Background: If you've followed trends for any length of time, it always seems to be that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer (at least as we tend to perceive things). There are economic reasons for this phenomenon (primarily that the poor and lower middle class tend to need most of their available resources to survive while those of means tend to have money to invest) but art imitates life and so I took a look at a show about the near future setting of Speed Grapher earlier this month. The show struck a chord in me as being somewhat adult in nature (the graphic violence and nudity being the major reasons why) but the trimmings aside, the thematic elements were even more mature of a society where war has forced the merging of corporate and governmental interests to the point that the inevitable corruption sets in. with that said, here's a look at Speed Grapher V2 after a brief recap.
Series: Speed Grapher 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 formed the basis of the opening four episodes with Saiga inadvertently gifted and forced to fight against other euphorics as he tried to figure out what to do while staying one small step ahead of the Tennozu Group and its minions.
Speed Grapher V1 established the general parameters of the world in which the characters lived and their basic situation of being hunted down by the wealthy, and quite evil, forces of the Tennozu Group. Without Kagura, they had no way of selling the gifts she could bestow but there appeared to be more to it than that as well. The episodes in the second volume were 5) Whore of Diamonds, 6) Out of Focus, 7) The Big Picture, and 8) Dentophobia. Initially, the emphasis was on another euphoric brought in to assist on his capture; a woman whose love of diamonds has been taken to the extreme (as with all the euphorics, her fetish has been greatly amplified, in her case to being able to become a large diamond herself). The gangsters scour the city for the pair as they continue to run and Saiga's twisted past assists him in staying just out of harm's reach by staying in a friend's cabaret where the gender confused entertain the masses in a rundown part of town.
Needless to say, when a euphoric with an enhanced sense of smell ferrets out their location, the ensuing battle with the diamond eating lunatic rages on with Saiga unable to "take his shot" due to her transparent nature. One thing leads to another and after she captures his young charge, Saiga comes to an arrangement with the mob to get her back on his terms, lest they become immortalized by one of his pictures. The result ends with the duo on the run again but this time to find out more about their physical condition with the assistance of an old doctor friend of Saiga who runs some tests on both of them. The results are shocking but so are the exposition portions of the show that give more detail about the motivations of the criminals, as well as their own time constraints to get her back in time. The second arc of the volume deals with another showdown, this time by a guy patterned after a few dentists I've been to in my time, though slightly driven mad by his love of causing pain (hmmm, maybe the writers really did meet a couple of my former dentists) and his own enhancement to that effect.
Without going into too many spoilers, Saiga is confronted by the mortality of their situation as his kinky cop pal tries to track them down while battling the bureaucracy so tainted by the money the syndicate provides. It was much like many other series of the protagonists being hunted down by the bad guys but the twists provided went beyond the obvious super natural powers and thematically worked better than average. I'm going to rate the regular version of the volume as Recommended, less because it wasn't as flashy as the original volume than because it relied so heavily on clichés and storylines that had huge, gaping plot holes, but it was still a pretty interesting story to watch unfold ands many shows made by Gonzo and distributed by FUNimation have been.
Picture: Speed Grapher V2 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. The benefit of this second volume is that it largely dispenses with the flashbacks compared to the original volume although some background of the characters necessitated their use from time to time (not just with leads Saiga or Kagura either).
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. The original release didn't happen to have the Duran Duran song Girls on Film (music changes in anime much like other shows) but it still came across as pretty good.
Extras: The best extra was kind of unexpected but dealt with the two Blevin brothers and the voice auditioning that took place for the series. The DVD also had some trailers and artwork on it, character profiles, as well as clean opening and closing pieces. If I get a copy of the Limited Edition box, I'll update the review with whatever it had extra.
Final Thoughts: Speed Grapher V2 furthered the adventures of Saiga and Kagura as they ran from a singularly powerful criminal group with ties to all levels of society. It was interesting to see the kinds of extrapolations made in the sense of the corporate and governmental ties (like the performing art ties shown in Speed Grapher V1). Still, the hope is kept alive when it becomes apparent that not everyone has sold their souls to the big money interests, providing the thread of salvation from those the photographer has helped in the past returning the favor even in light of the terrible danger doing so puts them in. In short, Speed Grapher V2 is full of graphic violence and pays a lot of attention to the mature sexuality themes much like the first volume in the series did but it was never gratuitous and furthered the plot as the chase continued.
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.