The first volume of Gungrave was like the slow, introductory three minutes of a Beethoven symphony: fragments and snippets that hint at something greater, but not a complete work in itself. When the full melody comes thundering in, the fragments fall into place, and that's exactly what happens in the second volume of this series. The sketchy origins of Brandon
Heat and Harry MacDowel evolve into fully detailed accounts of their rise to power, laid out in a set of four satisfying episodes.
Gungrave DVD 1 ended with a feeling of incompleteness. We knew that Grave was a present-day resurrection of Brandon
Heat, and going into an extended flashback from there, we saw how young Brandon and Harry found their way out of petty gang wars by joining Millennion. A promising start, perhaps, but would it fulfill its potential? The second DVD succeeds in that respect, showing how the characters develop in a classic rags-to-riches story arc. There's nothing particularly surprising about the chain of events, but like the first disc, the appeal of the story is in watching the characters' advancement, rather than waiting for twists and revelations. Episodes 5 through 8 avoid unnecessary plot complications and focus on Brandon and Harry earning their positions of respect in the organization. Striking a balance between tense conversations and heated gunfights, it's a storyline that grabs the viewer without having to resort to shock tactics.
Brandon's climb up the Millennion ladder is a fascinating character study, despite his continuing lack of dialogue. His quiet nature, once an annoying quirk, is now the defining mark of a merciless agent who can pop out the double handguns and mop up an entire room of thugs--hence the name, "The Sweeper." Yet he also has a deeply human side--Brandon still cares about Maria, and his loyalty to Millennion is guided by strong beliefs about protecting others and a friendship with Harry that makes them practically brothers.
Studio Madhouse continues to contribute striking visuals to the world of Gungrave. The subtle changes in character design after the five-year jump are enough to suggest a genuine change in Brandon and Harry. Brandon's new duds are a nice step up from the ratty brown shirt (and a possible foreshadowing of things to come), while Harry is stylish as ever in his Yakuza-influenced white suit. Millennion operates in a city that's bigger and more prosperous than the slums of the first few episodes, and this is reflected appropriately in the bigger buildings and cleaner streets. Sadly, the new setting feels more generic than the run-down town where Brandon and Harry used to live. What will really impress the eyes, however, is the slick animation of the gunfights. Madhouse isn't afraid to exaggerate perspective to make a pointed gun look more threatening, sometimes even using a "fish-eye lens" style when appropriate. If pumping bullets into unsuspecting victims could ever be described as lyrical, it's here. On the other hand, so much work goes into animating the action scenes that conversations and other static scenes look half-hearted by comparison, and that's the one real shortcoming in the art and animation department.
The dub script of Gungrave, which took too many liberties in the first volume, reins itself in and comes closer to the direct translation in these next four episodes. There are still plenty of variations in the structure and word choice, but where it felt like unnecessary churning in the first volume, this time the vocabulary accurately reflects the hard-edged conversational style of mobsters. The voice actors continue to sound like tough, serious men, a fairly easy task; this is one of the few cases where it actually makes sense to favor the dub over the sub because of cultural context. Brandon, Harry and the rest of the gang operate in a vague approximation of America or Europe, suggesting that they would be much more likely to speak English rather than Japanese. That's something to think about when choosing the audio for this series.
The music, as before, is faultless--everything from spiky string melodies to mellow lo-fi rock beats accentuate the story, and Tsuneo Imahori's compositional arsenal is to be feared just as much as Brandon's double handguns. Appropriately enough, there's even a melody line that pays homage to the theme from The Godfather, the quintessential mob drama and certainly an influence on Gungrave.
The first volume of Gungrave pointed to the possibility of better things to come, but it suffered from flaws like a sluggish pace trying to compensate for the lack of story and a seemingly boring main character in Brandon. This volume, however, makes up for that by presenting a graceful story arc that shows a talented yet quiet man rising to the top ranks of a crime syndicate. A commonly told story, perhaps, but it's one that looks and sounds terrific in this particular guise.