About seven years ago SEGA released a shoot 'em up game for the PlayStation 2 entitled Gungrave. The game was successful enough, but wasn't necessarily a breakout success. In Japan it was apparently a big enough hit to warrant some additional exploration of the franchise. A sequel game had been released some time after, but an animated story nestled in between. Released in Japan in 2003, Grungrave is essentially a retelling of the same story of the game, but it's a little more fleshed out. Then again I didn't really play the game for the sake of unfolding the story; I just wanted to shoot things.
The nice thing about Gungrave the anime is that it was produced by Madhouse and was penned by Yousuke Kuroda (whose resume includes Trigun, Tenchi, and Helling). With those two forces being brought together the project looked to be a success. It's worth noting that though the 26 episode series may have taken a little while to get going, it was actually pretty damn good. Several cues were taken from the video game, but for the purposes of the anime they brought some new things to light. The story is a tad more cohesive, but it does still emphasize on flash more than substance at times.
Gungrave starts out in the present day. Well, as present day as you can get in a made up time and place. The show's first episode introduces us to a guy named Brandon Heat, who is a tough as nails assassin hell-bent on revenge. His memory has been shattered, but he protects his friends who happen to be an elderly doctor named Tokioka and a girl known as Mika. They are being attacked by some strange assassins and it seems as though Brandon is the only one who can do anything about them. He's a huge guy with a long coat and hat who uses a pair of guns to do his dirty work with. The story isn't necessarily clear at the beginning, but Brandon also goes by the name Grave and he's basically un-dead. Tokioka brought him back to life and he requires blood transfusions to stay "alive".
After the introductory episode that set up the mystery and gives you nuggets of plot, Gungrave jumped back in time to where it all began. We learn through the episodes that Brandon wasn't always un-dead and see what lead him down the path that got him killed and set him down the road of revenge. What you basically need to know is that Brandon wasn't a very nice guy in his former life. He was part of a syndicate and grew to be one of the organizations top assassins. He built a life out of killing people and was slowly rising to the top of the ladder, so to speak. Joining him in the syndicate was a buddy named Harry who was equally ambitious, but decidedly less honorable. The show takes a few episodes to show their involvement and then it jumps ahead by a number of years.
Through the nature of darkness in humans, Harry eventually decided the best way to get to the top was kill anyone who stood in his way. This included Brandon, and I'm sure you can see where it's headed. The nice thing is that rather than take us through this bit quickly the show really lets the betrayal simmer. You know it's coming, you can see the darkness there, but it doesn't happen until the 14th episode.
It's from this point that the show gets much more interesting with Brandon being brought back from the dead, Harry killing the man at the top of the syndicate, and the two stories converge in a bloodbath and shower of bullets. Sure it's over the top and yeah, it can be a little more brutal than necessary, but Gungrave's story of betrayal and revenge extends beyond what you'd expect from an anime based on a game. There's real emotion here and its hard as nails atmosphere definitely makes an impact.
Whether you played the Gungrave video game or not, the anime is definitely worth checking out. It's a straightforward piece with tough guys, guns, and violence the entire way through, but lurking beneath the surface is a nice amount of depth, a decent story, and solid character development. While I did feel that the pacing wasn't entirely beneficial to the work as a whole, the show has some moments where it really shines. Kuroda's involvement was one of the best things that could have happened for this franchise and Madhouse did one heck of a job on the production details. Consider it recommended.
Gungrave is presented on DVD with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and has been enhanced for anamorphic widescreen. With regards to the design the show is simply a sight to behold. Each character is quite dynamic looking, and though the animation isn't as fluid as it could have been it's no slouch either. Technically speaking the show manages to look pretty good as well. The image contains only light amounts of grain in parts and there're hardly any compression artifacts to speak of. There's also no interlacing or aliasing to mar the presentation either. All throughout the picture is crisp, the colors are vibrant, and the show moves at a decent clip.
The audio for Gugrave is actually quite impressive. Sure the dialogue may leave something to be desired at times (both the English and the Japanese), but the music and sound effects are absolutely outstanding. As far as how the show is presented you can expect a Japanese 2.0 selection as the base option, but there's also English 5.1 and Japanese DTS 5.1 tracks available as well. It's a nice upgrade, especially with regards to the Japanese language which typically doesn't go beyond the realm of 2.0. The English and Japanese 5.1 offerings were a step above the 2.0, though from an immersive standpoint I felt the English track was the better of the two. Both tracks used the soundstage intuitively enough, but the English one packed a little more wallop.
Some promotional videos for the show, clean animations, trailers, and an art gallery are all you're going to find on this release for bonus features. It's a decent amount of inclusions and since it's a Geneon release I'm actually kind of surprised even those were kept.
I absolutely love how FUNimation has been picking up the pieces left by Geneon and ADV. So many titles that would have otherwise been lost in obscurity, or to be found in bargain bins, have been rescued. In the case of Gungrave this is a great service! The 26 episode show is a step above what you'd expect a video-game-to-anime endeavor to be. The story, though sloppy at times, is quite meaty, the characters are interesting, and the action is pretty slick. It's not the greatest show out there, and it's definitely something of a guilty pleasure, but it's solid enough entertainment to warrant a recommendation. If you missed it the first time around definitely give this one a shot.
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