Reviewby Zac Bertschy, Jul 6th 2006
In a dystopian Tokyo where the poor are crushed beneath the overwhelming power of the rich, former war photographer Saiga finds himself embroiled in the machinations of a secret underground society that runs the Roppongi Club, an organization that allows the mega-rich to satisfy their darkest needs. When confronted with the club's "Divine Goddess", a sad and absued young girl named Kagura whose kiss grants supernatural powers, Saiga naps a photo - and is immediately accosted by the guards. Just as he's about to die, Kagura's unexpected kiss changes Saiga's life forever, granting him the ability to destroy anything he photographs. What is the secret behind the Roppongi club? What is the source of Kagura's power? Saiga's journey to the heart of the underworld has only just begun...
It's always a little sad when a potentially cool concept is brought to its knees due to sloppy execution. Speed Grapher, Gonzo's latest attempt at a show aimed exclusively at adults, starts out with what might have been a cool idea – a gruff photographer infiltrates the core of a corrupt high society – and quickly veers into being an exercise in over-the-top silliness that's impossible to take seriously even though clearly the show is asking you to do just that.
Watching the storyline unfold in the first four episodes included on this disc is an interesting experience; your eyes will have slowly rolled all the way back into your head by the time the fourth episode ends. Here's the story so far: in a corrupt, dystopian future Tokyo, tough guy photographer Saiga infiltrates a secret underground club where the richest of the rich can satisfy their most dangerous desires for an astronomical price.
Sounds pretty cool, right?
Saiga stumbles upon a secret VIP ceremony (inside the secret VIP club so you know this must be extra secret) wherein a beautiful young girl named Kagura (referred to by club members as “The Divine Goddess”) descends from the ceiling in a Cirque-du-Soleil costume and French kisses someone, granting them the power of “Euphorics”, or super powers.
Now it's getting a little silly…
Saiga takes a photo during the ceremony (with no attempt at all to be stealthy about it whatsoever) and gets caught by Suitengu, the leader of an underground counterfeit money operation and the chief operator inside the club, who quickly orders Saiga's death. Just as he's nearly sliced to pieces by the club's guards, Kagura kisses Saiga instead (jamming her tongue down his throat, no less) and grants him the super power of being able to blow stuff up by taking a photo of it. Oh, also, his body heals itself much faster.
The rest of the volume includes a whole lot of sex (and boy, do we mean it! There sure is a lot of sex!), violence, ridiculous dialogue and a guy who wears a little leather nose cozy. If you think this all sounds totally silly, you'd be right. It is virtually impossible to take this show as seriously as it takes itself.
Ultimately, however strange the story might be, there are other problems with Speed Grapher that tear down an already questionable premise. The biggest and most obvious is that the show is trying extremely hard to be edgy and winds up being lame; by cramming in as much extreme violence, disturbing situations and sex (did we mention sex? There's a lot of sex in this show, by the way!) in every episode, it winds up becoming an unintentional self-parody. There's nothing wrong with using sex and violence to tell a story, but in Speed Grapher these elements are used with virtually no sophistication whatsoever; they're simply tossed into the story, sometimes in very contrived ways and always in an exploitative manner. This show might be “adult”, but it is most certainly not mature.
The production values are the other big thing crippling this series. Gonzo used to be synonymous with “quality”, and when they released a new series, we could all expect top-notch animation; nowadays they seem to be synonymous with “the first episode looks pretty good and then after that it looks like they handed production over to Mrs. Hansen's third grade art class”. The animation in Speed Grapher is, for very brief moments, very fluid and graceful, but for the most part, it's crude, stiff and poorly executed. There are moments – especially when cars are involved – when this show looks like an amateur production. It doesn't help that the character designs are a little too ambitious for the budget they had; character animation is frequently distractingly bad.
It isn't just the animation bringing Speed Grapher down, either; surprisingly, the show also has some really strange problems with editing and pacing. Chase scenes are cut in a very odd manner that saps all the energy out of them and the show changes its tone at the turn of a dime and without any grace. There's very little finesse to it, which is especially bizarre given that the show was directed by industry veteran Kunihisa Sugishima (although he also directed Tekken: The Movie so maybe this isn't so surprising after all).
In spite of all these problems – and this is a very problematic show – Speed Grapher just might entertain you. Although I had a lot of issues with it, I was never bored and the strangeness of the story compelled me to find out what the hell was going to happen next. It's entirely possible that this series will overcome its shaky initial outing and become something more than what it promises to be, which is at best a guilty pleasure and at worst an amateurish, almost pornographic misfire. The dub is another saving grace – seasoned veterans Christopher Sabat and Monica Rial do the best they can with frequently laughable dialogue and the supporting cast (peppered with favorites like Greg Ayres) also does an admirable job. The Japanese track isn't bad but the English dub, regardless of a few questionable line readings, makes the show a little more watchable and a little more fun.
It's impossible to recommend purchasing this show (although the limited edition collector's box is one of the most gorgeous pieces Funimation has ever released), but you may want to give it a rental and see if the bizarre and unpredictable story is enough to keep you watching. It's certainly not for everyone and anyone with an eye for quality will see the countless mistakes in this production, but the over-the-top ridiculousness of the story might just keep you coming back.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : D
Art : B
Music : C
+ It's so crazy it just might work for you.
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