Nov 9, 2018
papsoshea (All reviews)
An Ergastulum was a building in ancient Rome, they were designed as prisons to hold in chains dangerous slaves, or punish them. They were essentially subsurface pits built deeply into the ground—large enough to allow the slaves to work within it and containing narrow spaces in which they slept. Must’ve been one hell of a place to survive in. Based on Kohske’s manga, Gangsta shows you a different Ergastulum, it’s the name of an actual city, one devoid of law. The mafia runs the city with an iron fist, it’s a dog eat dog world, a city where the living and death interact and sex, money, drugs and violence are the necessary evils to survive. Its survival of the fittest and while not exactly a prison, it might as well be with the philosophical governing to the likes of the movie, ‘I-Robot’. It’s gritty, ugly, rough, graphic in detail and downright bleak and it's fascinating to watch all those who thrive within.

Gangsta tells the complex and grief-filled story of gangsters, or rather, the ‘Handymen’, two men-for-hire who take on various jobs from citizens and criminal organisations in the fictional city of Ergastulum, like body-guarding, money-collection and home repairs. The city takes a close representation of Italy during the mafia era, except it is governed in the background by the ‘Four Fathers’—3 mafia families and a mercenary guild. Thieves, drugs, prostitutes, shady doctors and corrupted cops are plot essentials and as the series unfolds, so does the mystery that surrounds the creation of Ergastulum. Our main protagonists, Worick Arcangelo and Nicolas Brown are neutral contractors who stay out of underworld politics so they can be called upon by anyone who can pay. While seemingly amoral, the pair saves a prostitute named Alex Benedetto from her abusive pimp and give her a place to stay, and as an outsider, Alex acts as the audience’s fresh perspective into the Handymen’s grim and terrifying day-to-day lives, where murder is graphically and unapologetically portrayed.

After an unspecified war in the early 20th century, many soldiers came back to Ergastulum dependent on a weaponised drug called ‘Celebrer’ and their children were born with its debilitating effects. They were given the label ‘Twilights’, these offspring are capable of superhuman strength and are exploited by criminal gangs as slaves, who openly fight and kill each other in the back streets without fear of prosecution. Twilights are heavily discriminated against, so they are tagged by the government to keep track of them to keep them in line. Many ‘Tags’ opt to work for Ergastulum’s mafia families regardless and as a result, the show features some bloody massacres by criminal Twilights who carry out hits against ‘Normals’ and often times have high-intensity battles against their own, sizing each other up based on the rank displayed on the tags they wear which are based on strength. Many are essentially slaves, unable to escape the city, its crime or its vices. However, the balance is upheld by the Four Fathers and the 3 laws are imposed on the Twilights—Never take action against a Normal, obey your master and defend yourself if it does not conflict with the first two rules. With such a show which depicts superhuman abilities, the effects of evolution would eventually come into play. Those that use Celebrer have a shortened lifespan to compensate for their abilities.

While Gangsta mostly focuses on the day-to-day lives and the pasts of our main protagonists, each episode gradually explores the underlying tension between the four criminal families of Ergastulum and the Twilights which eventually culminates in an all-out gang war with Nick and Worick caught in the middle of it. While Alex is first terrified of her saviours, we get to see the terrible ordeals both Handymen went through and how their work ultimately aims to rid the city of its worst so the few good souls they care about can live without fear. Thankfully, while mostly a serious show, there is a splash of humour and light-hearted moments every so often which makes the cast more endearing, although in saying that, these moments never betray the dark and gritty atmosphere. Gangsta’s mystery surrounding its characters is built up slowly to give enough time for each character’s pasts to be explored and explained. Worick is the face of the Handymen and the most visible protagonist; a smooth-talking one-eyed businessman with an easy-going nature that masks his darker tendencies, and his immunity to violence ends up a lot more understandable once the audience gets to learn his past as an abused illegitimate mafia child.

Alex is a sweet young woman seemingly caught up in trafficking exploitation and trapped in Ergastulum who becomes a whole lot more saddening once her withdrawals are exposed. Nicolas is a silent and menacing Tag who also happens to be deaf and Celebrer-dependent, acting as the muscle but gradually revealed to be far more than just another soulless murderer. Nick is easily the highlight of the show and it is rare to see a character in anime with a disability (deaf), yet the writing and voice actors (both sub and dub) do a great job of treating it with respect while making it an integral part of his character, rather than a gimmick existing solely for spectacle. Much of the narrative in Gangsta is conveyed via out-of-order flashbacks which require your full attention to get the most out of it and understand the underworld politics engulfing their city. You’ll be treated to some of the most satisfying fight scenes and faction face-offs in recent years, thanks to the violence-laden nature of Ergastulum and its sick past. Nicolas is featured in the majority of these combat scenes as a troubled Twilight himself, though thanks to his deafness and continued abuse of Celebrer to numb his pain, is relatively unique in his menace as most other Tags and Normals don’t know what to do with him.

The art and animation in Gangsta which is done by Manglobe are spectacular! Character designs of our featured trio are very distinctive, they look like people who have gone through a lot of life’s darkest paths. Also liked how they have different clothes for different episodes, it’s always a welcomed concept. The colour palette is dark, drab and shadowy with muted hues of the sprawling Ergastulum, allowing the copious amounts of crimson blood and rare instances of colour shown to stand out fantastically in action sequences—which are fast and furious with amazing choreography. Very fluid with the great use of camera angles and Matrix-like slo-mo bullet time effects. The moody soundtrack was done by Tsutchie (Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop), whether it’s a quiet conversation or tense stand-off, also fit the gritty tone of the show perfectly. A mixture of sorts with techno, drum ‘n’ bass and jazzy beats. Voice acting has solid performances all around. Opening and Ending are incredibly great with "Renegade" by STEREO DIVE FOUNDATION, is an epic upbeat dubstep track while, Yoru no Kuni by Annabel, is an emotional ballad about hope and looking towards the future. Both feel interconnected, and the lyrics fit very well to the storyline.

Gangsta is raw in all its depiction, realistically showing you the underbelly of the criminal world and a dysfunctional society. It handles most themes successfully by tackling these societal problems in a mature way, giving you a different perspective from the victim’s point of view. We all understand that the actions shown throughout the series are looked down upon, but yet, when it confronts us upfront, emotions are left stirred and disrupted in an uncomfortable manner and it's relentlessly brutal in its attack on your moral compass. It’s a great action seinen that evokes plenty of emotion. It’s a character-driven story with an equally compelling plot that has high style and great substance moulded together, although it is held back from being one of the greats by an abrupt ending. During production, Manglobe filed for bankruptcy which sucks. Because of this unfortunate event, there isn’t a true ending and we can only hope that one day we can see a continuation from a different studio. It deserves a much better legacy.