The Summer 2015 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Community score: 4.1
For a show that's about two guys in suits mincing up gangsters with guns and katanas, GANGSTA is a surprisingly slow-burning production. I initially just took this as poor pacing - this first episode, that introduces our two “Handymen” Worick and Nicolas as they're employed to wipe out an upstart mob leader and are joined by the former prostitute Alex, moves very slowly from scene to scene, and early on, this doesn't necessarily work to the show's benefit. GANGSTA starts off feeling like a mishmash, a bit of Cowboy Bebop style and Black Lagoon scenario attached to generic mafioso plot variables. Exchanges like “who was it?” “some upstart outfit that's been up to no good around here lately” don't really help that impression (also, the city's mob bosses meet in a club literally called “Bastard”), and in fact, the writing feels fairly boilerplate crime-drama all the way through.
But the show comes together. A lot of that comes down to the details; the setting starts off feeling generic, and the mess of alleys that constitute its world don't really allow for much sense of place or scale, but bits of intrigue like Nicolas being a “Tag” offer hints of larger ideas to come. Additionally, while the big massacre that forms the last act of this episode doesn't feature much interesting fight choreography, the direction is excellent. Nicolas, the tag-bearing swordsman, is deaf, and when the grubby crime lord starts to plead for his life, the music fades to a dull rumble, placing us smartly in Nicolas’ head before Worick fires a gun over his shoulder. The show leans smartly and rewardingly into Nicolas’ disability, featuring many scenes of him and Worick interacting in all sorts of non-verbal ways, a lot of actual sign language, and even one scene where Nicolas uses his rough vocal cadence to great dramatic effect intimidating a police officer.
GANGSTA is also bolstered by distinctive, full-bodied character designs and a jazzy soundtrack that matches the laid-back pacing of the show. Canned writing aside, it's definitely going for a specific mood, and hitting it more often than not. Overall, while I wasn't totally hooked by this episode, I was impressed enough by its best variables that I'm on board to see where it goes next. Hopefully the show will continue to gain personality over time, separating itself from its stylistic predecessors and maybe gaining some energy in the process. There's enough good here that this is a show I'd like to see do well.
Gangsta. is currently streaming on Funimation.com.
Back when the announcement was made that the manga Gangsta. would get an anime adaptation, I was of two minds. One part of me was thrilled that the series was popular enough to merit such attention, but the rest of me was not entirely convinced that it was possible to do the series justice in anime format. This episode laid those fears largely to rest, and in fact I rather think that the addition of color helps to convey the down-and-out grit of the city of Ergastulum.
The episode basically starts the story in media res, throwing us into the slum city world where Worick and Nicholas work as “The Handymen.” They're less the guys you call when you need your porch railing replaced and more who you call when you need drug-dealing pimps removed from your backyard. The story's world has a feeling of the mid-1980s in terms of style and technology; the only telephone we see is an old rotary desk model. Both men have been keeping an eye on a young prostitute from their window (Nicholas is perhaps watching a little more closely), and it is their rescue of her that forms the backbone of this introduction, showing us that despite Worick's nonchalance and Nic's ability to be brutal, these guys are very human, with all the requisite feelings.
This is probably the most adult anime we've seen in a while, and not in terms of the violence, age of the characters, or sexuality. The story in this episode doesn't go in for schlock, keeping things more realistic (for anime) and treating its characters like real people rather than stereotypes, although of course that can't be fully avoided. Alex is a prostitute and she hates it; no jokes are made at her expense. The squeamish may want to know that we do see the end of one of her business transactions, but this is more remarkable for the way that she has basically a non-reaction to the revelation that Worick saw the whole thing, solidifying the fact that sex is a job for her. Nicholas is one of the few Deaf people to take a lead role in anime or manga, and he is handled with respect; he may not hear the phone ringing, but he can read lips, speak sign language (JSL not ASL, so it might not look familiar), and speak when he needs to. His speech is garbled and slurred, which is a good touch, and subtitles are provided in Japanese when he does. The story itself is also so gritty that you could spread it on your walkway in winter and has a supernatural/science fiction element that is only hinted at in this episode, the idea of “Tags.” We know that Nic has dog tags around his neck and incredible strength, but that's it at this point. That feels like the lead in to the rest of the show, along with the guys' odd relationship with the local police.
While Gangsta.'s chief appeal may simply be in being different from everything else, it also is interesting in its own right. Set in a city that has more than its fair share of problems and peopled with a group of characters we don't normally see in the “protagonist” role, as well as claiming good source material, this is worth checking out. The episode may start out feeling all over the place, but by the end it proves that it can tell a story we don't always get to see.
The unfortunately-named city of Ergastulum is under the direct control of a group of rival gangs. There are very strict rules about who can do business where, and the cops are in on it all. Two partners – eyepatch-wearing Worick and the silent but deadly Nicolas – work as an undercover cleanup crew for the police or anyone else who'll pay them to take a job. Captain Chad, grizzled cop, gives the boys an assignment: slaughter the gang of Barry Abbott, who's been caught beating a prostitute that Worick and Nicolas have taken a liking to. It's all in a day's work for these two hardened but lovable killers for hire, doing business on the mean streets.
The premise of this show initially had me interested – they lifted the Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare characters straight out of the Coen Bros. classic Fargo and put them into a mob war, but the execution in Gangsta. is so poor it turned me off almost immediately. Manglobe's animation suffers the entire way through, even in the opening animation – everyone's off model all the time, wide shots look really poor and there are frames where the artistry is so bad it's kind of laughable. There's no energy in the direction and the show feels like it doesn't care if any of this is engaging you or not; it just presents the scenario, introduces its two leads, sits you down inside this inert box of drab browns and greys and then proceeds to not entertain you for 22 minutes. The silent guy provides all of the show's mystery - he's referred to as a "dogtag" and everyone in the show is terrified of him on sight, but they already pulled every character turn this particular archetype has ever had in fiction right here in the first episode (seriously, we get "he's secretly a real softie!", "you think he's silent because he never speaks and can use sign language, but he actually CAN talk!" and "he's an unstoppable badass in combat and uses a sword instead of guns!" all just in this episode) so there weren't any character surprises to be had, either. There's a little promise in the material, but the execution is pure mediocrity verging on downright bad. This first episode killed any interest I might've had in this show. Oh well.
Review: So why is there a random period at the end of this series' title?
That aside, this adaptation of a 2011-originating manga was one of the most hotly-anticipated series of the Summer 2015 season, and exactly why is not hard to understand: it is a stylish, gritty, violent tale about the underworld of a fictional but implied-to-be-European city and the two Handymen who perform sometimes-messy odd jobs there in order to make a living. It has drugs, prostitutes, mafia bosses, guns, swords, sex, and violence – plenty of bloody violence, and extreme enough that Funimation's stream is slightly censored. Numerous other anime series have aimed for this kind of feel over the years, but the only other one which nailed it as well as this one does is a series that I consider to be top pure action title of the 2000s: Black Lagoon.
And yes, you can expect to hear lots of Gangsta. vs. Black Lagoon comparisons, as it has that same kind of sensibility about a lot of things. Whereas Black Lagoon took more of a high-octane approach, though, this one is a much more low-key affair despite its graphic content and one beautifully-animated action piece. (In fact, the visuals and animation throughout, courtesy of Manglobe, are top-notch.) That is reinforced by a musical score which is a little reminiscent of a toned-down Miami Vice (for those of you old enough to remember the original '80s version) and always remains understated. It also has one interesting twist that Black Lagoon never used: one of its main characters, the dark-haired Nicolas, is apparently deaf, a point which is not immediately obvious but which comes through clearly when he and one other character are shown using (fully-animated!) sign language. He is also something called a “Tag” – and, of course, a set of dog tags indicates this – which is not explained in this episode but which is implied to involve almost superhuman fighting skill.
As the story goes, Nicolas and fellow Handymen Worick do an odd jobs business, which could involve beating up punks interfering with a local granny's business or taking a job on the sly from a corrupt police officer named Chad, who is implied to be the middle man for one of the Four Fathers, the crime bosses who effectively rule the city of Ergastulum. (And if he is the middle man then my, he's taking a nice cut for himself.) Nicolas and Worick are tasked by Chad with neutralizing upstart gang leader Barry, who is causing trouble for the Four Fathers but who also happens to be the pimp for a prostitute named Alex, who often hangs out in the alley across from their office and whom Nicolas has taken a liking to. As one of Barry's nominal underlings, taking out Alex is also a part of the job, but that isn't, of course, going to happen. She instead becomes the “trophy” that Nicolas was promised he could take as part of the job, and the end of the episode implies that she is effectively going to become their secretary, too.
Know what you're getting into if you check out Gangsta., but for those who find violent, crime-ridden settings to be their thing, this should be a big hit.
Gangsta. is currently streaming on Funimation.com.
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