Title: Speed Grapher
Length: 24 episodes (approx 25 mins each)
MPAA Rating: M15+
My Rating: 2/5
Tatsumi Saiga is a former war photographer now working for a Tokyo newspaper in the near future. When he receives a tip to investigate a secretive underground society attended by Tokyo’s rich and famous, he discovers a fetishist club, whose activities are centred around the blessing bestowed by “The Godess”, actually a 15-year-old girl by the name of Kagura Tennozu who is being manipulated against her will. Kagura’s ‘blessing’ enables people to live out their deepest fantasies by becoming ‘Euphorics’- mutants with superhuman powers. When Saiga is accidentally bestowed with Kagura’s blessing, he is about to be executed when he discovers he has been given a power himself: anything he points his camera at explodes. Together Saiga and Kagura escape the club and go on the run to stay ahead of its shadowy leader, Suitengu, and his evil masterplan.
I went into Speed Grapher with few expectations. I didn’t know what the premise of the show was, and I was really just looking for something to keep me entertained while deployed in the field for 3 months and not widely stimulated by my surroundings. Given that my expectations were not exactly skyrocketting, it should say something then that Speed Grapher turned out to be a considerable disappointment.
The premise is acceptable enough. Hero with superpowers. Maiden in need of saving. An evil overlord and lots of superhuman henchmen who must be battled episodically. All you need is to add a context, flesh in some details, shake well, and watch it all roll out.
So maybe I’ll start with the plot. While there’s nothing actually wrong with the plot, it doesn’t really have much going for it. It’s predictable, cyclical, and doesn’t really do much to surprise once you’ve worked out what the basic premise is- which doesn’t take more than a couple of sittings. More to the point, they’ve chosen to set this against the backdrop of a fetish-type secret society, which would be seedy enough without bringing in a 15-year-old girl at the centre of the whole thing. This is already starting to look like a bit of an exercise in exploitation.
The characters themselves tend to be uninteresting and unengaging. The hero, Saiga, ought to have been an easy sell for me, as a photographer. Flashbacks to his earlier life show him running around war-zones taking photos of battle- actually some of the more entertaining scenes in the series- and while the producers’ take on what the life of a war photographer is like is a tad sensationalised, this is a show with more than its dose of fantasy and surrealism, so let’s not harp on about this one. None the less, Saiga is a fairly bland character, and it’s never really clear whether he’s supposed to be gruff, burned out, tortured, or just suffering a bad case of indigestion today.
If ever there was an uninspiring heroine, Kagura is this. Softly spoken, fairly timid, and a pawn in other people’s games, she manages the damsel-in-distress role just fine. What’s not really clear is why you’d bother to save her. While she doesn’t spend every episode in bouts of tears (see upcoming review of The Twelve Kingdoms), at no point during the show does she ever really show a backbone or an ounce of real character. She reminds me of a supermarket cheddar. Colourless, textureless, and altogether bland. Perhaps this is coming off the back of shows like Black Lagoon, Noir and Madlax, with gun-totin’, neck-breakin’, blade-slicin’ chicks like Revy or Yumura Kirika, but quick frankly I kind of hoped Kagura wouldn’t see out the halfway mark of the series.
And then there was their dynamic. A forty-year-old burnout with an exploding camera lens, on the run with a teenage girl. It would have been a little creepy even if they left it at that. But they didn’t. They had to go and refer to it. Time and time again. Always with Saiga firmly denying that anything was going on between them. Which you’d kind of hope. But they kept hinting at it. And then they fall in love. And it’s creepy. Really, really creepy.
The other characters don’t really bear too much of a mention. Namely because they’re not really characters. The evil Suitengu, whose backstory is supposed to give him an extra dimension, I suppose, but which ends up making him just as unlikable, but a little sulky too. The oversexed and perennially frustrated policewoman Ginza, who is singlehandedly responsible for increasing the MPAA rating on several episodes is a briefly entertaining but largely irrelevant addition to the cast. Although the repeated “self-defence” gag I did enjoy- some of the few genuine chuckles elicited from me through the series. Likewise for Suitengu’s three henchmen, including the gender-uncertain Tsujidu, who were presumably brought in to add some sort of dramatic tension, but overall don’t appear to be much more than window-dressing.
All up, the characters simply aren’t believable, and in this way the show is the polar opposite to one like Figure 17, wherein the plot is driven by a belief in the characters themselves, and the action is almost peripheral to the viewer’s engagement with the storyline. In Speed Grapher, the team poured in heaps of action and intrigue, but because the characters felt like a vehicle for the plot rather than the focus of our attention, it just fell flat. In some ways I can see the direction the crew were hoping the characters would take things, but because I never cared about the characters, the tension just evaporated, and it was a relief to see some of them go.
If there are two things I hold sacred in watching anime, they’re how engaging the characters are, and how attractive the artwork is. Here again I found Speed Grapher a real let-down. The characters were flat and pretty lifeless, without a great deal of expressive range, which really compounded their already dull personalities. The settings were never particularly exciting or original, and throughout I couldn’t help feeling that the whole thing was focused around driving the plot forward, and not really in sucking me, the viewer, into the place. Animation in some of the scenes, especially some of the action scenes, was a bit patchy, particularly fast movements and scale. The one thing the show did well was the monstors, which were truly disgusting on several occasions, and added to the sense of depravity that much of the rest of the plot seemed devoted to.
The soundtrack was dull, largely consisting of a repetitive beat anthem, a bit of elevator-jazz thrown in to spice things up, and only one or two more wistful and attractive pieces. The opening theme should tell you all you need to know about the series’ music- a long and tuneless drone of repeating electronica.
Setting the storyline against a backdrop of sexual deviancy was probably the last nail in the coffin for me. The premise of the Euphorics was that they were living out their deepest fantasies. Perhaps it’s true to life that most of these seemed to have a sexual bent, but none the less it felt a lot like an excuse to put in backdrops of orgies, bondage and generally deviant behaviour, just to appeal to a particular class of viewer. While I can see how the show’s meta-narrative (if it had one) was critiquing the fallen-ness of contemporary Japanese society, it really felt like smut for smut’s sake, and didn’t lift the show in my books.
I’ve given Speed Grapher 2 marks out of 5. I didn’t hate it, and there wasn’t anything in there that really bothered or offended me. It was more that there really wasn’t anything in it I enjoyed. I did finish the show- perhaps against my better judgement, or morbid curiosity, or simply a sense of duty so that I could actually write a review of the whole thing. I think I secretly hoped that it would redeem itself with a surprise somewhere near the end. Ultimately, the climax wasn’t spectacular and the resolution, while tidy, had no particular originality. All in all, this isn’t a show I’d recommend to anybody, simply because I don’t think it’s that enjoyable. However it’s not actually horrible, so if you really want to, go right ahead.
The series has a rating of M15+, mostly for violence and sexuality. There’s killing in every episode, and some of it is pretty gruesome, flying blood and limbs and all. The portrayal of sexual deviancy and violence is probably more likely to offend, and the premise of an older man and a fifteen year old girl falling in love with one another leaves you feeling downright grubby, especially when they’re the hero and heroine and this is sanctioned as ‘okay’. This is easily the most content-heavy show I’ve watched in anime and while it doesn’t step into the realm of hentai (primarily by merit of having a plot), it certainly deserves its rating.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the series from a personal perspective was watching the extras segment on the selection and working life of Kagura’s seiyu (voice actress), Kei Satou. I always understood that seiyu hold a place in Japanese pop culture far greater than we would give dub or voice artists in the west, and that it’s highly considered as a form of acting. It was very interesting to see this play out in the 3-part (and overly-long, uneditted) documentary- which I confess I only skimmed through, but nonetheless found fascinating. Equally interesting is that Kei was a first-time seiyu and had never acted before, so to give her such a big role was quite a dramatic step. It was entertaining to watch her cope with (or fail to cope with) the attention, pressures, and demands of being in the media spotlight.
To be honest, I think I enjoyed that more than I enjoyed Speed Grapher itself.