Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowel, two friends so close they could be called brothers, receive an abrupt and violent reminder one fateful day of how appallingly merciless the world around them can be. Their whole lives before then were simple and easygoing, consisting largely of local brawls, seducing women, and committing petty theft to make a living and pass the time. What they failed to realize is that in this cruel world, happiness is fleeting, and change is inevitable.
Enter Millennion, the largest and most infamous mafia syndicate in the area, which accepts Brandon and Harry into their ranks and starts them at the bottom of the food chain. Harry has ambitions to ascend the ranks and one day replace Big Daddy as the supreme leader of Millennion, while Brandon only wishes to support his friend and appease Big Daddy who has taken custody of the woman Brandon loves.
Based off the third-person shooter video game under the same name, Gungrave is an epic story of friendship, betrayal, and avarice that spans the course of several years, ultimately tying back to the gripping and foreboding first episode, all the while building up to the story's thrilling conclusion.
Based on the cult PS2 title by SEGA and Red Entertainment, this anime is an alternate retelling of that respective title which I own a copy of, and you can get it for like $5 at Game Stop. The anime tells the origin story of the main character, Brandon Heat, who is later re-named Beyond the Grave, and his best friend, Harry MacDowell. The organization of the presentation of the story feels as if it was perfectly structured as a 3-act play, each with its own unique theme and gimmick. Act 1 you can label as a story about rags to riches in which Harry
and Brandon are teenage small timers just trying to survive. Act 2 is about how the duo is trying to establish themselves, and make it to the top of the mafia. And Act 3 is an epic conclusion about betrayal and redemption, which speaks for itself. But throughout the duration of the anime, the idea of family and loyalty will always be a consistent theme.
Even though it’s centered primarily around two characters, I felt a good majority of the characters had their own unique presence and contribution, and really made the themes and messages felt realistic and powerful.
What of course also stands out is Brandon’s characterization that comes across as cliché. In the original game, Brandon never speaks, and the anime is very true to this for the most part. Brandon is still quiet in nature, but with little words he says, it still gives a lot of what goes on inside his mind (of course through narration) and you truly see him start from being an innocent boy, to a contemplative man but yet still maintains his unique surface qualities of being quiet, but yet shows enough emotion to give the audience an idea of what goes on through his mind and find a way to relate to him.
And of course another feature with this whole mafia gig are the weird sci-fi elements. I felt it wasn’t really forced in a way that having sci-fi traits seemed out of place. But the nature of the sci-fi is what makes it bizarre, but yet unique and original. I don’t want to get into the details of that since I would also have to reveal spoilers, but it does add a unique kind of flavor that doesn’t turn you off from the series. The sci-fi part is properly introduced but I felt that the setting such as how far in the future it takes place which will be revealed which will conveniently make sense to make it work. Granted the anime will reveal what year in some parts it takes place in that will make it feel like it makes sense, but I think the anime should have established it from the start, and not 2/3 into it.
What also attracted me to Gungrave was the fact that Nightow Yasuhiro, the creator of Trigun, was the creator of this product as well. Obviously, some elements from Trigun are in this anime as well. Such as the design of Brandon’s guns are quite similar to Vash’s, and Brandon’s coffin gun is of course influenced by Wolfwood’s cross gun. But despite having the same creator, there are some distinguishing differences as well.
In Trigun, Nightow-sensei’s style was more kid friendly and generic, while in Gungrave, his style for the character designs are more edgy and mature which perfectly suits the nature of the story. For the most part, despite the time the anime takes place in, the architecture is quite modern. Though as the series progresses, there are vehicular designs that appropriately reflect the scientific and futuristic elements this anime has. And of course, I like how the anime approaches the aging of the characters throughout the duration of this anime, which I can’t ignore. It does it pretty effectively.
And before I get into the action, I’d like to talk about Brandon’s costume design. I must say it is pretty bizarre, but hey, in his situation by then, what the hell, huh? I think it’s still pretty cool, and really matches his artillery in a complimentary way in that sense, I guess. The action is pretty intense as well. For the most part, it’s just gun violence that does get pretty brutal, and does have some martial arts action as well that isn’t really exaggerated until things start to change into the sci-fi part. If you’ve seen Trigun, then you know what to somewhat expect, but this time, the main character will kill.
Even though I always associate Imahori Tsuneo’s name with his use of guitars, which was prevalent in Hajime no Ippo and Trigun, but hearing the way he composes this anime totally changed my opinion of his talent. The guy knows how to create an appropriate atmosphere with the elements this anime has with a sad blues and jazz kind of feel. Along with the presentation of the animation, I thought his music also brought a noir feature this anime has on all acts in this anime whether in the mafia or sci-fi moments so his presence brought an overall appropriate touch to virtually all scenes that had music.
The voice acting in the Japanese version I thought brought the noir feel to the anime as well, and utilizes most of the voice talent from the original game which was in Japanese. I tried watching the English dub, but it didn’t give me what I was feeling in the Japanese version. Personally, I feel overall the dub isn’t worth watching since there was no dub in the game to begin with to give me some expectation of how it could work. If you’re the kind of person that prefers dubs at whatever levels, I still say it’s good enough for you. But if you’re someone who prefers straight up Japanese no matter how good or bad a dub is, I felt the portrayals in Japanese were best. I felt watching it in English just didn’t have the same level of seriousness that the Japanese had and kind of felt more like a dark comedy, which I feel Gungrave isn’t. I really like how in the Japanese version, which was also done in the English version was how they did Harry’s voice throughout the duration it takes place in. In his younger years, he has a voice where he sound really easy going and sarcastic like Spike from Cowboy Bebop, but when he’s old, he’s as evil as Mori in Flame of Recca. And Brandon was appropriately played by a big favorite of mine as you all know, Seki Tomokazu, who is no stranger to playing quiet and somewhat isolated characters such as Miyata in Hajime no Ippo.
Well, all I can say is if I had to put this anime in a nut shell: try to mix Scarface, The Godfather, Versus, the Yakuza PS2 games, Skullman, Cowboy Bebop and Trigun, then you got this anime. Speaking of Versus, I can actually imagine Kitamura Ryuuhei doing a live action version of this movie, and I could imagine the leading role from that movie playing Brandon. I say anybody who likes those animes, games, or movies individually will certainly enjoy Gungrave and you don’t have to be a fan of all of them just to watch it. Heck, anime fans in general who have no experience with what I described or even the original game despite some significant changes will probably love it. As you can tell from this review, I think it tells an excellent story with characters and themes we can all relate to despite its edgy underworld setting.
Throughout the years, Gungrave has become a cult classic within the anime community. It's a title with so much mafioso stylistics, so much grit, so much bravado oozing in every scene, that a panel consisting of Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese would find themselves salivating at the mouth upon viewing it... well at least for the first 15-episodes that is. As for the rest of the show, it all depends on if a Terminator revenge/monster mashup movie hybrid sounds like a good idea to you (I wish I was kidding when I said
that). But I implore you, don't let that deter you from watching this. If you're a fan of mobster flicks, Gungrave offers enough trademark elements of this niche genre to keep even the most jaded of audiences attentive. Watching it for just the relationship dynamic of the show's main characters, Harry and Brandon, is reason enough to give it a chance. And for many, that remained the only reason for why they finished it to begin with. You come for the mobster appeal but stay for their compelling relationship.
It's safe to say, that in order to fully appreciate this title, one must first suspend their disbelief for the supernatural elements that it contains. If you've seen the 1st Berserk adaptation in 1997, then this anime follows a similar pattern in terms of story execution and character interaction. But unlike Berserk, Gungrave is a self-contained story that leaves you with a conclusive ending and not the infamous cliffhanger that the aforementioned is known for. The 1st half of the story functions like a platform buildup of sorts, giving us the proper motivations of the characters, all the while foreshadowing for things to come in the show's 2nd act. Where the show receives most of its accolades is within the buildup itself. Nothing feels like it was just there to steer the plot. We as viewers see the beginning of the "snowball" effect, as it gradually grows into the outcome that befalls both central characters. Anyone familiar with the elements typically associated with mafia flicks, would be aware that the cast is quite extensive. To avoid going for a lengthy period of time highlighting all of them, I'll instead only focus on the two main characters that the narrative centers around, Harry and Brandon.
Harry can be summed up in just two words: ambitious and cutthroat. He's the kind of charismatic guy that always seem to have an appetite for more, which constantly places him and his companions in a "tight squeeze", for the lack of a better term. On the surface, he appears to be just a stud who just wants to have a good time, but as the show progresses, we can see that facade slowly crumbling away, after a series of life-changing decisions pushes the dormant animosity within him. This gradual chain of events that brings upon a change in him, paves the way to explore a multi-layered character with a great deal of depth found within each plunge into his inner psyche. The amount of detail they were able to pull off with such a simplistic ego is quite impressive. A feat in proper characterization that the writers behind the show deserve praise for. He's not a man that's easily pegged with just a singular viewpoint, but rather one that gains dimensions as we gradually see his metamorphosis throughout the narrative.
Brandon, despite being the "short on words" kind of guy, provides a great deal of insight through his narrative role in the show. What he doesn't say in words, he does with his actions. His body language is his way of communication. He too changes as an individual as the story progresses. Although we get nothing from him at face value, the brief monologues and his internal moral strife help establish his characteristics and drive. Brandon isn't as demanding as his counterpart in terms of motivation, instead, all he really wants is the power to protect the ones he loves. He isn't the most compelling individual to follow, but what he lacks in spunk, he more than makes up with heart. His bond with Harry is what drives a majority of the intrigue with him as a person.
Speaking of their bond, Brandon and Harry's relationship is a rare dynamic to pull off correctly. Second only to Guts and Griffith's from Berserk, their relationship with each other is like a dance between ideals. It's handled with such gravitas, that it becomes almost eerily realistic at times. They establish history. A friendship. A rivalry. A love. And eventually, a hatred, all the while feeling the pain of every exchange. A struggle between friends that's grown so close to each other, that their very closeness ends up tearing themselves apart. They share a comradery so tight-knit that it becomes a delicate walk on a tightrope, where the slightest push can become fatal. And it shouldn't have to be stated but that's where the heart of the conflict rises. It's ironic, but in the end, both men became a monster in their own right. This is how you properly execute the "two sides of the same coin" motif.
The rest of the cast is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each character adds a much-needed element to the show. Some becoming the embodiment of a certain theme, such as loyalty, while others become common mobster stereotypes for added flavor. They're nothing incredible on a stand-alone evaluation but becomes the heart of the show when looked at in an overview.
Alright, now that we're done talking about the sentimental stuff, let's talk about all the awesome shit that makes Gungrave, GUNGRAVE!
The anime was made back in 2003-04 and it still blows my mind how pristine it looks even today. You can tell a lot of love and effort went into its inception. From the fluidity of the actions scenes to the detailed art that brings the world to life, Gungrave is an anime that was built to last. But then again, that's to be expected when you have Madhouse at their prime, kicking ass and taking names. Their reputation speaks for itself, with Gungrave being another notch under their belt. The art-style and character designs are very similar to that of Trigun, and to no one's surprise, given that Yasuhiro Nightow is the man responsible for the birth of both series. The art-style draws heavily on western influences and it shines through in every scene.
This anime is chalked full of "rule of cool" and awesome action set pieces. Everything has substance and weight to it, making for an addictive watch. From the over-the-top shoot offs, to the monster battles that takes place, later on, there's never a dull moment to be found. And with a brisk pace that doesn't take any detours, it makes Gungrave into an easy binge-watching experience.
To accompany us on our journey, we're given a very diverse soundtrack, drawing heavy inspiration from jazz, swing, and blues. With guitar pieces that worked in unison with the violin, to the more upbeat heavy base guitar and trumpet, every moment was rich with sound, sucking you into the mood being transmitted on screen. It breathed life into the mobster setting, with the atmosphere and tone needed to sell the experience. With beautiful art, attention to detail and a soundtrack that held its own, Gungrave was a project that delivered on every front.
Be warned, this is a manly man's show that will cause you to grow hair on your chest. Gritty, action-packed and always in motion, this will be a title that I'll remember for years to come. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that it takes a lot of the substance it established and squandered it with the monster mashup during the 2nd half, but I still enjoyed it as a whole. The mobster theme was still there throughout, it just takes a backseat for the 'shoot em up' carnage towards the 2nd half. Thankfully, it offers a great payout with the final handful of episodes. Even when taking the shortcomings into consideration, Gungrave was still a very enjoyable ride.
As a whole, Gungrave was a good show that was hindered from being better. More doesn't necessarily mean better, something the creators of Gungrave seem to have missed. With compelling leads and an inviting mobster setting, Gungrave could have easily been a universal classic, but due to the unneeded supernatural elements, it was knocked off course, having to settle for the cult classic archives instead. Even with all things considered, I still highly recommend this anime to newcomers and veterans alike. It had style, it had charm, but most importantly, it had heart.
I'll make you some recommendations that you can't refuse (sorry couldn't help it lol):
Berserk: The main character relationship are extremely similar in progression and they both start off in relatively grounded setting, before slowly merging towards the supernatural. The biggest difference is the setting itself, but when stripped down to the essentials, they become very compatible.
Trigun: Other than the fact that both were handled by the same person and share similar art design, the 2nd half of Trigun plays out identically to Gungrave. There's more comedy and the content is treated more lighthearted here, but fans of one might enjoy the other.
Black Lagoon: Take out all the character depth and leave all the over-the-top "shoot em up" elements and you'll essentially get this. A more brainless popcorn flick than anything else, if you just want the action of Gungrave then this is the go-to choice. They also play out in a similar setting and contain supernatural elements as well.
Darker than Black: This is a loose recommendation but both contain organized crime syndicates and the main character is also a man of little words. DTB is more of a mystery setup with x-men characters but still one you might find enjoyment out of if you liked Gungrave.
For me this anime, with no exceptions, is the greatest of all time. If you haven't seen this, don't be put off by the fact that it was based on a video game, because this is a unique experience, and something you can't miss.
While the action in the show is plentiful and exhilarating, the action is not the be all and end all for this show. The story is deep and touching. Love, hate, greed, betrayal, it's all there. You will see the entirety of these men's lives from beginning to end. You watch as they go from nobody street thugs to top dogs. And
let me tell you the ending is wonderful. When I say that, I don't mean it's a happy ending, because it isn't. It brings closure. No cliff-hanger. No ending that leaves you with nagging questions of "what just happened?" The ending was so good that I must admit, I did cry a little. Yeah, I know, I'm a guy and I cried.
It's hard to convey the greatness and epic-ness of this anime without telling you too much, so just watch it. You won't be disappointed.
Let me start out by saying this......I'm not into this type of show. I love shoujo anime [and now manga], I also like shounen-ai stuff and I'd say it's pretty much guaranteed that I'll watch just about anything with bishounen. So if someone were to tell me about this show, Gungrave and all I had was his word-of-mouth to go on then I wouldn't have bothered watching it. The only reason I watched it was because they used to play it on Tech TV [now G4] back when they used to be a cool TV station and they played anime on the
weekends @ midnight. I remember they used to play Gad Guard and this other show, Gungrave. Frankly, I was mesmerized by this show...simply because this story was that good. It had me hooked and I watched it religiously every weekend but I never got to see the ending so I bought the series and even one of those giant wall scroll posters, I loved the show that much......this coming from a person that's a self professed yaoi fan-freak that mainly watches shounen-ai and all other shoujo-type anime. So if I can like this show, I don't see how anyone else can't. What's not to like?
I liked the art in general, but I had issues with the overall character design. The guys' bodies were too big, they're always too big...so big that it seems disproportionate to their heads. Big arms, big shoulders, big chests, big ripped abs, stick legs and tiny head. And I'm not talking about the orc-men or whatever they were called no, this is Brandon, this is Harry, this is Blood War, Bungee and the rest. This happens all the time, not only within this series Gungrave—no—this is somewhat of a phenomenon occurring with all of shounen anime in general. But speaking of the orc-men mutants, how is it that they can get all big and mutated, bust out of their shirts bust out of their shoes.....but the pants and belts stay in tact, WTF!!! Other than that I had no issues.
The art was definitely shounen with all the bold, heavy lines and bulky silhouettes but even so there was this hint of a more grown-up aesthetic to the art that speaks out....”This ain't no little boys' cartoon.”
This is one of those shows that will always hold an indelible spot in my mind because of the music they used for the OP and ED. The OP theme is a melody aptly named “The Family”. There's no singing, it's just a jazz-like piece on keyboard [I think] but either way it's very cool sounding and mellow. I also liked the OP sequence that went with it; the gritty filmstrip effect used for the flashback to the days when Harry and Brandon were young but you also say elements to their dark side in the OP as well.
The ED I liked strictly for nostalgic reasons. I wouldn't say it's a spectacular song but it suits the show nonetheless and with the ED sequence with Harry and Brandon running towards the sunset......well, that speaks volumes [since nothing anime is coincidental, they have to plan it before they draw it].
The show was watched in English and they did one helluva job!
The only term I can think of for this show is.....badass! But not just badass, It's Tarantino badass. Scorsese badass! It's a little bit Good Fellas, a little bit Reservoir Dogs, a little bit God-Father. Some people may not see it as such because of the zombies and mutants and whatever but that's only if you allow yourself to become distracted by that. I admit it's pretty hard to ignore a bloated 500 pound helicopter mutant zombie-dude firing skull faced torpedoes out of his big belly, but it's just a fight scene....and a fight scene is just a fight scene. Just like when Uma Thurman went ballistic with her sword against Go-Go Yubari, Lucy Liu and the rest of the Krazy 88 gang in Kill Bill, awesome as it was it was just a fight scene.
The real art is in the storytelling and the flow of the narration. Gungrave starts in the middle, rewinds to the start of everything then goes back to the middle of the action and ends at the climax. It's not nearly as confusing as it sounds, Pulp Fiction was more confusing. With Gungrave, the story may have also been out of sequence but it was very easy to follow. One of the main reasons for it being easy to follow was that it was told from mainly one perspective which was that of Brandon Heat—the main character. Mika, another main character that really doesn't show up till the 2nd half, does the introduction as well as the narration for the latter part of the series.
Brandon Heat is supposed to be all cool with his badass big machine guns a blazing and eye-patch and killer cosplay outfit but the truth is you can't help but feel sympathetic towards the guy. It's like you feel protected with him next to you with his cold stare, quick moves and big guns but also you get the sense that he's this really meek and sensitive guy that's really the one that needs protecting. You just want to reach out and hold him and tell him everything is going to be OK.........well, I guess you can't if you're another guy, but you get the idea. Tho I don't think he's the type to care if the guy is Harry or even Big Daddy....ha-ha, that's the crazy fangirl in me coming out. Not that it would require a great stretch of the imagination, mind you, the devotion Brandon has for Harry [and vice-versa] is pretty legendary.
Harry is as beautiful as Brandon is profound. Harry dazzles with high-wattage smiles, designer suits and fast cars. I love his dark hair, piercing blue eyes and square jawline, the man is a shark....a very beautiful and deadly shark. He's no doubt a ladies-man, but say what you will....a piece of his heart belonged to Brandon, and that's why they held so much sway over each other. I call this “The Straight-Guy Crush Syndrome” it's a phenomenon where two dudes, even tho they are not gay, they kind of hold the other guy's balls in their hands due to unforeseeable emotional reasons, making each guy...the other guy's bitch. That's the long and short of it. Harry and Brandon's relationship with each other.
Gungrave also has one helluva supporting cast, take your pick, there's bound to be a favorite for you in there.
Worth it or NOT?
It goes without saying, if you don't already own it....go out and buy it! If you liked Bebop then you'll like this one too and if you didn't like Bebop.....well, I don't wanna know you!