It’s probable that I’ve said this before but I find mafia-style stories a hard sell.
And yet, I’ll usually at least try them out.
Gungrave (Gangureivu) TV 2003
Part of what led me to give Gungrave a look was the connection to Yasuhiro Nightow and the promise of the supernatural that was lain out so convincingly during episode one (though not fulfilled until post episode 17 for me).
And while there are a few echoes of Trigun (Wolfwood’s Punisher etc) this is obviously quite different, not just setting-wise, either.
One example is the themes.
Thematically, the price of loyalty and betrayal are key in the anime – this is as much crime-family drama as anything else, remember? – but I was probably most drawn to the science-fiction elements in the end, and the sort of revenge plot that was eventually abdicated in favour of… well, I won’t spoil the ending, even in my ‘spoiler section’.
I also really enjoyed the designs, there’s a great range of characters here, but above all I probably liked Brandon/Beyond’s costume and the way that even his weapons are linked to the overall aesthetic (which holds a few hints of things common to the Western genre).
Narrative-wise, there are a few time jumps across the series – and since this is somewhat of a prequel to the game of the same name, learning about the key players’ pasts feels like a logical move. Having said that, I’ve never played the PS2 game so I’m not sure how well everything fits together.
In a big cast there were a fair few memorable characters and voices (Bunji!), though for one, I did think that Lee became a bit shrill in later episodes. Another issue I had was that Maria was not given much agency, which was annoying, but at least the story afforded her some more functionality toward the end.
For me, a lot of the mafia stuff dragged.
It became a bit of a slog despite singular stand out episodes here and there or the great direction in them – and so I was most invested after Brandon’s ‘death’, though above all, I still liked the series.
Mika was cruelly under-utilised as a character and while bookies Widge and Gary (and Bear Walken and Dr. Tokioka) were other stand outs I haven’t mentioned yet, once I did start to crave vengeance on behalf of Brandon I think everything seemed to come together for me; themes, mafia and science-fiction aspects too.
The ending was really interesting but part of me also found it fairly unsatisfying – in terms of bloodlust, at least.
To keep harping on a bit about things I didn’t enjoy so much, making Brandon almost mute during his ‘grave’ era was also a disservice.
He was never much of a talker in the previous arcs, but denying him much in the way of speech really diminishes the potential to add extra depth to a lot of his scenes. Obviously, the visuals do plenty of talking but there could have been more facets to his final arc.
Having grumbled about all of the above, I have to say that I still enjoyed Gungrave a lot – and as a quick final, final thought, it was nice to see a bit of time (though not enough) spent critiquing the deep hypocrisy of crime families.