Background: One of the trends for several decades has been that the wealthy people in society have accumulated riches faster than the rest of us, especially the very poor, have been able to keep up. There are many economic reasons for this but especially in the last several years; the trend seems to have sped up; largely due to the price of energy (gas, electricity, etc.) and all that which depends on it going through the roof. Such a trend has an impact over time on all levels of government and business as influence doesn't come cheaply and those with great wealth always seem to be able to stack the deck in their favor. Anime series that look at this phenomenon or build it into the story as an underlying condition of increasing the odds against a hero are numerous, with a new series factoring it in quite heavily. The first volume of the series is Speed Grapher 1: Limited Edition and here's a look at the show:
Movie: Speed Grapher 1 is a futuristic story about a burnt out photographer named Tatsumi Saiga. Developing a taste for capturing pictures with his keen eye for detail, he has traveled the world seeking the perfect picture. In his travels of the past, he has been a war correspondent and taken pictures that literally transformed the landscape though at great personal cost (as adrenaline junkies often find out too late). A near death war injury addicted him to anti-pain medication and reduced him to a shell of his former self, landing him back in Japan with his wings clipped by authorities. No longer able to travel and coming off like a film noir detective that has seen too much in his limited time on Earth, he sticks to mundane local assignments until he happens to come across a situation that leads him on the trail of a huge conspiracy involving tremendous wealth and power that crosses government and corporate interests. Using all the skills developed in his years, he infiltrates an almost mythical nightspot called simply The Club; a modern day Sodom, as created by a company known as The Tennozu Group, where leaders from all walks of life can have or do anything they like for a price.
Saiga's dilemma comes in when he witnesses something outside of the ordinary, a young girl who is able to endow people with supernatural gifts with something called Euphoria. This power of hers enhances some aspect of the chosen recipient much like that of the mutants of X-Men, with unpredictable results, with the person that being called a Euphoric to designate their newfound status in the club. Only a select few can partake and the ritual involved in this inner sanctum of the group is dangerous with the supernaturally gifted humans then becoming tools of the corporation. Saiga is hunted down by all the resources of the group when he kidnaps, or rescues depending on how you look at it, the girl with the power, a gal named Kagura. She has no knowledge of her gift other than a series of nightmares that she has and her guardians will stop at nothing to get her back into their fold. This forms the basis of the opening four episodes with Saiga inadvertently gifted and forced to fight against other euphorics as he tries to figure out what to do while staying one small step ahead of the Tennozu Group and its minions.
The box cover put it like this: "Tokyo's really let itself go. The poor get poorer, and the rich get their kicks in clandestine pleasure clubs where no desire is too taboo. The decadent criminal underground is the only game in town and life is cheap when paid for in blood money. Burned out ex-war photographer Saiga thought his life couldn't get any more dull...Selling his soul as a tabloid photographer, trading the rush of bullets whizzing past his head for a quick buck. While on one of these paparazzi assignments, Saiga stumbles directly into the ultimate den of vice, where the Goddess is preparing to bestow a dangerous gift upon a willing victim. Running from his enemies and fleeing his own inner demons, Saiga rescues a tragic young girl named Kagura from her own nightmarish life. The girl is full of secrets...secrets possibly even hidden from herself." Without giving away too many spoilers, I had to admit that the show was another excellent beginning to what could turn out to be a fan favorite from Gonzo (with FUNimation Entertainment releasing it here in the USA).
The themes addressed in the show involve all the economic disparities I mentioned in the opener of the review and employed Saiga as a archetype anti-hero who is not only one step ahead of the bad guys but still trying to figure out where he stands on how to proceed. His own morality about saving Kagura at the expense of all those around him is questionable even at the onset and unlike so many in anime, you're never quite sure if he'll continue to do the right thing or simply give in to the overwhelming odds. His flaws make him far more interesting than the ultra pure hero type and his motivations frequently put him at odds with those around him; with no one safe from his enemies far reaching grasp. While a bit cynical in nature, the series managed to capture a decidedly common viewpoint of economic reality in modern day life and transpose it into a future dystopia nearly as well as classics like Blade Runner or Firefly. I truly enjoyed it on several levels and have watched it several times in the last couple of weeks, noting that while the battle sequences seemed a bit ordinary (super human versus super human has been done to death), the rest of the show was really interesting, if a bit risqué for many anime fans (nudity, sexual situations, and other vices that younger audiences should be kept away from). As such, I rated it as Highly Recommended and think an older audience might find it appealing as a combination crime drama and action packed adventure.
Picture: Speed Grapher 1 was presented in anamorphic widescreen color with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 as shot by director Kunihisa Sugishama for Gonzo. The colors were accurate and portrayed the future as a bleak, dark place to be with the exception of the rich tapestry woven in some of the glimpses into the lives of the ultra rich or powerful executives featured in the story. This manner of subtly showing the difference between the classes of people spoke volumes for the kind of quality the show's creators had in mind for the series, marking it as better than average by most standards. The flashbacks used to tell Saiga's past were decidedly different looking too, taking an almost third perspective viewpoint as if by old TV news clips but taken as a whole, it provided a texture missing in most anime series released of late and a nice change of pace.
Sound: The audio was presented with several choices, from the original Japanese 2.0 Dolby Digital track to a corresponding English language dub to an enhanced 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track. The special effects and separation were much better in the 5.1 track, as was the music that sounded like the bass and treble were punched up a bit. The vocals did not show as much improvement and as a guy that leans slightly towards favoring original vocals, I did give the nod to the Japanese voice actors for sounding more fitting for their parts. That said, the English cast were almost all well suited for their roles and natural sounding too, giving anime lovers of both camps (dub fans and sub fans alike) something to appreciate. The English language auditions showed that some care was placed on their selection rather than just go for the same old voices as other companies often seem to provide. The subtitles themselves seemed to vary slightly from the vocals and I think they came off as showing the voice crowd on the dub track taking a few liberties but handling them well enough that I appreciated the nuances offered up.
Extras: The limited edition came in a large box with a hard, clear plastic wrapper enveloping it. The DVD had some trailers and artwork on it, character profiles, as well as clean opening and closing pieces. The DVD was enclosed in a book form that opened up to reveal some really fetching artwork and had some cards with character information on them. Best of all was a small booklet with artwork and more background detail on the story that helped make sense of some of the various details that the story left unexplained.
Final Thoughts: Speed Grapher 1 was set in a future that could happen and addressed a number of concerns that set the stage for the series very nicely. Like Gantz, it was a darker series not appropriate for younger audiences but it had a lot of detailed layers that will give it replay value to those wanting quality series with enough twisted material to satisfy the more perverted out there (without the need for Hentai tentacles raping and pillaging). If the series continues to show this kind of quality throughout the remaining volumes, it'll make a fine addition to the upper echelons of the FUNimation library for most of you. In short, Speed Grapher 1: Limited Edition was a very skillfully made show that will appeal to an older audience but keeps plenty of action and suspense as focal points too. By the end of the first volume, I wanted to know more about Saiga and Kagura's plight, a good sign considering how many weaker releases have come out of late. If you check it out, I doubt you'll be disappointed seeing at how well made this one was but take the time to listen to both the primary vocal tracks and you'll see why I thought it served well to demonstrate the ability of a better dub to shine.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.