Trust, honor, family and above all else, loyalty.
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.