One reason American animation fans have taken such a liking to anime is the diverse range of subjects that they explore. Standing in contrast to the limited palette of American studios, anime has touched a wide range of genres: sports, sci-fi, comedy, history, soap opera, fantasy, cooking, and many others. One subject left relatively untouched is the mob, but Gungrave has set out to plug that hole (with lots of flying lead). In Volume 2, The Sweeper, we watch the meteoric rise of friends Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowel through the Millenion crime organization.
The mafia genre seems like a natural fit for anime, and Gungrave does a solid job of delivering. Its gritty world of crime is a refreshing break from the recent glut of fantasy anime, and it’s nice to watch something where your comprehension is not dependent on knowledge of some prophecy or magical fighting technique. The show is an interesting blend of The Sopranos, soap opera, and Hong Kong action. Not that it’s anything particularly original, but I’ve certainly never seen it in animated form before. The story also becomes quite engrossing and manages more than a few surprises.
The Sweeper contains episodes five through eight of the series. In episode five, “Millenion,” Brandon Heat and his best friend Harry take up jobs working for the huge criminal syndicate Millenion, for undisclosed reasons (possibly revealed earlier). Brandon works for a smalltime loan shark operation, exploiting indebted gamblers. Meanwhile Harry works to launder the money brought in by outfits like Brandon’s. Brandon discovers that Harry is trying to help get him noticed in the organization so they can both rise to the top, and that the beautiful Maria, whom he seems to love, has been taken in by Millenion boss Big Daddy.
Next in “Big Daddy,” Brandon ignores Harry’s warnings and meets with Maria at her university, overjoyed to see her again. Big Daddy himself invites Brandon over, and developing a certain rapport over fishing says he doesn’t object to Brandon seeing Maria as long as they are discreet, as he is obligated to protect her. Brandon passes his days peacefully and contentedly, growing closer to Maria and his coworkers. But things heat up when assassins, intent on eliminating Big Daddy, try to crash a party held by Millenion for its business associates.
In the aptly titled “5 Years Later,” Brandon demonstrates that he has become a ruthlessly efficient killer by dispatching a room full of mobsters. As Harry climbs ever closer to the top of Millenion, he discovers that a rival group has put out a hit on him and his friends. Harry attempts to recruit the hitman for Millenion, while Brandon rushes to the rescue.
Finally, Brandon and Harry are accepted into Millenion’s “Family” at a big party at Big Daddy’s estate. Senior Millenion members Bear Walken and Sid Galarde speculate that perhaps the childless Big Daddy is looking for a successor. Harry starts checking family members for dirty laundry, apparently trying to thin out the ranks above him. He also begins to romance Bear Walken’s daughter, despite a warning to the contrary. Sid discovers that his ne’er-do-well son has unknowingly killed a guest of Bear Walken in an attempt to impress his father, and frets over what to do.
With a fairly large cast, character development is limited to the top few, but there are some engaging personalities nonetheless. In particular we get to see Brandon and Harry evolve as they gain criminal experience. Brandon goes from being virtually catatonic to mildly retiring, from gun-shy to cold-blooded killer. Soft-spoken and honorable, clearly it is he whom the audience is supposed to identify with, although this grows more difficult as the bodies start to pile up. The less saintly Harry goes from vaguely ambitious to completely unscrupulous, becoming increasingly addicted to power as he climbs the family ladder. If you accidentally switch on the English track, you’ll find Harry to be unconvincingly played by proverbial goody-two-shoes Rick Hunter. I particularly liked the world weary, middle-aged Widge, who is Brandon’s loan shark boss. Although his job requires him to be ruthless, even murderous at times, he doesn’t savor the nasty parts and is compassionate toward his subordinates and aging mother. Otherwise we get a bunch of mob clichés, although they may be better fleshed out at other points in the series. The awkwardly pronounced English names are sometimes real mood killers, especially the ludicrous “Big Daddy,” which is guaranteed to get a laugh even in the most serious of moments.
Although perfectly adequate for the task, Gungrave‘s animation is nothing to be excited about. Backgrounds tend to be rather plain, and movement is fairly limited. Nevertheless the character designs are quite appealing, and the few action sequences are slickly and excitingly rendered. I also enjoyed the stylish classic car designs, which seem to set the series in the 1960s, although this is never made explicit.
The score is tolerable at best. It seems that since the late 90s, perhaps partially due to the great success of shows like Cowboy Bebop, it has become popular to go with experimental jazz/classical hybrids. In Gungrave‘s case I found it annoying much of the time, such as when a shrill, discordant violin would suddenly kick in to punctuate a scene. Bring back traditional orchestral and rock scores I say. A little trendiness goes a long way.
There just isn’t enough gunplay in anime today, and for a show with “gun” in the title there isn’t nearly as much lead flying as one might hope for. This may be partially due to budget constraints, or perhaps this is just a slow stretch in the series. “5 Years Later” does deliver a big action set piece that is as thrilling as most Hollywood fare. In one scene Harry is surrounded by gunmen in a warehouse Butch Cassidy-style, pinned down behind his car by machine gun fire. Just as some killer marksmanship seems to be turning the tide a bulldozer bursts in and sweeps away his one piece of cover.
Not much in the way of special features here, although I suppose that’s common enough for a TV series. Conceptual Art contains a gallery of character models. While it’s always nice to see the original designs, these are fairly ordinary. There is also a promo for the PS2 Gungrave game. Although games derived from film and TV are usually suspect, this one does look like a stylish, gunslinging good time [In fact, in this case, it was the animation that was based on the game. -Ed]. Plus there’s a guy with a laser-shooting guitar! How can you beat that?
If you can never get enough mafia dramas, then Gungrave is right up your alley. It hardly ranks up there with The Godfather, but it’s no Harlem Nights either. That makes it worth checking out, if only to find out how the Japanese say “Fuggeddaboutit.”