Anime Reviews: Gungrave
One of the greatest video game adaptations of all time, Gungrave's thick atmosphere and gripping character drama make it essential viewing for any anime fan.
Production: Studio Madhouse
Series Length: 26 episodes
Air Dates: 10/6/2003 to 3/29/2004
Age Rating: 13+ (mild violence, mild language)
Summary: Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowel are just two punks on the street looking to score a few bucks. Along with their friends Nathan, Kenny, and Jolice, they scrounge up a life for themselves, stealing valuables and selling them just so they can afford a meal. All that changes after a local mafia bigwig settles one of their scores and kills Brandon's and Harry's friends. In order to move on with their lives, to avenge their fallen allies, and to protect the ones they have left, both Brandon and Harry join the powerful Millenion organization. Some time later, Brandon awakens as a powerful undead gunslinger called Beyond the Grave, kept alive in death through the use of "necrolization." He has no memory of his past or how he died--all he knows is that, whatever it was that happened, it was the work of one man: Harry MacDowel.
The Good: Damn near everything
The Bad: First episode is too much too quickly; takes a few episodes to get into its flow; second half can throw viewers off-guard
The Ugly: Dr. Tokioka's name sounds like 'tapioca,' and now I can never take him seriously again
Anime adapted from video games almost never turn out well (for the sake of this argument, I'm not counting visual novels as video games). With some exceptions like Street Fighter II V, most anime based on video games turn into shallow, rushed garbage (Persona 4: The Animation, anyone?) or exploitative nonsense centering on ridiculous action and dumb characters (Voltage Fighter Gowcaizer being the best example).
So when I heard that an anime series based on the PS2 game, "Gungrave," was going to be a thing, I was very skeptical. The original game was the brain-child of Yasuhiro Nightow, the same guy behind Trigun, and featured the music of Tsuneo Imahori. Sure, the game was abysmally short, but it had a neat little story and some breathtaking graphics and it was a lot of fun to play. I didn't want to see it butchered, dumbed down, and thrown to the wolves. But then there came hope: Yasuhiro Nightow, Tsuneo Imahori, and Studio Madhouse were teaming up to deliver this anime to us--the same winning combination that gave us Trigun--and it was given a high budget and slated for 26 episodes. That's when I knew it was gonna be good, but I was not prepared. I was not prepared for just how good it was gonna be.
When it comes to the series' high points, it's hard to find a good starting point for discussion, because it basically boils down to "EVERYTHING IS AMAZING!!" So let's begin in my usual fashion by talking about Gungrave's visuals. Which are amazing. While it's not Studio Madhouse's best effort, the animation is still smooth and pleasing to the eye. Characters are drawn in Yasuhiro Nightow's signature style (once again, think Trigun) with highly emotive facial features and unique character designs. The action is quick and slick, too, so action anime fans will no doubt be satisfied. Add to that imaginative and detailed locales, and you've got one beautiful-looking series.
The series' auditory department is also rock-solid, boasting a dynamic soundtrack by the wonderful Tsuneo Imahori. While his trademark spaghetti Western-sounding guitar tunes still make an appearance, the bulk of the soundtrack goes for a style more befitting a story about the mafia (check out the intro, "Family," and it'll be clear what I'm talking about). The voice acting is likewise as solid as steel, particularly the English dub, which features Kirk Thorton (credited as Ron Allen) and Tony Oliver as Brandon and Harry respectively. We also get voice acting legends Steven Blum (credited as "Andrew Watton"), Beau Billingslea (credited as "John Daniels") and Michelle Ruff as Balladbird Lee, Bear Walken, and Maria Asagi. With the exception of maybe one or two hokey sounding extras, the dub is spectacular, often surpassing the incredible Japanese version. Both your eyes and your ears will be pleased.
Now then, how do the characters and story measure up to the high-quality aesthetics of Gungrave? Glad you asked, because you see, that's where this series truly shines: they took a 2-hour-long video game with only the bare bones of a story and turned it into Berserk set in modern times with an actual ending. And that Berserk comparison is totally intentional, too, for two reasons: First, both anime are very, very character-driven stories with very, very compelling characters. Brandon and Harry are so thoroughly developed, so thoroughly examined from every angle, that forming an emotional attachment to them is not only easy but inevitable, and the side characters are not that far behind. The sure sign of a spectacular anime? When your villain is absolutely reprehensible and you want nothing more than for him to die a horrible death, but when something tragic happens to him, you suddenly have a little something in your eye that you need to wipe at.
The other reason for my Berserk comparison is the story structure itself. Both stories begin with a flash-forward of sorts, return to a time in the story when things were simpler and "happier," and then we witness the dramatic rise and fall that leads to the events of the first episode. It worked well in Berserk, and now it works absolutely beautifully in Gungrave. As I mentioned earlier, there are many, many points in the series where you'll find your eyes getting moist and your throat constricting. On an unrelated note, in a brilliant act of laziness, the director basically made Episode 18 into the first episode all over again, but this time there's context--this time, the things that seemed insignificant and sudden are now gut-wrenchingly powerful. Normally this would bother me to no end and be a major flaw, but here? Genius. Pure genius. But, that does lead us into the series' downfalls, as minor as they are...
The first episode is absolutely brilliant in retrospect, but if you're new to the series and finally checking it out, it will confuse the crap out of you and may even be headache-inducing. All I can tell you is to keep going; that first episode will make much more sense later on, and all you have to do is stick with it. And even after the first episode, it still takes about 3 or 4 episodes before Gungrave finally gets settled into its paces and its flow. It's just a nitpick, but just be warned it'll feel slightly awkward at first.
Lastly, there's the issue of the second half. By the time you get there, you'll probably have forgotten all about the fact that there are gonna be monsters and super-powered bad guys because everything before the introduction of "necrolization" is straight-laced and as realistic as could be. I'm not saying these things are a flaw in the story, but it does come straight out of left field, and it could turn viewers off if they're not expecting it, so...expect it, dammit!
With that said, go see Gungrave, especially if you're a fan of Trigun or you got into anime because of Toonami and/or Adult Swim. Gungrave definitely follows in the footsteps of the classic anime of the 80s and 90s, so if that's the kind of thing you crave, then you have no excuse to pass this one up. The same holds true for all other anime fans out there, too! Stop whatever you're doing and go get it!
Final Score: 9.5 out of 10. Though it does begin on the wrong foot, Gungrave proves that, in the right hands, a video game-based anime can not only be good, but become a modern classic that should be seen by all anime fans.