Loyalty. Friendship. Love. Bravery. Trust.
Greed. Conceit. Betrayal. Hatred. Regret.
What is perhaps most amazing about Gungrave is the anime’s incredibly nihilistic philosophy throughout most of the show. In the first half of the anime, we see the characters striving to build up a metaphorical castle in the sky – an immense, ornate creation with no foundation to support it. In the second half of the anime, we see everything collapsing under its own weight, a house of cards built atop a shaky table.
What should we devote our lives to, if nothing we gain has any long-term substantiality? Each character in the show seems to have a different idea. Some live solely to protect and nurture their sons and daughters, others decadently gorge themselves on the luxuries that money can afford, and still others simply live to kill other human beings. Brandon Heat, the main character in the show, devotes his life to something completely different: the devoted, unwavering protection of his comrades. Everything he does in the anime is motivated by this simple goal.
Whether or not Brandon’s philosophy is actually sound is explored in detail throughout the anime. When friends can turn their backs on you, when loved ones can perish despite your best intentions, and when people you trust the most can betray you, is such selfless, thoughtless, and undying loyalty really the best way to live life?
The answer that this anime comes to may not satisfy some people, but I found the ending of the anime to be an excellent way to finish an already outstanding story. The conclusion marks the end of an entrancing downward spiral; although oftentimes the outcomes of the show are obvious, this somehow doesn’t soften the impact of the characters’ fates. Interestingly enough, this “action” anime doesn’t really focus on the violence of the show at all; although the action scenes certainly aren’t bad, they pale in comparison to the absolutely amazing storyline. However, whether I was watching mindless action or the latest plot twist, I was seldom bored and was often immensely impressed.
Animation tends to be good in everything except for the action scenes. In some (not all) of these action scenes, I felt that they could have been animated more fluidly. I’d recommend that you not watch this anime for its violence, but for its amazingly captivating storyline.
The music is definitely unique, but not really good. I didn’t find it particularly obnoxious, but at the same time I’m certainly not going to download the OST. However, to make up for the somewhat lackluster soundtrack, the voice actors do an absolutely outstanding job (judging by how many famous seiyuu are in this anime, I’d expect nothing less).
While many of the characters feel a little flat (Balladbird Lee and Bob Poundmax in particular felt kind of like unnecessary speed-bumps in the anime’s progression), Brandon’s best friend Harry is amazingly well developed. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that Harry is the true protagonist, as he is by far the most dynamic character of Gungrave. Also, I found the turns that Bear Walken’s character went to be remarkably compelling.
Furthermore, while not particularly well developed, all of the characters are interesting at face value. A lot of supporting characters are in the anime, and I find it amazing that I can still remember most of them a couple weeks after I have seen the show. The main character is not necessarily deep, but I found his stoic nature appealing.
In the end, this series should appeal most to both fans of serious, plot-driven action anime like Berserk and Trigun. The story is gripping, and the action scenes are sufficient. In addition, fans of more cynical, experimental anime like Texhnolyze and Jin-Roh: the Wolf Brigade will enjoy this for the nihilistic themes present throughout. As for me, I think this is a great show that I will most likely revisit sometime in the future.
Gungrave is about two friends, Harry and Brandon, who begin pulling off small jobs and eventually become bona-fide mafia members. It opens in medias res, starting off in the middle of the plot, and then jumping back to start at the beginning. Gungrave then paints us a picture over the course of their lives, showing how the two friends change and how their relationship is tested. Gungrave executes this well with the plot it is given. It manages to be both thrilling and touching, and comes packed with a ton of exaggerated style and some sci-fi elements added in that makes for an entertaining watch.
One complaint I have is that the fighting is mostly dull. Despite being based an a video game, Gungrave's major strengths are its style and its plot, rather than its action. The story had several eye rolling moments for me as well.
For the most part, Gungrave does a fabulous job exploring the characters' emotions and histories. Harry McDowell is someone you will love, hate, and pity. The characters themselves are almost like caricatures, with their images built up until their final moments. They have ridiculous names such as Brandon "Beyond the Grave" Heat, Balladbird Lee, and Bob Poundmax. This is all part of the exaggerated style Gungrave sticks with and, while I can't help rolling my eyes, I secretly think it's all cool.
On the other hand, I felt there was some "plot-control" of the characters (a common fault in many anime); that is, characters sometimes act inconsistently in order to drive the plot in a certain direction (e.g. Brandon and Balladbird Lee). Coupled with all of their dramatic flair, this produces characters that seem inauthentic at times.
Gungrave is male-dominated. There are only three women in the series. Maybe that's because it deals with the mafia, but it would have been nice to see even one strong female fighter.
The animation is good overall, with some flaws. Character designs, derived from the original videogame, are great. There is good cinematography as well. If you pause at certain moments, there are some extremely beautiful, distinctive frames. There are lovely cinematic sequences here and there that swap elegantly from long-shots to sequences of close-ups as the environment is explored.
I felt that quality degraded a bit during action scenes, and it could feel static and dated at times. Nevertheless, I was impressed with the opening and ending sequences, and I enjoyed its style. Overall, the animators did a good job.
I actually wasn't too impressed with the audio portion. I watched the Gungrave dubbed. It was only okay. In particular, when we see Harry as an older man, his voice actor changes and it's very noticeable, and I frequently noticed minor charactors with the same voice actors. There were a number of generic sound effects (e.g. door creaking noise).
The soundtrack was fitting, but average. The opening is boring. I liked the ending. There are occasionally good background pieces, but I found most of the music to be fairly generic.
For an anime based on a video game, I was pleasantly surprised with Gungrave. It's very stylized, the characters are wonderfully composed, and the storytelling is good. There is trust, betrayal, revenge, and plot-twists along the way. The style may not be for everyone. It's dramatic. The fights toward the end are borderline corny, as is some of the dialogue throughout. Nevertheless, I found myself eating this anime up (I finished it in three days), and the characters are still stuck in my head.
Comparison to "similar" anime (SPOILERS HERE)
Gungrave reminded me a lot of Trigun. They share very stylized approaches and tell tales of two friends. They both have "legendary" main characters with big guns and big hearts, sci-fi elements, and lots of gun fights. Trigun is more comedic and cheerful, and maintains a more cohesive and refined western style. Gungrave has a grimmer tone, leaning a bit toward a noir style. Trigun has cleverer fight scenes, while Gungrave has a more epic story. Trigun is also more episodic and has some filler episodes.
Berserk is a better fit for Gungrave. Both are stories of two friends. One friend is super ambitious and willing to do anything to reach his goal. The other friend is physicially stronger but rides the coattails of his friend's ambition. Both series maintain a serious atmosphere, and both start out in medias res, with the first episode beginning in the middle of the plot and then reverting to the beginning. Both have fantastic characters, great stories, supernatural elements, betrayal, and lots of fighting and killing. If you like Gungrave, you'll definitely like Berserk, and if you like Berserk you'll probably enjoy Gungrave.
Well here I am finally writing my Gungrave review – and given the avatar I’ve been sporting for over five years now – it probably comes as little surprise that I’m a fan. As always, I try my best to keep my reviews relatively objective; but I’m sure that my inevitable bias and general warm regard for this show will leak through. Why do I like it so much? Let’s see:
ART: 8/10 – Gungrave’s art is generally very good – especially given the show’s age. The scenes capture the intended moods just fine; the slums look duly run down, and the effects of dust when characters return to long-abandoned places was actually outstanding. The backgrounds captured the mood of the scene, whether it’s the “sanctuary” effect that big daddy’s mansion portrayed or forlorn nostalgia of the slums Brandon and Harry grew up in at the very end.
The characters might come off as a bit mundane looking; but I thought they were fantastically done. Though the story spans many decades, most characters seemed to have signature get-ups – which was just fine. Harry with his white suit, Bear, well dressed with the same sunglasses, Bunji with the brown duster, etc etc… The characters for the most part are very “human” looking – and it fits the series perfectly. Which puts its most emphasis on humanly relationships completely with flaws and ambitions.
The animation and effects were honestly a bit disappointing for a show with such a strong emphasis on combat. Sometimes Brandon’s maneuvers looked fluid, but there were a lot of still images – and fights evolving off screen. The fight with Blood War comes to mind, and the series of final battles does too. And his fight where he won Bunji happened entirely off screen!? C’mon!
SOUND: 9/10 – I love much and more about Gungrave’s sounds. I’ve watched this show in its entirety three times now, and I’ve only ever watched dubs – so that’s all I can comment on. For a dubbed performance, the voice acting was outstanding; and each main character’s acting perfectly matched the character themselves. If you’re a native English speaker like I am, go for the dubbed; you won’t be disappointed.
Likewise I thoroughly enjoyed every aspects of show’s musical scores. The intro is perhaps a bit generic; but it really captures that “gangsterish” sort of feel. The ending theme is simply outstanding; and something I actually looked forward to each and every episode. The BGM was generally very good, and fitting with the feeling of the given scenes as well.
The sound effects were also mostly good – the gunshots sounding generally very realistic – but the noises the monsters made later on were just… eh. It might just be my bias of disfavor from the final arc of the story that makes me insistent dislike its effects.
STORY: 7/10 – To talk about Gungrave’s story, it’s almost impossible for me to not draw clear, and very distinct lines from the “flashback” arc, and the “present” arc. This may just be my personal opinion, but the flashback arc was worlds better than the present; and was so darn good that even the weaker brutish present was enjoyable thanks to the rich backdrop it sat on. The premise is fairly fresh. The show is quick to set a tone exceptionally dark and gritty for anime; and it does well to not let up from that tone almost at all. I’m not sure if there were any remarkable mafia themed anime before Gungrave; but as old as it is; I think it can safely be called an innovator of the genre in the anime world.
I had to deduct a point for pacing. What Gungrave doesn’t do, is ever make you feel like you’ve wasted too much time on a single thing or scene. But what it *does* do, is occasionally leave out things that should have been on screen. Such as the fight that made Bunji a loyal member of the main crew for life. Or Brandon’s growth into being the best sweeper of the organization. Much and more happened off screen between the vast multitudes of time skips. Partially forgiven since the show had a lot of ground to cover; and most was worth doing so, but I still can’t grant a full score here.
Undoubtedly, Gungrave’s primary focus was on friendship, and loyalty. It practically cracked those themes over the viewer’s head. It did not hit too many other themes – and that is fine – but I find it hard to grant a full score here given its narrow scope. The show features many pairs of “best friends”, but for many such; this seems to be a prop meant to surround the story’s centrifuge: Harry and Brandon. In a way, the very many pairs of “bromances” felt weirdly overdone, and at times; distracting. The story between Maria and Brandon felt a bit underdeveloped for my tastes; almost as if an active rebellion “this is about friendship not about love!” Can’t it be both? I don’t dislike the (surprising) direction the romance ultimately took; I in fact enjoyed the surprise; but there still felt like a bit of the focus was missing or otherwise too distant.
Plausibility is a real toughie for this show. I want to first remind readers that plausibility doesn’t automatically deduct in the face of supernatural elements; only when a show lacks internal consistency. By and large, the show’s flashback (and thus first half minus episode 1) seemed to fare extremely well. Sure the rule of cool Brandon Heat and Bunji Kugashira *felt* invincible – and true the poorly choreographed action scenes made some of the shootouts ridiculous to watch – but I forgive this with the story’s obvious focus on its cast and storyline – not on the action. The second half, however, just completely spins off the rails. The “necrolyzation” process goes from a semi-consistent bulletproof undead minions with short lifespans to “superior” bulletproof monsters (some not even humanoid in appearance) with random natural gun-arm weapons. The major characters who undergo whichever procedure conveniently maintain their appearance and general sentience – seemingly for the sake of plot convenience – while also obtaining superpowers that shift from sci-fi to straight WTF MAGIC. The durability of the monsters was completely arbitrary. Regular guns were COMPLETELY ineffective, but Brandon’s slightly bigger guns KO them no problem? This is, of course, perhaps to the fault of the mindless monster shoot-em-up video game from which this anime was adapted. So they took bottom-of-the-barrel source material and put an amazing backdrop to. Cool, but at that point I would have urged the writers to go rogue and either severely ground the sci-fi elements, or otherwise discard them altogether. If only.
All above criticisms intact, I actually have to say that Gungrave has an astoundingly solid ending. Without including any spoilers; it finds itself just in time to reign in its “sci-fi Kill Bill” theme to focus on what matters: The characters, and their relationships. You get an ending no less bitter than the entire series promises from the get-go; and perhaps a bit sweeter than you’d expect. No loose ends, sure to jerk some tears; and a solid wrap-up for certain.
CHARACTERS: 9/10 – Gungrave is certainly a character driven – and character centric series. And its characterization is overall fantastic. The show and the entirety of its events center around Harry’s ambition, and Brandon and Harry’s friendship.
From a point of personality; a critical viewer will be pleased to know that virtually all main characters (and most secondary characters) are gray and dynamic. This is to say that the lines between antagonist and protagonist in this show are very muddled; barring a few (largely irrelevant) exceptions. The characters generally have a mature posturing; and for the most part their personalities and motives are internally consistent.
It is almost redundant to talk about how great the story’s backdrop is; since the story essentially is its backdrop. To keep this section as spoiler free as possible, the entire first half of the anime is the backstory outlining “how we got here”. To the newcomer it might sound egregious; but the effect for this story worked. It turned a stupid slugfest of a second half into something more deep and meaningful at least by dint of the fact that the viewer has a well-established connection with all characters involved. Developing antagonists does wonders for making a story generally more gripping and immersive.
Speaking of character development; with a slight pang of hesitation, I feel as though I can only grant a half score in the area. This isn’t even to spite the series lead; Brandon – who is arguably one of the least dynamic characters in the series. This is well-forgiven; and certainly intentional on the part of the writers. Brandon’s integrity; and general steadfastness is arguably the entire point of the story. And easily the point of conflict that heralds about the series’ ending, and the battles to that point. I deduct because the developments of other characters feel almost like more of plot devices to enable to the story than they felt necessarily organic. I get it; Harry’s ambitious. Harry’s charismatic. But that still does not seem to excuse the choices that some of the more sensible character (I’m looking at you, Bear) make to fill into the plot.
The catharsis is there; and it’s as good as it gets. To speak details here would be to spoil everything the show builds up to, but by my analysis; Gungrave can be the gold standard for “catharsis done right” for all I care. Bravo!
OVERALL: 8/10 – Despite its many flaws; Gungrave’s careful attention to its characters, its maturity, and general atmosphere still win it a comfortable spot on my short-list of anime that I’d recommend to anyone. Any critical viewer will surely notice many of the weaknesses I mentioned – and probably many more that I failed to. But this show – most especially the long flashback – really brings something special to the table that other anime would be well-served emulating: A rich backdrop building up every single character relevant to the main plot; while smartly mapping personalities that are distinct and consistent, yet dynamic and growing. I knew I loved this anime from the first time I watched it; before I fancied myself the critical reviewer that I am now – but this show still holds up on my follow-up take. If you’re looking for a mafia-themed anime that takes itself seriously, or a drama that is truly tragic, without the interruption of slapstick, fan service, or any of the other usual immersion-breaking suspects; you'll find yourself a real treat with Gungrave.
Excused Scorings (thanks to Roriconfan for the template):
ART SECTION: 8/10
General Artwork 2/2 (well done)
Character Figures 2/2 (cool / fitting with the feel of the story)
Backgrounds 2/2 (great)
Animation 1/2 (a bit lazy)
Visual Effects 1/2 (sub-par for a sci-fi action story)
SOUND SECTION: 9/10
Voice Acting 3/3 (great, and fitting with the feeling of the story)
Music Themes 4/4 (outstanding, but limited)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok)
STORY SECTION: 7/10
Premise 2/2 (fresh genre, especially in anime)
Pacing 1/2 (fast, but erratic)
Complexity 1/2 (strong themes, dicey presentation)
Plausibility 1/2 (flashback, yes, “present”, no)
Conclusion 2/2 (Conclusive, satisfying, bittersweet, and no loose ends)
CHARACTER SECTION: 9/10
Presence 2/2 (strong, character driven)
Personality 2/2 (cool, mature, dynamic, mostly gray)
Backdrop 2/2 (rich, and the best part of the whole story)
Development 1/2 (so-so)
Catharsis 2/2 (brilliant)
VALUE SECTION: 8/10
Historical Value 2/3 (the flashback arc could pave a genre)
Rewatchability 2/3 (high for its unique take, but many parts feel skippable)
Memorability 4/4 (well done and tragic to the point of forever remembering it)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 8/10
Art 1/1 (good)
Sound 2/2 (outstanding)
Story 1/3 (ok)
Characters 4/4 (memorable)
Gungrave is the story of two childhood friends, Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowell. Reminiscient of the movie scarface, it starts off as a realistic story of living day to day life on the wrong side of the tracks, entering a crime organization, working up through the ladder to be at the top, and the consequences of doing so.
After witnessing virtually everybody they care about being murdered, and barely escaping with their own lives, Brandon and Harry (each for their own reasons) manage to get accepted into the biggest mafia family in the city, known as Millenion.
Somewhere around the halfway point of the series, the sci-fi aspect is introduced, enter Necrolyzation. The ability to re-animate dead bodies creating nearly invincible zombies with enough mental capabilities to fire a gun and follow orders. Although this aspect is complete fantasy, and completely different from the orginial, realistic feel of the series, I do feel like this show manages to pull it off. If you can accept that it is now possible to create zombies.
Years pass and the leader of the "family" as it is often referred is ready to hand over the reigns to a new leader, and this is when the chaos begins with betrayal rearings its ugly head left, right, and centre. The last part of the series follows one characters path for vengeance with a somewhat light hearted ending (all things considered) that really tugs at your heart strings yet makes you feel like everybody did get what they deserve...Unless you're a female character in the show.
It's a strory rich with morals, told at an efficient pace, blending realism with fantasy in a somewhat believable manner, with the right balance of action and all that emo gushy stuff that girls like.
Although it has the odd hickup here and there, the animation in this series is solid, making use of different camera angles, interesting shading/lighting, exciting action/fighting scenes, and sporting some interesting character designs.
Like the Animation, i found the Sound in this series to be solid. Nothing spectacular, but it was definately used effectively to induce the proper tones and feelings with what was going on visually and in the story.
This is probably one of the best series' iv ever seen for utilizing it's characters. The back stories and character development for this series is phenomenal, to the point where I was so connected to most of the characters, that I felt a little bad for even the ones I didn't like when tragedy struck. Pretty much all the characters are believable and you get a good understanding of their personalities as if they were real people. Unfortunately I did have one issue with the handling of a character named Bunji, who i felt would have been better utilized as a last second, and ill fated sidekick to the main protagonist after somehow seeing the error in his ways. But its really a minor qualm, insignificant to the story, and really only a matter of my own opinion.