Background: Anime is replete with super powered humans fighting one another over various objects or for causes they believe in but sometimes a series happens to hit a nerve in how it deals with the larger issues presented. One such series is Speed Grapher; tentatively a series about a reporter trying to stay one step ahead of the mob but on a larger scale it is certainly a metaphor for the kind of corrupt governments we all must deal with from time to time as industry and special interests take hold of the powers that be to push the concept of greater good to a third hand status by our elected officials. Today's review of the fifth volume of the series, Speed Grapher: V5 Ltd Ed, pushes the characters even further into their dark and dreary worlds, providing a glimpse of a future where things aren't always what they seem.
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 17) The Reaper and the Nouveau Riche, 18) Fates and Fists, 19) Lips and Lies, and 20) Good Vibrations. Much of this volume deals with the evil Suitengu; up until now, the driving force behind the troubles Saiga and Kagura have faced. As the series continues, he has gone from mere minion that took care of the dirty work to the force behind the financial throne to now a questionable leader at that. Is he the one pulling all the strings or does he serve yet another master? The last few volumes provided information for both arguments as he acquiesced to some big wigs, deferring to them as they barked out orders but he clearly has a major stake in the matter that alludes to him playing them as well. Seeing his youthful memories that led up to his infected status and operational control of the Tennozu Group, the memories that helped shape him into becoming that which he hated most in life, was one of the most interesting episodes to date; even without the usual battle of the Euphorics that has populated most such quality episodes to date.
The dynamic once again revolves around Saiga trying to rescue Kagura but this time he is presented with a choice from an outsider to join a rival political faction in order to see the empires tied to the madness crumble, a mighty tempting offer but one that will preclude him from being able to personally vouch for her safety. Who does he trust and what will be the consequences powers the remaining portion of the volume as friends and foes alike betray one another in an effort to stem the tide of growing madness linked back to the schemes from previous episodes that involve using Kagura's abilities to impact the entire city, if not nation. While it sounds like pretty heady stuff (and it is), the focus was always on the lower end of the totem pole; that of Saiga and his antagonists who will be reaching their final conflict in the next volume of the series. Thematically, there were some choices that seemed out of character and plot holes in great need of repair so I rated it as Recommended but if you've come this far, the series is a must have in terms of finishing up what was started.
Picture: Speed Grapher V5 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 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 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 due to the series they've released and the manner in which they've done so).
Final Thoughts: Speed Grapher V5 offered up a lot of food for thought. While I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories or stories centering on them, the fact was that the tight thriller portions of the series have surpassed the fighting parts of the show as being more important to the evolution of the characters; characters that grow with experience like real people do. The conclusion should take place in the next volume but the way things were set up here, it was clear that the writers and director were making pointed statements about current politics in Japan (and elsewhere) as well as the economic engines that drive them and much of society. If you look past the supernatural portions of the series then, you'll see what amounts to an allegory about corruption and corporations, one in which many of us might feel somewhat dirty given our own involvement in them but with a redeeming note as well.
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, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.