Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Ink Black Analysis - Gungrave
"Were we wrong? Did we make the wrong decision after all? I can't seem to remember when things started to take a turn for the worse. In the end it turned out like this. Still..."
Gungrave is a 26-episode anime produced by Madhouse based on a Playstation 2 game of the same name by Sega and Yasuhiro Nightow. It first aired in 2003, and is currently licensed by Funimation, formerly held by Geneon.
For reasons she doesn't understand, young Mika Asagi is being hunted down by the terrifying mafia syndicate known as Millenion, and they've sent their greatest weapons after her, their mindless modified soldiers known as Orgmen. There is only one man who can protect her, and after giving his life for her mother and father he comes
Boy, this sure was made by the creator of Trigun. That was one of the first observations I made while watching this anime, and it held true to the end. Many creators have some recurring styles and motifs shared between their works, and comparing it to such a well-known and well-loved classic has the capacity to be both good and bad. It certainly doesn't help that this was also adapted from a video game; game adaptations in general rarely fare well, and from what I've heard the original game itself was mediocre at best (I haven't played it though, so take that with a grain of salt). With such a strange, potentially disastrous production history I honestly didn't know what to expect going into this series. It's still very much its own thing, but its creative background is definitely notable enough to warrant mention. Don't make a drinking game out of the times I say "Trigun" or "video game" in this review, because it will kill you. Just wanted to get that out there.
Madhouse of the early 2000s wasn't as consistently solid a studio as they are now, and Gungrave is definitely a little rough around the edges. Nightow's character designs definitely give the show a distinct flavor, leaning more toward realism than Trigun but still retaining a tendency toward some weird proportions, with scraggly limbs, long faces and broad shoulders. Grave's design in particular looks like the unholy lovechild of Legato Bluesummers and Brilliant Dynamites Neon. It's a rough, harsh-looking series, nary a bishonen to be seen, and I think that's what they were going for. The style takes a little getting used to, and when the budget drops it can be hard to keep those designs appealing, but when the animation hits its stride it looks great. Of particular note is its use of lighting and lens
This series boasts a strong soundtrack that's largely comprised of vaguely Italian-sounding string and orchestra pieces with a little synth mixed in, generally sticking to the mafia motif while ranging in tone from warm and familial to cold and dangerous. There's some really good music here, but weirdly enough I think Gungrave is at its best when there's no music at all. This series thrives on quiet character moments, and some of its best scenes go by in complete silence. There are some exceptions, but on a whole the music for this series is at its best when it's either gentle and understated, diegetic (from a source that the characters themselves can hear, like a radio) or just not there at all. The soundtrack is still great, though, so you should definitely give it a listen if you ever get the chance.
The cast of this series is 99% populated by gruff old men, which means the Los Angeles pool of voice actors is perfect for the job. All the big boys are here: William Frederick Knight, Michael McConnohie, Beau Billingslea, the
While Trigun was well-known for its creative worldbuilding and grand concepts, the thing that really set it apart from the crowd was its strong beating heart, and the same can be said of Gungrave. Yes, there is technology that can revive the dead and create super-soldiers, not to mention a very well fleshed-out look at mafia operations and the underworld, but the thing that really holds this story together through it all is the concept of loyalty, and what it really means to betray someone. Millenion is held together by a cardinal rule known as the Code of Iron, which declares that all traitors to the organization, regardless of status or standing, receive an equal penalty: death. Such a code is simple in theory but exceedingly complex in practice, and the first half of the series, which follows Brandon and
That's not to say that the show is dour and political all the time, though, it's also very cool. The characters here all have ridiculous, over-the-top, completely badass names: Brandon Heat, Harry MacDowel, Balladbird Lee, Bear Walken, Cannon Vulcan, Laguna Glock, Blood War (no, seriously) and as yet another Trigun comparison there's even a character named Descartes. The mafia exploits are intriguing, the ways they make money and how they're integrated into the community is intricate and closely resembles how a real-life mafia would operate. Aside from the choreography hiccup I mentioned earlier, the battles are intense, imaginative in the different weapons and styles used but still very grounded and often telling us something meaningful about the characters involved without breaking suspension of disbelief... at least in the first half. Even when it gets really talky, Gungrave is never boring. This is a rare balance that keeps the show engaging if you don't want to think about it too hard, but there's still a lot of depth and subtlety to the characters here for those who want something more from their choice of entertainment.
Once again following in the footsteps of Trigun, about halfway through Gungrave shifts its tone and focus dramatically and doesn't quite manage to tie up its loose ends. In the first half, a process known as necrolization is
Nightow is a creative man to a fault. He has a lot of grand, wonderful ideas but doesn't always know what to do with them. Maybe with more runtime or tighter writing it could have given meaning to the cacophony, but the world of Gungrave is a cluttered mess. Even in its stronger first half, the seeds of its oncoming problems were present--allusions to an unspecified war, Tomases from Trigun racing in the place of horses and some really outlandish technology make it clear just how little we know about the world of Gungrave, and it stays that way to the very end with disparate elements that really don't feel like they all belong in the same story. None of that, however, was as
I'm not sure whether I can truly call Gungrave "great" or not, but there's certainly a lot of greatness in it. The plot goes some weird and unnecessary places, and like Harry himself it becomes something of a victim of its own ambition, but the parts of it that shine through are truly fantastic. The humanity of its cast and the sincerity at its heart--not to mention a damn near perfect ending--are more than enough to blow past its flaws, and I warmly recommend it. Bring your lab coats and microscopes, next time we're graduating to Moyashimon. Until then, always keep it classy.
Special thanks to SkyCetacean for the request.
Final Grade: 8/10
Fantastic character drama shines through the unnecessary clutter.