Background: Some of the best anime being made in Japan is the result of a small company named Gonzo, and is domestically released in the USA thanks to FUNimation. This isn't just my opinion but only a handful of companies seem to work so well together and it keeps me on the lookout for whatever they offer up. Well, one of their best efforts to date for me is the Speedgrapher series; having seen what it can offer with Speed Grapher 1, Speed Grapher 2 and Speed Grapher 3. 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 V4: 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 & third 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 then added in 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 in order to further his private scheming). Once each party had what it wanted though, they immediately returned to doing exactly what they planned (double cross each other) and the series dynamic returned to the plot of Saiga trying to stay alive while almost everyone else sought to deny him that privilege. As with most single season series, this was where the background of the plot was looked into with greatest depth, detailing the past extensively in order to set up the second half of the series.
The episodes this time were 13) Ginza the Lawless, 14) The Wedding Photographer, 15) Hell is a Wet Woman, and 16) Audit the Wicked. Picking up the action from where Speed Grapher 3 left off, Saiga is on the mend but still determined to rescue Kagura from the clutches of Ginza. He breaks out of jail using his power, and gets some answers about what happened to his DNA from his doctor friend, finding out that the blessing also carries a curse (specific to each power). Knowing the consequences of leaving the medical facility and playing it safe, he sets out anew to rescue the girl from a marriage happy Ginza determined to make all the assets of the financial empire his own. Other players in the intrigue only suspect a double cross in the slightest of ways but some surprise news on the part of his underlings shows that his plans may have developed other snags too. Saiga crashes the wedding by playing, of all things, a wedding photographer and the chase is back on when he finds Kagura. In the interim, almost everyone associated with the plot tries to end Saiga's attempt and the road is not the least of places where the chase continues. There were major revelations in regards to the origins of the retro-virus, Kagura's abilities, and even a connection between Saiga and Ginza, each of which will presumably be played out in the next few volumes of this really well handled series.
Speed Grapher V4: Limited Edition was a case where more of the pieces fell into place without jumping the shark. I thought it was worth a Highly Recommended thanks to all the limited edition had to offer in terms of replay value, excitement, and the story arcs converging so nicely. The look of the anime style employed wasn't always my favorite but the rest of the show and the extras helped make it one worthy of greater attention by fans of super powered beings struggling against one another for the prize of power, wealth, and glory. Give it a look from the beginning chapters of Speed Grapher 1 and you'll find the series is a cut above most of the competition for your entertainment dollars.
Picture: Speed Grapher V4 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 later volumes 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 initial volumes 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 V4 expanded upon the setting of Speed Grapher 1, Speed Grapher 2, and Speed Grapher 3 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 subtle changes in how the main players worked their respective talents on one another 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. The fact that Saiga is now fully cognizant that he's risking something of tremendous value (his eyesight) to continue protecting his youthful charge only raises the stakes for him. The fact that Ginza is also solely dependent on the girl to see his deadly scheme come into fruition also makes her pivotal in regards to the lives of all concerned. In that sense then, Speed Grapher V4: 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 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.