Brandon Heat is a man unlike all other men: he shoots his guns cross-handed. More importantly, he’s been resurrected from the dead and is now known as Grave–short for Beyond the Grave. Under the watch of a scientist and a young girl, Grave wanders around his deserted hometown recollecting his memories and preparing for a mission of revenge against the friend who turned on him. His back story is long enough that the next few episodes cover just the first stage of Brandon’s past. In the flashbacks, Brandon runs with a gang of street punks whose rivalry with another gang escalates into a battle for their lives when mobster “Mad Dog” Ladd steps into the fray. Guns are fired, lives are lost, and soon it’s just Brandon and his best friend Harry MacDowel fending for themselves on the city streets. With nowhere else to go, Harry decides to join Millennion, the crime syndicate that killed Ladd. Brandon decides to come along, but inside he’s wondering if they’ve made the right choice.
Ah, the power of celebrity. When you’re Yasuhiro Nightow (“the creator of Trigun,” as the press kits have reminded us many times), it doesn’t take much effort to get the best in the anime business to produce your next creation. With animation from MADHOUSE and a lush background music score, Gungrave Vol. 1 gets the externals right, but it’s still trying to find a story.
Some people will watch the first episode of Gungrave and see plotless, bullet-ridden drivel–and they’re absolutely right. Grave is only interesting when he’s shooting up monsters, and even then, the only thing that sets him apart from any other silent, coat-and-hat-costumed badass is that he fires his guns cross-handed. It’s fortunate for us, then, that the next three episodes are an extended flashback that carries more dramatic momentum. However, because of the way the pacing works, most of this momentum comes from wanting to know what led up to Grave’s circumstances. When do Brandon and Harry cease being friends? How does Brandon die? With the slow story development, there’s only time to watch the first push that propels Brandon into the criminal underworld. Next thing you know, you’re at the end of the DVD. The common device of giving a key endpoint first and then working your way there from the beginning might be the only thing keeping people interested in these early episodes.
Despite him being the central character of Gungrave, it’s hard to take an interest in Brandon. He says so little that what we know of him is based on how he responds to his friends and foes. Still, we get a sympathetic picture of the hero: someone who’s deeply loyal to his friends, and a victim of circumstances he didn’t create. Most of the other characters in Gungrave are, like Brandon, thugs who let their guns do the talking. With such a monotonous cast, it’s remarkable how easy it is to tell them apart–but that’s due more to the varied character designs than individual personalities. Everyone tends to talk the same way and wear the same pained expressions on their faces, no matter what their role in this street drama.
Yasuhiro Nightow deserves plenty of credit for populating the stark world of Gungrave with distinctive-looking characters. Studio MADHOUSE renders these characters cleanly and precisely, while turning down their color palette a few notches to make things appropriately grim. The backgrounds, set in a poverty-stricken coastal town, perfectly complement the mood of the show. What may surprise viewers the most, however, is the quality of the animation. Because the TV release of Gungrave looked so choppy, the animation was touched up for the DVD release and the results here are fluid enough for discerning eyes.
The English dub of Gungrave succeeds through its subtlety. The voice actors, most of them male, have the relatively simple job of sounding tough and serious. There’s no need for vocal acrobatics, so none are applied. Brandon has the tone of an inquisitive young man, while Harry sounds more experienced and gung-ho, as befits their personalities. What detracts from the dub, however, is the freewheeling tendencies of the English-language adaptation. Some of the revised phrases do sound more natural than the direct translation, but changes lines from “it’s business as usual for such things to happen” into “things happen, and sudden death is just a fact of life” seem like a lot of unnecessary churning. In trying to make the world of Gungrave sound hard-boiled, the dub script takes more liberties than it really needs to.
The one aspect of Gungrave that’s beyond reproach is the excellent background music. Drawing from a wide range of 20th-century styles, the music is at turns brutal, languid, tender, and all shades of emotion in between. This soundtrack sets all the right moods for each scene, and the sophisticated theme songs lead in and out of each episode wonderfully. If the other elements of Gungrave were as solid as the music, it would be a near-flawless series.
With its slick visual style and a music score to match, Gungrave looks and sounds like it has potential to be a great crime drama. The way things are going, however, it’ll be a slow ride, and Brandon could definitely stand to be a bit more talkative. If Gungrave is to remain interesting throughout the show’s run, the story needs to move along faster than it’s been doing so far.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : C
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Top-notch music, and solid visuals as can be expected from Madhouse
− Needs to develop more story in the next few episodes
After leaving their street gang life behind, Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowel have now joined the crime organization Millennion and start off with thankless, low-level jobs. Four months later, Brandon uses Harry’s connections to search for his girlfriend Maria, not realizing that Maria has even higher connections with Millennion. Soon enough he finds himself socializing with Big Daddy, the mastermind of the entire organization. Five years pass, and Brandon becomes “The Sweeper,” a gun-wielding enforcer, while Harry takes care of logistics with his cutthroat business attitude. When they get invited into the Family, Millennion’s elite circle, they know they’ve “made it,” but at what price? The dealings of a couple of Millennion veterans show the young men just how much loyalty is involved when it comes to organized crime.
The first volume of Gungrave was like the slow, introductory three minutes of a Beethoven symphony: fragments and snippets that hint at something greater, but not a complete work in itself. When the full melody comes thundering in, the fragments fall into place, and that’s exactly what happens in the second volume of this series. The sketchy origins of Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowel evolve into fully detailed accounts of their rise to power, laid out in a set of four satisfying episodes.
Gungrave DVD 1 ended with a feeling of incompleteness. We knew that Grave was a present-day resurrection of Brandon Heat, and going into an extended flashback from there, we saw how young Brandon and Harry found their way out of petty gang wars by joining Millennion. A promising start, perhaps, but would it fulfill its potential? The second DVD succeeds in that respect, showing how the characters develop in a classic rags-to-riches story arc. There’s nothing particularly surprising about the chain of events, but like the first disc, the appeal of the story is in watching the characters’ advancement, rather than waiting for twists and revelations. Episodes 5 through 8 avoid unnecessary plot complications and focus on Brandon and Harry earning their positions of respect in the organization. Striking a balance between tense conversations and heated gunfights, it’s a storyline that grabs the viewer without having to resort to shock tactics.
Brandon’s climb up the Millennion ladder is a fascinating character study, despite his continuing lack of dialogue. His quiet nature, once an annoying quirk, is now the defining mark of a merciless agent who can pop out the double handguns and mop up an entire room of thugs–hence the name, “The Sweeper.” Yet he also has a deeply human side–Brandon still cares about Maria, and his loyalty to Millennion is guided by strong beliefs about protecting others and a friendship with Harry that makes them practically brothers.
Studio Madhouse continues to contribute striking visuals to the world of Gungrave. The subtle changes in character design after the five-year jump are enough to suggest a genuine change in Brandon and Harry. Brandon’s new duds are a nice step up from the ratty brown shirt (and a possible foreshadowing of things to come), while Harry is stylish as ever in his Yakuza-influenced white suit. Millennion operates in a city that’s bigger and more prosperous than the slums of the first few episodes, and this is reflected appropriately in the bigger buildings and cleaner streets. Sadly, the new setting feels more generic than the run-down town where Brandon and Harry used to live. What will really impress the eyes, however, is the slick animation of the gunfights. Madhouse isn’t afraid to exaggerate perspective to make a pointed gun look more threatening, sometimes even using a “fish-eye lens” style when appropriate. If pumping bullets into unsuspecting victims could ever be described as lyrical, it’s here. On the other hand, so much work goes into animating the action scenes that conversations and other static scenes look half-hearted by comparison, and that’s the one real shortcoming in the art and animation department.
The dub script of Gungrave, which took too many liberties in the first volume, reins itself in and comes closer to the direct translation in these next four episodes. There are still plenty of variations in the structure and word choice, but where it felt like unnecessary churning in the first volume, this time the vocabulary accurately reflects the hard-edged conversational style of mobsters. The voice actors continue to sound like tough, serious men, a fairly easy task; this is one of the few cases where it actually makes sense to favor the dub over the sub because of cultural context. Brandon, Harry and the rest of the gang operate in a vague approximation of America or Europe, suggesting that they would be much more likely to speak English rather than Japanese. That’s something to think about when choosing the audio for this series.
The music, as before, is faultless–everything from spiky string melodies to mellow lo-fi rock beats accentuate the story, and Tsuneo Imahori’s compositional arsenal is to be feared just as much as Brandon’s double handguns. Appropriately enough, there’s even a melody line that pays homage to the theme from The Godfather, the quintessential mob drama and certainly an influence on Gungrave.
The first volume of Gungrave pointed to the possibility of better things to come, but it suffered from flaws like a sluggish pace trying to compensate for the lack of story and a seemingly boring main character in Brandon. This volume, however, makes up for that by presenting a graceful story arc that shows a talented yet quiet man rising to the top ranks of a crime syndicate. A commonly told story, perhaps, but it’s one that looks and sounds terrific in this particular guise.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A
+ Balanced storytelling and concrete characters make this an absorbing drama
− Animation cuts corners more than it ought to