Funimation // 2003 // 650 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // August 7th, 2009
To protect means to not think about yourself for the sake of others.
In 2002, a third-person shooter came out on the Playstation 2 about an undead cowboy called from the grave to protect those he loves from legions of zombified mafioso. It was successful enough in Japan that an anime series was adapted from it the following year. From the Pacman cartoon to The Rock in Doom, video game adaptations are a laughable prospect. Then, there are projects like Gungrave, that good enough to make me rethink the potential of video game movies (okay, maybe not).
Brandon Heat and Harry McDowel grew up together, just a couple of chuckleheads trying to make ends meet. They're an ambitious duo, however, and they've been recruited in Millenion, the most powerful mafia organization in town. Led by Big Daddy, the elite of the organization take a real shine to these boys and they climb to the top of the ladder more quickly than anybody ever has. Friendships die hard, though, when Brandon's loyalty to the organization comes into conflict with Harry's hunger for power. Betrayals, murder and science fiction manipulations force Brandon to sacrifice everything, including his very soul, to stop Harry and save the world from his horde of soldiers.
I was distressed after the first episode of Gungrave: the Complete Series. Not only were my meager expectations barely met, the thing made absolutely no sense. We open up in the middle of the story, but we don't know that yet, and all we seem to see is an exercise in bad action dialog. I was looking at about ten more hours of this, and a deep sense of dread began to sink in. A dead guy in a cowboy suit called Beyond the Grave (possibly the worst name in history) is awakened by some girl screaming, jumps around and blows away a bunch of guys who appear to be made out of ice, though they're apparently undead. He blows them all to smithereens and everybody goes home happy. Yikes. Luckily, soon after the first episode ended, the second began. Gone were the zombies in mafia suits; gone was the hyper-kinetic action. Nothing was blown apart and nobody was screaming. Instead, we open thirty years in the past, with human characters and a really well done story.
The dialog itself never improves that much, and is the big downside of the series. The way the creators, however, is outstanding in spite of the dialog (the English subtitles and dubbing, at least). Brandon Heat is a silent hero much of the time, but everything he says carries weight and changes the way those around him act, for good or for bad. The relationship between Brandon and Harry McDowel, his equal and opposite, is the focus of the story at all times, but all of the supporting characters are extremely well drawn. Brandon's protege and closest associate, Bunji Kugashira, is a mercenary whose loyalty makes him forget about the money but is a mad killer if he needs to be. Big Daddy, the guy that runs Millenion, is a gang leader in the vein of Don Corleone, has a compassion that is only matched by his brutality and is a true father to Brandon. All of the characters have a unique impact on both of the leads and each of their various subplots are emotional and compelling in their own right. The ending is well done, if not totally unexpected, and is heavy of nostalgia and brotherly love. The final few episodes as they come to a close are devastating in their sadness, as the cruel realities of the world they've created become clear to them all. I was shocked by the raw emotion of it all and how strongly it affected me. This is heavy stuff and much more substantial than I'm used to in anime.
Though Gungrave is more concerned with plot than action, the battle scenes are pretty fun and very well animated. After Brandon's transformation to Beyond the Grave (honestly, one of the most ridiculous character names I've ever heard), the tone changes its John Woo-inspired gangster ballet to a sci-fi Italian western with mafia zombies. The many nods to Django and Hard Boiled are a lot of fun and as the story spins more and more out of control, so do the situations in which they fight. As kinetic as the animation is, the action remains clear and is never confusing. The musical score that accompanies the entire series, and especially the action scenes, is brilliant, ranging from traditional Japanese music to traditional orchestral film music to Caribbean rhythms to what sounds like legendary Japanese noise band Boredoms. Some of it is ironic and much of it is exceedingly tense, adding to the emotion and to the drama the whole way through.
All of this is presented beautifully on seven discs from Funimation. The image is near perfect throughout. The picture is perfectly clear, the transfer is beautiful, and the colors are brilliant. All three sound mixes are strong, but the Japanese DTS track is by far the best, with meticulously detailed separation in all channels. The English Dolby 5.1 Mix is nearly as good, but the vocal performances aren't nearly as strong. The only extra on each disc is a gallery of concept art. The drawings are cool, but it isn't all that exciting.
It is definitely rough sailing through the first episode of Gungrave. Given a few episodes, however, it becomes one of the better anime series out there and absolutely the best video game adaptation I've ever seen.
Review content copyright © 2009 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Concept Art