Reviewby Carlo Santos, Nov 11th 2004
DVD 1: Beyond the Grave
Brandon Heat is a man unlike all other men: he shoots his guns cross-handed. More importantly, he's been resurrected from the dead and is now known as Grave--short for Beyond the Grave. Under the watch of a scientist and a young girl, Grave wanders around his deserted hometown recollecting his memories and preparing for a mission of revenge against the friend who turned on him. His back story is long enough that the next few episodes cover just the first stage of Brandon's past. In the flashbacks, Brandon runs with a gang of street punks whose rivalry with another gang escalates into a battle for their lives when mobster "Mad Dog" Ladd steps into the fray. Guns are fired, lives are lost, and soon it's just Brandon and his best friend Harry MacDowel fending for themselves on the city streets. With nowhere else to go, Harry decides to join Millennion, the crime syndicate that killed Ladd. Brandon decides to come along, but inside he's wondering if they've made the right choice.
Ah, the power of celebrity. When you're Yasuhiro Nightow ("the creator of Trigun," as the press kits have reminded us many times), it doesn't take much effort to get the best in the anime business to produce your next creation. With animation from Madhouse and a lush background music score, Gungrave Vol. 1 gets the externals right, but it's still trying to find a story.
Some people will watch the first episode of Gungrave and see plotless, bullet-ridden drivel--and they're absolutely right. Grave is only interesting when he's shooting up monsters, and even then, the only thing that sets him apart from any other silent, coat-and-hat-costumed badass is that he fires his guns cross-handed. It's fortunate for us, then, that the next three episodes are an extended flashback that carries more dramatic momentum. However, because of the way the pacing works, most of this momentum comes from wanting to know what led up to Grave's circumstances. When do Brandon and Harry cease being friends? How does Brandon die? With the slow story development, there's only time to watch the first push that propels Brandon into the criminal underworld. Next thing you know, you're at the end of the DVD. The common device of giving a key endpoint first and then working your way there from the beginning might be the only thing keeping people interested in these early episodes.
Despite him being the central character of Gungrave, it's hard to take an interest in Brandon. He says so little that what we know of him is based on how he responds to his friends and foes. Still, we get a sympathetic picture of the hero: someone who's deeply loyal to his friends, and a victim of circumstances he didn't create. Most of the other characters in Gungrave are, like Brandon, thugs who let their guns do the talking. With such a monotonous cast, it's remarkable how easy it is to tell them apart--but that's due more to the varied character designs than individual personalities. Everyone tends to talk the same way and wear the same pained expressions on their faces, no matter what their role in this street drama.
Yasuhiro Nightow deserves plenty of credit for populating the stark world of Gungrave with distinctive-looking characters. Studio MADHOUSE renders these characters cleanly and precisely, while turning down their color palette a few notches to make things appropriately grim. The backgrounds, set in a poverty-stricken coastal town, perfectly complement the mood of the show. What may surprise viewers the most, however, is the quality of the animation. Because the TV release of Gungrave looked so choppy, the animation was touched up for the DVD release and the results here are fluid enough for discerning eyes.
The English dub of Gungrave succeeds through its subtlety. The voice actors, most of them male, have the relatively simple job of sounding tough and serious. There's no need for vocal acrobatics, so none are applied. Brandon has the tone of an inquisitive young man, while Harry sounds more experienced and gung-ho, as befits their personalities. What detracts from the dub, however, is the freewheeling tendencies of the English-language adaptation. Some of the revised phrases do sound more natural than the direct translation, but changes lines from "it's business as usual for such things to happen" into "things happen, and sudden death is just a fact of life" seem like a lot of unnecessary churning. In trying to make the world of Gungrave sound hard-boiled, the dub script takes more liberties than it really needs to.
The one aspect of Gungrave that's beyond reproach is the excellent background music. Drawing from a wide range of 20th-century styles, the music is at turns brutal, languid, tender, and all shades of emotion in between. This soundtrack sets all the right moods for each scene, and the sophisticated theme songs lead in and out of each episode wonderfully. If the other elements of Gungrave were as solid as the music, it would be a near-flawless series.
With its slick visual style and a music score to match, Gungrave looks and sounds like it has potential to be a great crime drama. The way things are going, however, it'll be a slow ride, and Brandon could definitely stand to be a bit more talkative. If Gungrave is to remain interesting throughout the show's run, the story needs to move along faster than it's been doing so far.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : C
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Top-notch music, and solid visuals as can be expected from Madhouse
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