A little while ago, senses overloaded by mecha and super magical girls and people getting transported to other worlds for Some Important Purpose etcetera, etcetera, I think I was getting a little desperate. What with all the anime I watch, I think it gets to me after a while, all that genki. I think I just wanted something straight for a change, you know? Something with grunt and no airs. I wanted rugged and down to earth.
What I got was Gungrave, and one of the biggest, most pleasant shocks of my anime viewing life.
I must admit, I did have my doubts as the DVD booted up. The opening wasn’t too bad, the music was certainly interesting — sort of jazzy without being too out there – and the visuals looked moody. But to be honest, I didn’t really hold high hopes for a series that was based on a relatively short (if well-regarded) Playstation game, and episode one pretty much confirmed what I suspected. Still, Yasuhiro Nightow, the creator of Trigun, had been involved in the character design and what’s more, the first episode hit the ground running and took out a squad of baddies in the process. So I figured it couldn’t be all bad, and, well, I really had nothing better to do.
Only, wtf? The next few episodes rocked around and suddenly there was back story. Really good back story. One major flashback later, the show was pulling into Character Development Central and I found myself watching something that was amounting to the anime equivalent of The Godfather. No kidding.
I was hooked.
Gungrave is one of those titles that looks like it’s going to be all brawn and no brain, and so isn’t. By focusing on an almost non-character like Brandon Heat and his deeply abiding friendship with shark, sharp and all round con-man-with-a-heart Harry McDowel, and setting them against a backdrop of crime and ambition, the creators of this series have managed to bring about something that has both surprising depth as well as satisfying action. Soon enough, the question of how sweet, docile, puppy-loyal Brandon becomes the one-track killing machine ‘Beyond the Grave’ is not nearly as important as why. Considering his almost idyllic (if somewhat criminal) lifestyle with Harry and his other friends and his innocent infatuation with resident Apple Pie babe Maria in the early stages of the flashback, it’s a question that has the sort of weight of an axe hanging overhead. When that thing falls its one of those ‘Oh my god’ moments, because even if you saw it coming (and maybe it was a complete surprise) you can’t believe they actually did it. Sure, other titles do the bad guys who do good things, good guys who do bad-
Uh, hang on. Actually there aren’t any good guys in Gungrave, I mean, not really. Except for maybe Brandon, and look what happened to him? Nope. No good guys. Just a bunch of people doing what they have to in order to be able to live with themselves, getting by in a tough world, dreaming and scheming and just being human. Which is exactly why this series is so standout, because people are in the end simple creatures and Gungrave makes the most of this in the most complex of ways — simply — throwing shadows of love, loyalty, ambition and revenge across the streets of its broken suburbs and shallow heights until every turn is an unknown and every corner holds the best that life might have ever had to offer, if only you could pull up fast enough.
It’s a no-stops ride though. As past starts to accelerate into the present, you might wish Grave would empty one of those remarkably large clips into the resident damsel in distress (Arrrrgh, this damsel was in distress listening to that girl whine!) and you might wish the hellishly awesome action had more airtime, but the one thing you won’t be wishing for is brakes. For any gangster flick aficionado, in fact even for those who wade on the edges of heroic bloodshed and themes of loyalty unto death and beyond, Gungrave will almost certainly blow you away. Don’t expect there to be any real comedy to lighten the load or the road, but do expect to see the gentle warmth of humanity shining through the dark night.
And watch out for those hairpin turns. They’re a killer.