What a peculiar series. This review will be a first for me: a full series recap instead of the usual episodic format. Spoilers abound.
Our story is about a crime syndicate, about betrayal, about love and death and zombies. Above all, however, it's about two men: Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowel, childhood friends who grow apart as their goals in life change. Brandon and Harry meet while living in the same orphanage, where Harry first expresses his desire to take as much as he wants and give as much as he wants, to achieve freedom through power. The two become smalltime thugs, teaming up with three others to live poor but free and happy. They might have lived that way forever, but their chosen occupation was a violent one, and they eventually crossed the wrong man. Or rather, his brother, a weasel of a man named Deed. Deed's brother, the infamous "Mad" Radd, gets out of prison and brings Hell down upon Brandon & friends. Radd kills the three others, and is about to kill Harry and Brandon when a member of the crime syndicate Millenion interferes. Seems Radd crossed the wrong man, too. In addition to killing three quarters of Brandon's friends, he also gunned down Jester, the adopted father of Brandon's girlfriend, Maria, and a personal friend of Millenion's boss, Big Daddy.
So Radd gets swept, another in a long line of elite sweeper Bear Walken's victims. For a while, Bear is the baddest mofo in the series, though he's eventually eclipsed by both natural and technological means. With nowhere else to go, Maria consents to live in Big Daddy's mansion, unknowingly sealing her fate. Harry strikes out on his own, or tries to. Brandon, loyal to a fault, follows wherever he goes, continually choosing friendship with Harry and a rough life over going legit and settling down with his love, Maria. Brandon's motto: bros before hos. Before they can run off to the oftmentioned but never seen "somewhere far away," Brandon and Harry are attacked by Deed's gang, still seeking revenge and seeing the pair as easy targets. Again, Millenion saves them, and this time it inspires Harry to join. He and Brandon wipe out Deed's gang and begin to work their way up the syndicate ladder, Brandon as an enforcer and, later, assassin, Harry as a wheeler-dealer who's never without a clean white suit.
That's when the sci-fi hits. Gungrave is like two shows in one. Maybe three or four. For the longest time, it's a gangster show. Aside from characters like Brandon having unbelievable skill in dispatching enemies without suffering harm, it's much like American gangster movies. Dark, profound, tragic. For anyone who breaks Millenion's iron law, for anyone who betrays, there is only death. Friends, family, doesn't matter. Never betray, not even by accident. It might have been a better show if they'd stuck to the gangster stuff, but after all, it's based on a videogame that's light on plot and high on freaky mutant bosses. It'd be like expecting Kanon not to have romance, or Tomb Raider not to have boobs. Still, the videogame elements don't translate well at all. It starts simply enough, with sci-fi bits inserting themselves into the gangster story. A rival syndicate develops Necro-Rise, a technology that, wait for it... raises the dead. It also turns them into unkillable monsters who pose by far the greatest threat Millenion has yet faced. They're led by Brad Wong, an ex-soldier whose purpose in life is to kill lots of people. He's one of those types who are always looking for a challenge, and he finds that in Brandon Heat, now Millenion's top sweeper. Together with his brother-in-arms, Kugashira Bunji - one of three gunmen in the series widely regarded as "pretty much nutbunnies" - Brandon takes on the Necro-Risen soldiers... and loses. Luckily, they had a built-in expiration date. The process, yet in its infancy, was only good for ten days, a minor detail the good doctor failed to mention to his employers. They crumble to dust, and the tide turns against Wong, who, as his final act as a human being, gulps a Necro-Rise potion and shoots himself in the head. The result is a bizarre monstrosity that ultimately fails to cause any lasting damage. Bear Walken and Millenion ride to the rescue again, shooting the Hell out of the monster. For whatever reason, this works where it failed with the normal, less impressive-looking undead, and Wong doesn't get back up. That's a recurring theme in this show: enemies dispatched with surprising ease with little explanation beyond "we shot them a lot." I suppose that, too, is owed to its videogame roots.
The sci-fi goes away for a while. Harry secretly continues the research the rival syndicate had begun, as well as forgiving a friend who had broken the iron law, binding Balladbird Lee to himself through Lee's betrayal. This is where it grows apparent that Harry isn't the nice guy he appeared to be early on, the stalwart friend, the gangster with a heart of gold. He is Caesar, and the world itself may not be enough to sate his ambition. Harry goes further and further down the ends-justify-the-means path, compromising until it's no longer in his nature to do the right thing if it doesn't serve him, while Brandon watches silently, bonding with Big Daddy while at the same time distancing himself from Maria. He's ashamed of what he's become, a mass murderer, yet he's unwilling to leave Harry and the syndicate behind. Feeling he can't have both, he ultimately pushes Maria into Big Daddy's arms, putting her happiness ahead of his own.
Big Daddy retires, naming Random Old Guy his successor after a gut feeling tells him Harry wouldn't be the best choice. Harry responds by sneakily offing Random Old Guy and blackmailing Big Daddy into naming him the new boss. In-between, he makes the mistake of asking Brandon "never betray" Heat to turn on Big Daddy and back Harry's power play. Brandon refuses and pulls his gun on Harry, prepared to enforce the iron law. Only he's not prepared. He can't shoot his friend, no matter what. If only Bear Walken had been there, to be Brandon's second as he was Bear's when Bear's friend had to die for betrayal. Harry, lacking his friend's highminded ideals, shoots Brandon to death and names him "Betrayer."
Of course, Brandon had a backup plan, a secret agreement with Dr. Tokioka, inventor of the Necro-Rise tech, to raise him should he die. He comes back more whole than the earlier undead, albeit with a nasty case of amnesia, and with the doctor's help is able to survive far longer than ten days. Thirteen years pass and Brandon sleeps, or whatever it is he did while "dormant." Then the videogame takes over, and Gungrave truly becomes a different show. Episodes 17-26 are fairly self-contained. Watching the first sixteen adds to them, but you could watch the last ten alone and not be lost. Like Brandon, you would have vague allusions to the past, and everything would have an air of mystery about it. There's something to be said for that, and the sci-fi elements feel less out of place without context. Of course, you'd miss out on many of the series' best parts.
Watching only the first sixteen doesn't work, unless you want to imagine the ending, and in this case I can't recommend that. If you want a straight gangster story, you're out of luck. If you want over the top, cracktastic creatures and action that manages a surprising degree of emotional resonance, this is your horse. Brandon comes back with superpowers, specially designed, oversized guns, and sets to fighting monsters. There are Orcmen, living subjects who've had the improved Necro-Rise process used on them and are virtually invulnerable unless Brandon happens to be shooting them, in which case it takes one to three bullets to shatter them into a million pieces. Though he later gets special bullets designed to stop a certain other type of enemy and another faction develops anti-Orcmen bullets, it's never explained why Brandon is able to kill Orcmen so easily with what appear to be normal rounds. Sure, he has superpowers, but strength and speed can't make you fire bullets harder, and unlike some other characters, Brandon's weapons aren't a part of him. If there's anything supernatural about them, we see it only in results.
The other enemy, the only kind who poses a real threat to SuperBrandon, is the Superior. An advanced version of Necro-Rise that, despite being refered to as "experimental," succeeds on all its test subjects, turning them into Superiors. On paper, they're better than Brandon, but in practice none are a match for him. First up is Bob Poundmax, the glutton, who started out skinny so we could watch him grow fatter as the series progressed. He fights Brandon solo, reasoning that his superior power will make overwhelming numbers unnecessary. And he's supposed to be the smart one. Sigh. He harries Brandon a while, but ultimately goes down by being shot too much, at too fast a rate for his accelerated healing factor to keep up with. Despite this triumph, Dr. Tokioka feels the need to design anti-Superior bullets for Brandon, which admittedly prove quite useful in future battles. Too useful.
His second challenge comes not from a Superior, but his old comrade Bunji, who has his own special weapon: one that fires a paralytic toxin. Keeping him off-balance with carefully placed bombs - and again, going out of his way to fight one-on-one - Bunji defeats Brandon, more or less. Before he can deliver the killing blow, Mika interferes. Mika being the teenage daughter of Big Daddy and Maria, whom Brandon has sworn to protect because that's the kinda guy he is. She yells "Please stop!" at Bunji over and over, which understandably annoys the Hell out of him and causes him to shoot in her general direction. He intentionally misses every time, at point blank range, but since Mika's functionally retarded, she only screams for help. Her cries inspire Brandon to Rise Up and Overcome. Also, to punch Bunji senseless with his one good arm.
That done, Dr. Tokioka informs us that Brandon will only be at "70% power" from now on, thanks to damage suffered from the paralytic toxin. Whether because of the anti-Superior bullets, the fact that his weapon of choice isn't so much dependent on his physical prowess, or the show's writers blithely ignoring Tokioka's proclamation, the only evidence we see of Brandon's reduced effectiveness is occasionally clutching his arm in pain, as though it's an old wound acting up. It is, but it's kinda supposed to be more than that. At any rate, his new superbullets give him a huge advantage in the remaining fights.
Balladbird Lee challenges him next... alone, of course. Technically, he brought along a hundred and fifty Orcmen and some freaky thing that jumps on Brandon and explodes itself, but they scarcely slow him down. It's like placing a wall in front of you and standing there until your opponent finds a way past the wall. It's basically still a one-on-one match, only with a later starting time. Lee uses his hostage, Mika, to keep Brandon from fighting back, and sets to killing him slow-like. But that's not drawn out enough. No, he has to be completely stupid about it, and kill Mika first to add to Brandon's suffering. Because losing everyone else he ever cared about wasn't enough, right? And hey, it's not like Dr. Tokioka will show up in the nick of time to provide a convenient distraction. That never happens.
After Tokioka rides in on a white subway car, Brandon shoots Mika's restraints and she scurries off to relative safety. Instead of staying behind to fight Lee to the death, Brandon hops on the same car and, convinced Lee can't follow, joins them inside. By this point, however, Lee had morphed into a bizarre spidery creature and has no problem catching up, tearing open the subway car, and resuming his attack with renewed vigor. Tokioka ends up getting killed, but not before leaving Brandon with plenty of Superior-killin' ammo. A few shots later, Lee crumbles to dust, disbelieving to the last.
That's it for the Superiors, or would be if they couldn't just make more. The tragically misguided Bear Walken is next. Though he was fiercely loyal to Big Daddy, Bear's first loyalty is to his daughter Sherry. He tries to forbid her romance with Harry, but relents in the supposed best interests of daddy's little girl. Sure, let your only daughter marry an evil bastard because she thinks it'll make her happy. And then betray everything you know to keep them together. To be fair, Harry is always kind to Sherry. He seems to genuinely love her, insomuch as a man like him is capable of love. Still, Bear could've carried out his early threat to kill Harry "if he touches her," though, and Sherry could've damn well found someone else to love. Look at Maria and Brandon. They had adorable puppy love, yet Maria was able to move on with no regrets. Bear's final mistake is to undergo the Superior treatment and fight Brandon... alone, of course. He's rather easily dispatched, causing the least harm of the four Superiors, though he technically comes inches from killing Brandon.
The final superfight is against the newly enhanced Kugashira Bunji, who unlike the others, doesn't transform into a monster before getting shot in the head. I'm not sure why Bunji continues to fight Brandon, except that the plot demands it. He doesn't seem to want to kill him, and in their final battle he acknowledges that he's going to die. That's the tricky thing about the iron law. It sounds good - never betray, because it's wrong andohyeahwe'llkillyou - but who do you not betray? Maybe Bunji realized that Brandon had stayed loyal to Millenion, that by following Harry, Bunji betrayed his "brother" and the syndicate, and being prideful, he wanted to die fighting. He couldn't switch sides because that would imply he could find redemption, and in his mind he was beyond that. Nor would he beg for death, preferring to force Brandon's hand. That's my guess, anyways.
Brandon's falling apart like an old school necro-soldier, but he still has to find Harry. In the end, even Brandon betrays, choosing Harry over the syndicate, which has turned against its bloodthirsty master. With hundreds out to help Brandon bring an end to Bloody Harry's reign, he doesn't want to anymore. There's still good in Harry, and they end up on the same side in the end, fighting to the death. It shouldn't work, as several earlier attempts to make character deaths seem tragic fell flat, but it does. It so does. Harry finds some measure of redemption as he and Brandon are gunned down. More than that, the regret is palpable. He knows he went wrong, and for the first time you can believe he cares. But it's too late now. It's too late. He can't go back.
In addition to the basic plot, there were several things that stood out to me in Gungrave, good and bad. The Good:
The Ending - I cried. With two episodes left in the series, I hated Harry MacDowel. I was convinced he was evil, that any good in him died long ago, and the series as a whole was grating on me due to several factors I'll get to later. I was all but determined not to feel anything when he inevitably died. And yet, when he tries to defend Brandon and gets riddled with bullets, mortally wounded, it hit me hard. I felt bad for him, and the more I thought about it, the sadder his death was.
Loss - A recurring theme throughout the series, and an integral part of the excellent ending. A sequence in the finale illustrates this perfectly: a flashback to the time when Brandon, Harry, and their three smalltime crook buddies were alive and uncorrupted. When Brandon met Maria, and their romance took its first, ginger steps. It's like a third show, a happy show, but in truth it's the same show. Gungrave is about the loss of that happiness, that innocence, through a series of choices that can't be unmade. There are external circumstances, too, like Mad Radd, but mainly it's Harry's ambition that undoes it all. That and Brandon's steadfast loyalty. Gone their separate ways, Brandon might have lived happily with Maria. Without Brandon's support as an elite sweeper, Harry might never have reached the lofty position he did. Millenion would've held off the ten-day Necro-Rise assault without him, and it's possible that Harry would've failed to co-opt the technology for his own means. Had he not been so deadset on rising higher, ever higher, Harry could've had a fine life in Millenion. No one forced him, which I suppose was the problem. Harry was a leader, independent. No one had to motivate him, but he had too much drive for his and everyone else's good. Even once he was atop Millenion, he wanted more. Though he had plenty, he was never satisfied.
Humanity - All the characters were flawed, and for the most part, that was a good thing. They made mistakes like real people and got stuck in situations that no amount of skill or superpowers could get them out of. Bear Walken went from badass mofo to fool, but it made sense. It's hard to deny someone you love, or to abandon a friend, however logical a course of action it is. As a viewer, I found myself chastising the characters often for their stupidity, in that way only an omniscient observer can. They made the wrong choices because they didn't know what would happen next, because it felt right at the time, and because, like you and I, they aren't perfect. When I watch an anime, I always hope my favorite characters will choose well, but it's no fun if they always do. No one hopes that two plus two will equal four. The outcome is predetermined. It's only when failure is possible that success can be appreciated.
Mika - Why won't she shut up? One of the worst characters in anime history, she exists only to serve as Brandon's bauble, his object to protect, so that his assault on the syndicate isn't motivated solely by revenge. If it were, he could stop. Probably. But as long as Harry was trying to kill Mika for daring to be Big Daddy's child, Brandon had to keep fighting. Mika dutifully gets kidnapped and endangered over and over, displaying all the personality of a cardboard cutout. Not to mention her ridiculous hair. Black on top, gray on the ends? But... she's thirteen!? No one else in the series has hair remotely like that. Nearly everyone's hair is a normal color. Brad Wong had the craziest hair next to her, a rich red that looked like it came out of a bottle. None of this would bother me - I'd hardly notice - if not for Mika's defining... "character" trait. Every time someone dies, she freaks out.
"MOM CAN'T BE DEAD! NOOOOOO!!! EEEIIIIIIIII!!!"
"FAITHFUL BUTLER-SAN CAN'T BE DEAD! NOOOOOOOOO!!! EEEIIIIIIII!!"
"KINDLY DOCTOR-SAN WHO GOT HIS DEATH SCENE OVER WITH WHILE I WAS OUT COLD CAN'T BE DEAD! EEEIIIIII!! NOOOO! EEEEIIIII!!!"
"FATHER WHOM I NEVER MET AND WAS OBVIOUSLY DEAD YEARS AGO CAN'T BE DEAD! EEEEEEEEEEEIII! EEEEAAAA! NOOOOO! WHY DOES THIS KEEP HAPPENING TO MEEEEAAA??!!!"
"NICE OLD MEN I JUST MET AND WITNESSED DYING LIKE FIVE MINUTES AGO CAN'T BE DEAD! EEEEAAAAA!! EEIIIIII!! EEEOOOO!"
I hate her so. Eventually, she resolved to stop crying, and almost kept her word. I wonder if the writers realized how incredibly annoying she was, or if that was some weak attempt at character development. I laughed so hard when Brandon told her "you're strong," as part of his "I'm going off to die and leave you alone" speech. I think they were aware, because in a series where the names Brandon and Harry are used a thousand times, almost no one ever refers to the girl as Mika, instead calling her "Big Daddy's forgotten memento" or something impersonal like that. She's an object, nothing more.
Anti-climactic Deaths - Mika didn't help here, but she was far from the only factor. The series' death toll includes everyone of consequence in the cast, except (sigh) Mika, and it's only twenty-six episodes long, so they kinda had to pack those deaths in there. The writers clearly want you to care about each death, but they often wait until after the guy's dead to give you a reason, flashing back to earlier in his life to show him during happier, more alive times. Add that to the fact that many of the deaths are silly - especially those of the Superiors - and Mika screaming "YOU MUST FEEL SAD NOW," and it just doesn't work. For instance, the old guys who were friends with Brandon in Millenion way back when. They were living peacefully for decades until Brandon dumped Mika on them, then of course, they get brutally murdered while utterly failing to protect Mika in any way. Because they're old dudes who weren't so hot in their prime. One of them is blind. It kind of made sense for Brandon to drop the girl off with someone, and it's true he didn't have anyone else to rely on, but man... The worst part is when he gets back and is surprised that they're dead. Like he expected them to know Blind Old Dude Fu or for no one to find them. The latter would preclude the need for protectors. Might as well have Mika stay at an abandoned house.
Also, I know I spoke well of humanity before, but I was not about to feel sad when Bear Walken died. Too busy being angry with him for his choices. Didn't help that, before fighting Brandon, he admitted to himself that he was in the wrong, that he put his daughter's insane desire to boink Harry ahead of everything Millenion stood for. Not that he'd admit his daughter was anything but infallible, of course. Oh, no. When Sherry was killed by a random thug later and Harry did the old one-eye-crying, I laughed. In retrospect, I suppose Harry really was hurt, but I felt nothing for him or Sherry when he screamed at her death. And one-eye-crying is always lame. How do you even do that? Is his other eye broken? Tear ducts don't work? It's absurd.
Easy Fights - I touched on this earlier. The fights with the Superiors were largely disappointing. Bob kept saying he was better, but he couldn't prove it. Lee acquitted himself well, but as soon as the anti-Superior bullets showed up, it was over. The other two fights were simply exercises in waiting for Brandon to shoot his opponent with a superbullet or twelve. The tension only returned once Brandon had second thoughts about burying a bullet in his target's head, when he confronted Harry and didn't immediately kill him.
Wacky Videogame Antics - Again, the Superior fights. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you like crazy monster thingies. Personally, I thought Balladbird Lee turning into a giggling spider was silly. I don't know what Bear was even supposed to be. Tiny arms and huge fists? Or were the fists floating? Whatever. He was more impressive as a supersamurai. This and the previous two combined to dramatically lower my opinion of the series. If it were just Mika, I'd consider it a great series, but there's too much silliness, too many forced attempts at eliciting emotion, too many empty battles that are over almost before they begin.
May/December Romances - This was a bizarre theme. Depending on how you count, there were as many as four romances in the series. It started innocently, with Maria and Brandon's young love, but we know how that turned out. The remaining three romances all involved a young woman and a much older man. Big Daddy fell in love with Maria and, with Brandon's blessing, pursued that love. He's a nice guy and all, but he was like an uncle to Maria, if not a father. Eww. Then there's Sherry/Harry. Harry wasn't too old when it started, but Sherry appeared to be prepubescent when they met. There doesn't seem to be any reason for their relationship aside from tying Bear to Harry and adding a smidge of sympathy to Harry. The final romance, which thankfully never went anywhere, was between Mika and Brandon. Mika, as is her wont, screamed her love at Brandon, who declined to comment. Mika was roughly fourteen by the time the series ended, while Brandon was dead before she was born, and had to at least be in his thirties before croaking.
It also bothered me that, of the three women with significant roles, only Maria was remotely interesting. Sherry and Mika were plot devices. I didn't mind that there were no female combatants, something that usually bugs me in action series, but more than one female character worth a damn would've been nice. Bonus if she doesn't fall in love with someone who was childhood friends with her grandpa.
Time Jumps - These were worse every time. It got to where I wasn't sure if an episode was taking place shortly after the previous one or x months/years later. They generally wouldn't say how much time had passed, and there were at least half a dozen significant skips, the most major being a horribly jarring thirteen-year jump. Harry kills Big Daddy and vows to wipe out everything he's ever touched, with the camera showing Maria, Big Daddy's wife and the mother of his child, whom Harry could easily find and dispatch given his vast information network. But apparently, Harry blacked out and suffered short term memory loss after that, or something - I'm guessing - because thirteen years pass and he does nothing. Then he's like "Oh yeah, Maria! I remember and still want to kill her!" The Hell was he doing for thirteen years? He could at least kill some of Big Daddy's friends or bust up his favorite businesses. Pollute that river he loved to fish at, break whiskey bottles... Maybe he did some of that, but it's never so much as implied. It's just HATE - thirteen year break - HATE. To be fair, Harry's pretty forgetful. He forgets his old friends for a while, though Brandon never does, and manages to forget Brandon after thirteen years. "Forget" or "block out of his memory."
The time jumps as a whole served to erode my interest in the series' events. You'd suddenly jump ahead and characters would have different haircuts, different voices, more wrinkles and be in very different places in their life. Again, it wouldn't have been so bad if they'd thrown up a little note saying "three months later" or "one year later." I think they did with the five- and thirteen-year jumps, or they mentioned it in dialogue, but the smaller jumps were just, "figure it out."
English Names - I watched the subtitled version, usually my preferred version, but I have to say, unless the dub is very poor, it should easily trump this. I have to assume this was always meant for international release, because the Japanese voice actors' attempts to say things like "Beyond the Grave" and "Balladbird Lee" are laughable. I'm not sure they're trying sometimes, like the producers just want to get the timing down for the more natural English dub. Oddly, when Brandon's name appears in written form, it reads "Blandon," though that's certainly not what anyone calls him. They're only too careful to pronounce English names and words correctly. This sort of thing happens in many anime, with varying results. Tends to sound better when it's a word or phrase than a name, especially since names are frequently repeated. It also helps if the name isn't stupid. Kugashira Bunji beats Balladbird Lee in any language.
Beyond the Grave - Not the character, the name, and this goes beyond pronunciation. Dr. Tokioka dubs Brandon "Beyond the Grave," Grave for short because... Let's not mince words. It was in the videogame, so it's in the anime. Probably why there are so many English names to begin with and stuff like "Beyond the Grave," which I know has a Japanese counterpart, isn't translated. The problem with "Grave" is, it's not Brandon's name. There's a tease that, oh, Brandon isn't himself anymore, he doesn't remember, yadda yadda, but it's quickly revealed that yes, he does. He has a nasty case of amnesia, but he remembers enough. He is Brandon Heat, and it's blindingly obvious to observer and participant alike, yet Tokioka and Mika insist on calling him Grave. Tokioka's hardly around and dies about midway through the "future" part of the story, so whatever. Mika, on the other hand, will not go away, and continues to call Brandon "Beyond the Grave" for no apparent reason. She's one of the first to insist that it's really Brandon under there, yet she takes forever to stop using his idiotic pseudonym.
Pretty much everything comes back to Mika. I was ticked when they jumped ahead thirteen years. Could not believe it. Episode sixteen ends on a cliffhanger, episode seventeen leaps ahead with no resolution... Ahead to Mika, who seemed OK at first but was most definitely not.