Background: As election time draws near in most of the USA, a lot of people are listening to the same old tired rhetoric about class struggles, poor distribution of wealth & resources, and the varied political scandals. 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 1 and Speed Grapher 2. 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. One man takes a stand in order to do the right thing and is hunted down as a result, forming the basis for the series so here's a look at Speed Grapher V3: Limited Edition after a brief recap of the events that led up to the episodes it contained:
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 with the classification as "Euphorics" (people enhanced by a retroactive virus that accelerates development in a chosen area or specialty). 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.
The theme continued in the second volume as the pair was chased all across Japan, barely staying one step ahead of the forces trying to take them back. Each episode showed them seeking some answers to various questions centering on Kagura's mysterious past, using Saiga's intuitive knack for uncovering the truth (an element overlooked by most as his "eye" for the perfect shot also translates into an eye for the truth in general, assisting them in their quest). The series continues with Speed Grapher V3: Limited Edition adding a few new elements into the chase, Saiga's love interest, Hibari Ginza, and the second in command of the The Tennozu Group, Suitengu; both using the hunt as an opportunity to gain something of value they want (she wanted Saiga alive to remain as her decadent plaything while he wanted the good graces of his mistress, Shinsen Tennozu.
The episodes this time were 9) Into The Bath, 10) Suitengu Cometh, 11) Mother Critical, and 12) Left Hand Lullaby. Picking up the chase from where Speed Grapher 2 left off, Saiga and Kagura happen upon a bath house (the Japanese are big on long, steamy baths; sounds good to me) that provides some clues to Kagura's past. Into the Bath is what many in anime expect in most series, the visit to a spa, but it also branches out into two main storylines; one discussing Kagura's past and the other detailing Suitengu's past. The revelations of both propel the story forward and fill in a lot of previously missed details, including the nature of the genetic research that led to the gifts Kagura and Saiga possessed (not to mention Suitengu). Ginza and Suitengu join the hunt from two separate angles; each hoping to be first at finding the missing duo, proving that the two are extremely close in terms of how they see things even as they are shown to be flip sides of the same coin. Making a deal that ultimately proves to save and endanger Saiga, Ginza uses her human gifts to fight the forces of the Tennozu Group when they try and renege with the more powerful nature of Suitengu (and why everyone fears him) finally being displayed in a huge battle. The episodes close out with Suitengu confronting Shinsen about their impending nuptials, with some tricky at hand by both of them (classic stuff too).
Once again, the show provided more depth then your typical "super powered humans fighting" show, providing the kind of scheming, plotting, and twists that better anime is known for. There were some clunker moments to be had but this was probably the most descriptive of the volumes released to date with the secrets of the cast being largely uncovered (much like most shows wait until the remaining episode or two to provide in fact). There still seems to be a lot of ground left to cover as new secrets about limits, the past, and other areas that were only touched on come about but that's to the credit of the original director and writers of the show. I'm going to rate this one as Recommended though taken as a whole; the series is one of my favorite of the year by a wide margin. I can't wait to see what lies in store for the cast of characters, with more betrayal definitely in the works.
Picture: Speed Grapher V3 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 third volume is that it uses the flashbacks better (compared to the original volume) and didn't need to rely strictly on the running narrative as the second volume tended to do.
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: Once again, the voice actor auditions were present and there were a few moments when the director seemed to be figuring out where he wanted them to go with their impressions. This adds to the manner in which you might look at the show (in a limited fashion) if you're a dub fan. The liberties taken were not extensive but they did add a slight bit of flavor to the dub, making it worth checking out for all but the most closed minded snobs. The DVD also had some trailers and artwork on it, character profiles, as well as clean opening and closing pieces. Okay, the Limited Edition had a cardboard protective sleeve, a fold out accordion style case, three character trading cards, and a 12 page booklet that showed artwork, more in-depth character descriptions, and that's about it. If you find the price of this edition to be really, really close to the regular edition; by all means pick it up but the difference was nowhere near the same as for some of the other Gonzo productions released by FUNimation (which has recently surpassed my hometown company ADV as my favorite anime producer here in Texas).
Final Thoughts: Speed Grapher V3 expanded upon the setting of Speed Grapher 1 and Speed Grapher 2 to provide another set of roller coaster rides with the cast, even providing some surprises as the typical themes of the good guys escaping were cut short (and by another one of the alleged protagonists). The meeting between Ginza and Lady Tennozu was far too short for my tastes but provided the perfect example of why the series has been so successful at capturing solid drama and the kind of bravado you'd hope for in a Gonzo-produced title. In that sense then, Speed Grapher V3: Limited Edition was well worth your time and money, especially if you've followed from the beginning, though newcomers will definitely want to watch the previous volumes first to keep track of all that has happened.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk'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.