catholic school to help Mikiya's sister solve a disappearance that might've been caused by faeries. Not helping matters is Mikiya's sister has a hefty crush on her brother. Unlike most anime that deal this kind of card, it at least manages to handle it on an adult level with everyone realizing this isn't okay and that they're weird feelings to have, but it's a distraction. The "episode" is fine and has a satisfying climax that has more to do with the overarching story than expected, but it's such a minor addition and an odd place to put it.

Here we are at the last movie. On paper, this is set up to have a similar impact as Paradox Paradigm. The feature is double the length of the normal movies and the grand finale for the entire venture. Perhaps the issue is too much of this film feels like it's on paper. People complained The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya was too loyal to the light novel that the movie suffered by literally adapting it page-for-page, I've consumed both the book and the movie and that doesn't seem like what happened. Disappearance is a terrific film that stands with some of the best animated movies of the past 20 years and its only fault is the makers probably loved what they were crafting too much that they maybe didn't edit it as tightly as they should've. For a look at what directly adapting a light novel more literally really feels like, the final Garden of Sinners is more of an apt example.

The ideas are all there and the film even has moments that deliver on their promise. However, most of those involve voice actors Maaya Sakamoto and Kinichi Suzumura as Shiki and Mikiya respectively knocking some heavyweight moments between the two out of the park. The movie was directed by "Shinsuke Takizawa," which is a pen name for all the directors of the previous movies. As more a stew of various ingredients than its predecessor, the only vision that shines through is the light novel author. Long, atmospheric shots feel like pages of description forcing their way into a visual medium and long, unnecessary monologues are piled on top of themselves with nobody to say, "Maybe this half of it is unnecessary." Oh, and the author has no idea how police investigations work, as a random note. Stylistically, it's curiously standard for what iss ufotable's arthouse version of its work. The slow motion fighting in the rain and dearth of late 90's/early 00's film influences (There is a room that is every serial killer's dwellings after Seven) have more in common with their less hailed God Eater than Garden of Sinners.

The movie works. The villain is a bit of a step down as he's more of an idea than a character (Yes, that's the point, but that still doesn't make him interesting) and I can't say I'm a fan of the over reliance on lingering, visceral violence to sell the climax (There's near-rape scene with a severe drool fetish. I get the symbolism that the villain is more animal than human now, but this seems unnecessary given the half-a-dozen other brutal scenes in the climax). It's a satisfactory end, though. I just wish there was more to it than that. Maybe it's symmetry, with the most standard entries book-ending the experience.

If you've looked at the Crunchyroll listing, you'll find there are three more entries after the seven films. The first one is the epilogue that offers a finale akin to the post-credit sequence of Metal Gear Solid 4. A full 30 minutes is dedicated to a single conversation of the biggest pile of philosophical drivel since zero became one. Now, I am in the minority who finds the ending to MGS 4 to be one of the worst things ever written (It spends a long time trying to undermine everything it ever built while at the same trying to be the capstone to the whole experience), but I just don't like conversations that should be the emotional crux to an entire franchise be reduced to college kids having deep conversations about the nature of things. I found Julie Hagerty from Airplane 2 shouting, "Oh, WOW, man!" reverberating in my mind more than once here. At least he visuals are quite lovely and manage to keep a long conversation in one location from looking stale. The rest are extra stories from the stable of light novel this is based on. They don't really add anything essential to the mix, but they are neat little bits that somehow look better, have snappier pacing, and a better score than the narrative finale. Oh yeah, and every movie has the stop-motion animations from the theatrical pre-roll where Shiki plays an easily-irritated theater patron who murders talkers and people who don't turn off their cell phones.

Finally completing The Garden of Sinners, it's still as strange of a case as it ever was. The quality mostly sits at good with one spectacular movie and a bad one evening each other out, but it remains a light novel adaptation elevated by drive, atmosphere, and curiosity around its tragic characters. It's a unique collection of films that allows the people at ufotable to take on heftier challenges (Gee, because making rain drops slide down the window like it's a real-life recording in animation is easy, right?) and is certainly worth checking out if you can stomach the more extreme scenes and occasional LN word vomit. Anyway, the price of viewing is more reasonable these days utilizing a Crunchyroll subscription than dropping a few Benjamins on the Blu-ray set, so there's that.

The Third Movie

The Fifth Movie

Everything Else


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