Gungrave Anime Review
US Release By
Undead Mafia Action
26 25-minute episodes
2003-10-06 - 2004-03-29
The Millenion syndicate and its boss Bloody Harry are under attack by a man who looks and fights like Brandon Heat, the syndicate's top "sweeper." A man who was instrumental in the meteoric rise of his partner and childhood friend Bloody Harry in the ranks of the mafia. A man who died 13 years ago, executed as a traitor to the family. Appropriately enough, this enemy goes by the name of Grave, as in "Beyond the Grave."
At first, it's easy to judge Gungrave as your usual super warrior with a vendetta anime, especially given its pedigree as a video game adaptation and its action-packed and somewhat misleading first episode. But it's much deeper than that once you get to the second episode and the true essence of the series begins to reveal itself. So please, keep watching.
The thing about Gungrave is that it's like two distinct, easily separable animes in one. The first episode throws the viewer into the middle of the action, leaving questions about who Harry and Brandon are and why there's a vendetta between them unanswered for now.
The series then spends a good half of the episodes in what is essentially one big flashback. Taking us back to the beginnings of Harry and Brandon as street hoodlums with hearts of gold and chronicling their rise to the syndicate's highest tiers as its most ruthless, cold blooded and cunning members. Rags to riches, friends for life to bitter enemies. Basically a mob story that comes off as part Godfather, part Goodfellas. And a very good story at that, one that wonderfully touches on the themes of loyalty and betrayal, unfettered ambition and the guilt in its wake. Like all good mob stories it constantly switches from touching and sentimental to brutal and blood-soaked. This half is a story that I wouldn't mind seeing as a Sopranos-style dramatic TV series, populated with wonderfully constructed characters that grow believably as the story progresses.
Then the series takes something of a 90 degree turn as Brandon becomes Grave, the undead assassin with a score to settle. Gungrave then becomes your average formulaic superhuman slugfest anime as Grave hunts down his enemies one by one. This is the part of Gungrave that screams "video game adaptation." You can almost tell who was a level boss during these 10 or so episodes. The wonderful character development that was going on in the first half comes to a screeching halt as the characters mostly become caricatures who serve only as flavor-of-the-week obstacles for our undead hero to remove in action-packed ways. For a few episodes, Gungrave becomes more of an action romp than a character-driven drama, with only a few moments here and there dedicated to developing the storyline. Resulting, of course, in a drastic decrease in the quality of the series story-wise. It's not exactly bad, just very average and very, very clichéd.
The series does, however, redeem itself in the last couple of episodes, which go back to the full-on story mode of the first half, giving us what is perhaps the series' most touching episodes. A fitting ending to the wonderful story half of Gungrave.
Animation-wise there's little to find fault with. The character designs are nice and crisp without being over-the-top. The fight sequences are somewhat short but brutal and always fun to watch. You can tell right away that the game that inspired the anime was in turn inspired by games like Devil May Cry--plenty of rather ridiculous gun poses that you just know some impressionable kid with a pair of plastic guns is going to try to emulate. Some of the non-superpowered fights made me raise an eyebrow here and there, but that's probably because I've been reading up on real guerrilla tactics recently, making me want to shout things like "What's the matter with you idiots? That's not how you stage a motorcade ambush!" But it was only slightly annoying, and of course this is anime--suspension of disbelief and all that jazz. Music-wise, however, apart from the jazzy opening song, Gungrave is pretty much unremarkable and largely forgettable.
Video game adaptations have a well-deserved reputation as being at best bland, with a few notable exceptions. Apart from a serious hiccup in the otherwise excellent storyline, a relic of its gaming roots, Gungrave manages to be one of those exceptions in a big way. Just don't let the first episode fool you--it's much more than just a video game adaptation.
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Notes and Trivia
Although Gungrave is based on the PS2 game of the same name, not a comic, the concept was created by Yasuhiro Nightow, perhaps best known as the original creator of Trigun. The music is by Tsuneo Imahori, who also did the score for Trigun (and the Gungrave game).
US DVD Review
Geneon's DVDs boast of anamorphic widescreen video, Dolby 5.1 audio in both English and Japanese, and by way of extras textless openings and endings plus conceptual art.
This is essentially a mob story, so expect plenty of violence; 16-up.
Violence: 3 - Grave/Brandon is an assassin, and a damn good one; blood everywhere but not much more gore.
Nudity: 1 - A few swimsuits here and there.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Nothing explicit on stage.
Language: 2 - Well, it is a mob story.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Harry MacDowel (Teen): Kenji Hamada
Brandon Heat / Beyond the Grave: Tomokazu Seki
Harry MacDowel: Tsutomu Isobe
Bob Poundmax: Chafurin
Bunji Kugashira: Fumihiko Tachiki
Big Daddy: Iemasa Kayumi
Maria Asagi: Kikuko Inoue
Mika Asagi: Kumi Sakuma
Dr. Tokioka "Dr. T": Motomu Kiyokawa
Bear Walken: Ryuuzaburoo Ootomo
Ballabird Lee: Takehito Koyasu
English Dub Cast
Harry MacDowel (Old): Abe Lasser
Brandon Heat/Beyond the Grave: Ron Allen
Harry MacDowel (Young): Tony Oliver
Balladbird Lee: Andrew Watton
Bob Poundmax (Old): David Orosco
Sherry Walken: Dorothy Elias-Fahn
Bear Walken: John Daniels
Mika Asagi: Kay Jensen
Bunji Kugashira: Lex Lang
Bob Poundmax: Melvin Katt
Big Daddy: Michael McConnohie
Maria Asagi: Michelle Ruff
Dr. Tokioka: William Frederick
Director: Toshiyuki Tsuru
Script: Yousuke Kuroda
Storyboard: Y uzo Sato
Original creator: Yasuhiro Nightow
Character Design: Shino Masanori
Music: Tsuneo Imahori