Although there are many videogames based upon anime series, “Gungrave” shows that such inspiration can work both ways, having been adapted from Yasuhiro Nightow’s hit 2002 Playstation title. Created by Nightow (best known for “Trigun”), the 26 episode series originally aired back in 2003, and was directed by Toshiyuki Tsuru, who was the key animator working on “Cowboy Bebop: The Movie”, and who also helmed the third “Naruto” film. Having proved popular both in Japan and in the US, the action packed, though essentially character driven show now arrives on region 2 DVD via MVM, handily collected in a complete box set.
The series opens, quite literally, with a bang, throwing the viewer without much explanation into a battle, as the hulking Beyond the Grave is revived by a scientist and takes on hordes of strange, ghoulish opponents. As the story progresses, it transpires that his real name is Brandon Heat (voiced by Tomokazu Seki in Japanese and Kirk Thornton in English), and that he had been betrayed and killed by his former best friend Harry MacDowell (Tsutomu Isobe and Tom Wyner), his former best friend and the head of the sinister Millennion crime syndicate. The following episodes largely take the form of flashbacks, detailing Brandon and Harry’s gradual rise through the ranks of the underworld, and their eventual falling out, before returning to the present for their final showdown.
The first episode of “Gungrave” is actually quite off putting, an unexplained series of action scenes which might suggest that any fears that a series based upon a videogame which revolved purely around shooting would be overly simplistic could be well founded. However, this actually works in its favour, as by confusing and disorienting the viewer from early on, the episode certainly raises the need for questions to be asked and answered. The flashback structure of the series is very effective and nicely paced, and it works well as a crime bio style tale, charting the changing lives of the two young men as they develop from young street gang members to fully fledged killers and leaders. The series does make for increasingly compulsive viewing, and as such it’s certainly handy to have it in a box set collection.
The story itself is fairly standard, with the relationship between Brandon and Harry mainly beginning to fall apart due to Brandon’s feelings for a young woman called Maria (voiced by Kikuko Inoue and Michelle Ruff), who unknowingly lives with the head of the mob. However, it manages to hit all of the right emotional notes, and so works as a rise and fall piece in engaging fashion, echoing films such as “The Godfather” – albeit with a science fiction twist. The characters themselves are believable and likeable, and so it’s easy to become immersed in their world and struggles. Although things do get quite melodramatic at times, especially during the latter stages of the series and the climax of the flashbacks around episode 15, it remains gripping through to its conclusion. Brandon makes for a fascinating, multi layered protagonist, who even after his return from the dead is not a simple killing machine, and whilst Harry is overtly villainous, he is still not without humanity. Unsurprisingly, the anime deals heavily with themes of brotherhood and betrayal, giving its characters difficult and painful choices, and it does get pretty dark and bleak in places, quite frequently taking an unexpected route.
Where the series is particularly successful is in combining this grounded, character based approach with its frequent bursts of bloody action and violence. Whilst not over the top, it does contain a great many shootouts, with the young Brandon slowly taking on the role of a ruthless sweeper for the gang, and even more so after he has been resurrected as Beyond the Grave. The more fantastic elements of the series give it a quite unique feel, as the evil Millennion organisation uses the undead as its enforcers, adding a touch of the unexpected. The animation style is crisp, and though the series tends to use quite muted colours in places, it has an attractive, visually impressive look throughout.
“Gungrave” really is a strong anime series, and one which should certainly be better known amongst fans. Balancing believable and engaging characters with its action and more outlandish elements, it makes for enjoyable and even powerful viewing throughout, with the fate of its protagonists likely to linger in the memory for some time.
Yasuhiro Nightow (writer)
CAST: Kirk Thornton … Brandon Heat
Beau Billingslea … Bear Walken
Steve Blum … Ballardbird Lee
Lex Lang … “Mad Dog” Ladd Carabel
Michelle Ruff … Maria Asagi
William Knight … ‘Dr. T’ Doctor Tokioka
Doug Stone … Alzac Tino
Steve Kramer … Butler Tokioka