Length: 24 episodes (approx 25 mins each)
MPAA Rating: M15+
My Rating: 4/5
In a city run by violent crime syndicates, Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowell are best friends, determined to make it to the top of the pack. Brandon is a talented and loyal footsoldier, while Harry has the political know-how to manipulate his way through the corridors of power of the organization Millenion. When Harry finally betrays Brandon and has him killed, nothing will stand in his way of absolute power… until the tormented Dr. Tokioka brings Brandon back from the dead to challenge “Bloody” Harry and his monstrous henchmen…
Like so many anime series out there, the initial blurb on Gungrave sounds confusing and somewhat dubious. Mafia turf wars and mutated monstrous henchmen… wha-? Then you hear that Gungrave is actually based on a computer game from 2002, wherein the player takes the role of Brandon “Beyond the Heat” Grave with a pair of handguns named for the three-headed hound of Hades, Cerberus, and a coffin that fires rockets and bullets (presumably like Antonio Banderas’ guitar case in Desperado…?). When the show opens, we find a monosyllabic Grave prowling through the deserted shanties of the show’s unnamed city, stalked by a limping thirteen-year-old girl and a range of hideous-looking eyeballs on legs.
Not an auspicious start if you’re looking for an intelligent show.
In fact, Gungrave is one of the most engaging anime series I’ve come across yet. Its schizophrenic premise notwithstanding (more on this in a moment), this is an intelligent, thoughtful, well-plotted and sophisticated production, with good values and fantastic characterisation. It’s original, fast-paced, and sucks you right in with a powerful story of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and revenge. With more than a smattering of Godfather-esque mafioso references and a well-developed world to explore, Gungrave walks a line as a crime-action thriller with brains, and one that, despite having a premise which is made clear from the start of the series, is oddly tense and captivating.
The story itself is the heart of the show, and it’s well told. Although the series opens in the future, when Brandon has been resurrected as the monstorous Grave to inflict his vengeance on the men who betrayed him, it immediately jumps back to the days when Brandon, Harry and their pals are simply a gang of harmless thugs running through the backstreets of their city causing trouble.
The first two thirds of the story follow Brandon and Harry’s journey from good-natured hoodlums to hardened criminals in an organized crime syndicate, and at the same time plot their relationship, marked as it is with undying love and trust for one another. Sharp, intelligent, smooth-talking Harry is a great foil for the verbally-challenged, socially-awkward Brandon, and while Harry schmoozes his way into Millenion’s inner circles, Brandon earns his stripes with street-cred as a mob enforcer before being pulled up with Harry. The story develops slowly, over time, and realistically, and while each episode tells a little story that is engaging in its own right, it all contributes to the forward momentum of the underlying plot. The story is excellently constructed, and although the viewer knows from the outset that Brandon will eventually be betrayed, there is still a tension there, perhaps born of that inevitability, like watching a pile-up in slow motion. Fabulous stuff.
While the plot is strong and engaging, the characters are far more than vehicles for a storyline, and each are well constructed, with depth and interest. Harry and Brandon are the stars, but their supporting cast are every bit as colourful and engaging. Fatherly Big Daddy, Millenion’s boss, captures all kinds of contradictions in his establishment of Millenion as a family organization designed first and foremost to protect. Bear Walken, a senior Millenion executive, is simply badass cool- how could he not be with those shades? Harry’s sidekicks, the devious Balladbird Lee and the obscene Bob Poundmax, are great additions to the cast, while Brandon’s protogé, “Madness” Bunji Kugashira is hard, faithful, and for all his violence and thuggery, terribly likeable. Probably the weakest characters of the show are the women- Maria, Brandon’s love interest- isn’t that interesting, and the only other women to get a look-in, Maria’s daughter Mika and Harry’s wife Sheri, are relevant to the plot, but don’t add a lot as characters.
What I really appreciated was that the series spans a number of years, and as time passes, the characters age. This was a nice touch, and isn’t often dealt with in series, as time periods are usually much shorter, and anything historical or futuristic is dealt in flash-backs or flashes-forward. Here we have a real sense of the progression, development and aging of the characters, and the way in which their interactions change in time. Intelligently and sensitively handled.
The artwork is very nice. Good animation, smooth action scenes, no unecessary shortcuts… The scenery is mostly urban, and the city has a good character of its own, a fictitious blend that draws from the waterfront cities of southern Italy, the angular skyscrapers of east Asia, and the hillside shanties of Brazil and Argentina. The light is bright and strong, contrasting with the dark undertones of the story, and in many ways lifting the overall feel to make it bearable. The characters are stylized, with strong lines that work well for most of the leads, although make the women look a little sharp when compared with other anime- certainly not cute, which will come as a relief to many viewers. Probably the weakest point from my perspective is the music, which is forgettable, consisting of a number of jazzy pieces which don’t do much to get my heart racing.
The bit that will trip most viewers from this point forward is the monster angle. As the series develops, an army of mutant creatures, built from the resurrected bodies of dead footsoldiers, comes in to play. This brings in a fantastical angle, and moves the show towards its showdown conclusion between Grave and the Millenion elite, all of whom now have their own monstrous abilities. To be honest, while the showdowns are necessary for the resolution of the plot (as well as in keeping with the computer game on which the story is based- no comment), I found that this part of the series lost a little momentum with me, and I was less engaged. The real heart of the story is in the journey of Brandon and Harry, and towards the inevitable betrayal. The monster battles, I could take or leave.
Much of the interest in Gungrave is driven by the investigation of the ambiguities of the protagonists. Our heros are violent killers. The Millenion that Big Daddy builds is a family-focused agency designed to protect the members’ loved ones, yet it is engaged in widespread criminality. Contradictions are showcased between loyalty and betrayal, love and duty, friendship and ambition, trust and deception. There are plenty of poignant moments throughout the storyline, and the moral complexities, while somewhat extreme, are interesting to explore with the characters.
Gungrave is a solid story with great characters and attractive, appealing artwork, and a sophistication and intelligence that belies its gaming roots. Its weaknesses lie in an uninspiring score and a plot that may be a little too out-there for more conservative viewers. Its strengths are driven by the engaging narrative, by the humanity (and otherwise) of a colourful and diverse cast of characters, and an interesting set of dichotomies that the setting forces exploration of. All up this is a highly recommended show, and my only warning would be to those who feel the monster subtheme may be a bit too much to handle, wierdness-wise.
This is a story about organized crime, loosely based on a mafia crime family. It is violent, and centres on the use of violence, mostly for financial aim. The show is never gratuitous (the monsters tend not to fare too well in the end), but there’s blood in sufficient quantities to make this a fairly violent fare, and much of the violence is associated with moral ambiguity, intensity, and a fair amount of heaviness. I have a feeling there’s some language in there too. Given the grown-up and morally questionable subject matter and regular, frequent violence, this one is certainly not for kids, but neither is it shocking, disturbing or unecessarily gratuitous. Definitely middle-of-the-road sort of fare.