Garden of Sinners was originally a light novel series released in Japan in the late 90s from Type Moon; it’s not only their earliest work but also considered the ‘prototype’ for their other more commercially successful and famous works; Tsukihime and Fate/Stay Night. But it wasn’t until 2007 when ufotable (the production company behind the anime adaptations of Type Moon’s Fate/Zero and Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works TV series) started producing anime films for their original light novels. Seven films were produced from 2007 – 2009, with an OVA released in 2011 and a final film in 2013. The box set contains only the first seven films and the OVA, but to be frank that’s quite enough material to wade through because it’s one of the most ambitious film series in anime, for a variety of reasons.
It’s hard to name any other set of films that has such a long list of why people would be easily turned off by it, not even counting the high price tag of the box-set or the fact that it’s a based upon a little-known light novel that’s not available in the West. You also have a confusing narrative that jumps to various point of the timeline between films as it sees fit, practically demanding you to finish ALL the films to even understand what’s going on, which seems very unfair to the general public. It’s a sub-only release that some anime fans will be turned off by AND the series covers a wide variety of shocking and uncomfortable themes such as murder, cannibalism, rape, body dismemberment and incest. But all of those things can be easily waved off if the story or perhaps even the characters are engaging and strong enough to warrant a watch. That all depends on high levels of patience, an ability to read in-between the lines and remember all the scenes that came before. Garden of Sinners is not an easy series to love or understand, but it is still to be admired.
The story itself starts off relatively straightforwardly with a woman named Shiki who seems to possess the special power of ‘Mystic Eyes of Death Perception’, as in being able to see the mortality of all things living and not. She works alongside Toko Aozaki, a magus who runs her own detective agency, and Mikiya Kokuto, a boy she befriended back in High School and who seems to know a lot about her special abilities and past. The first film just sets up this premise with an unusual string of deaths to tie up their somewhat everyday lives; they find something unusual, investigate it and use their special gifts to see to the problem. But the opening film does absolutely nothing to establish the characters; you can grasp what kind of positions the three have within the company by some dialogue but nothing else and we don’t even learn the full extent of Shiki’s powers until the fourth film. The real drive behind the series doesn’t start to form until the second film where it goes back in time and develops Mikiya and Shiki’s relationship, how they met and why the two matter to each other. And it continues this way for the next five films; jumping from one moment in their timeline to another, as if we’re just grasping moments in their lives but not quite getting involved. A string of murders unfolds and each time we learn little about what’s going on as it slowly and confusingly unravels throughout all the films.
Actually to call this a box set of films is kind of stretching it; the first four and the sixth film don’t even run over the one hour mark, and they don’t flow in the way movies are normally structured either, they play more like extended episodes of a TV series. The real ‘movies’ are the fifth film, a near two hour mind-blowing blast of character and story development, and the seventh film (also a similar duration) concludes the whole journey. The OVA also just runs over half an hour long, to tie up the last of the loose ends regarding the main protagonists. Each ‘film’ has its own mystery to unravel but the actual mystery is not overly satisfying. They start very well, nicely taking on different types of horror and supernatural tropes, but aside from a bit of investigative work from the characters, it normally ends with one character jumping to a conclusion, meeting the culprit (who we normally know from the start as their side of the story unravels with the film) and explaining in one big (or sometimes more than one) exposition- heavy speech sbout how the murders actually happened. So mystery fans who like to read the clues and try to piece them together themselves will not be satisfied here. This is not Sherlock Holmes, but it’s only by the last film that you realise that the whole draining experience is not a series of supernatural mysteries but a study in character, specifically Shiki and how she copes in a world full of darkness when she has so much of it inside of her.
But, what of the characters? We learn little from the start but how do they develop overall? Shiki seems to posses ‘Dexter’-like qualities; a dark urge to kill, and separate voices that dictate her actions, but she lacks the charisma of Dexter to ask the audience to wave off such actions. Not that she’s meant to be such a character but due to her icy nature and perplexing switching from multiple personalities to another, it’s hard to really understand or even relate to her. She seems to have a family with a rich heritage to carry and a complicated back-story preceding even when the films begin but we see little of it. She’s fascinating to watch undoubtedly but as the main driving force of the story it’s rare to find a character this separate from an average heroine. A closer representation of a typical main protagonist would be Mikiya Kokuto, an average guy who goes about his life as calmly as he can, considering the head-spinning situations he seems to end up in. His devotion to Shiki is, again, fascinating to see but despite the film’s best efforts, it really struggles to show us WHY he does. He says that he loves her and accepts her unique condition – good for him – but he gets very little in return so his role is merely restricted to how he interacts with Shiki. He does little to nothing for the various cases that come about so it’s hard to really grasp why he doesn’t just pack up his bags and get on the first plane out of the country, away from the madness. One character that pops up repeatedly across the films is Toko Aozaki who has by far the most fascinating back story and abilities but sadly does not get to shine in the series; the closest it comes to it is during the fifth film where she kicks major arse but sadly the climax is reserved for Shiki. Then there’s Azaka Kokuto, Mikiya’s younger sister, who also has an interesting power, but her uncomfortable attraction to a certain someone and the lack of perception of it herself and from the film (instead of passing it off as a chirpy quirk) makes her hard to like.
Animation by ufotable can be described in one word: stunning. It’s amazing how they kept such consistency between all eight pieces of media in this set, despite the first film being released in 2007 and the OVA on Disc 8 being from 2011 – they look exactly the same and are of such high quality. The art itself is very distinctive: beautiful shading for the dark and atmospheric backgrounds and depth of reds when blood comes pouring out. There are a few still frames here and there during the dialogue-heavy scenes but those are the only short cuts taken, everything else is flawless.
Music is provided by Yuki Kajiuira who’s in her element here; heart-thumping battle themes, gorgeous female vocals, and haunting cellos – every piece brings out the perfect atmosphere for each scene. She swings with the mood of the film from heart-warming piano pieces to spine-chilling strings. These films also serve as the debut platform for her project Kalafina, who provide vocal tracks for all the films. All songs compliment each theme of the films and warrant every watch of the boring black-and-white credits rolling by to hear each song in full. The first song ‘Oblivious’ stands out the most with its techno-operatic nature, whilst the majority of the songs are more orchestral ballads but still very beautiful.
Each movie, aside from the OVA comes with a pre-show reminder; a cute short that uses figurines of the characters to remind audiences to switch their phones off. They must have been fun to see on the big screen when watching these films in Japanese cinemas. Other extras include a DVD promo on Disc 5 and trailers for We Without Wings, Ikki Tousen Xtreme Xecutor and Kamisama Kiss on Disc 8.
Garden of Sinners is technical marvel; its animation and audio are many tiers above films produced today and have, so far, aged gracefully. They’ll be admired for many years to come, no doubt, but the story and characters, whilst unique and hauntingly memorable, will leave a different impression on audiences depending on what they were expecting. It’s a series of films that demand your full attention and multiple watches to truly comprehend what it wants to say. Whether you’re up to the challenge will depend on you but if you’ve got the funds and the curiosity to dig into its darkness, it’s a mostly rewarding – if exhausting – experience.