This week I’ve got a review of an anime adaptation of a PS2 launch game that turns out better than its source material. Actually, it’s probably one of the best video-game to anime adaptations you’ll ever see.

General Information

Kenji Hamada as Harry MacDowel (Teen)
Tomokazu Seki as Brandon Heat / Beyond the Grave
Tsutomu Isobe as Harry MacDowel
Chafurin as Bob Poundmax
Fumihiko Tachiki as Bunji Kugashira
Iemasa Kayumi as Big Daddy
Kikuko Inoue as Maria Asagi
Kumi Sakuma as Mika Asagi
Motomu Kiyokawa as Dr. Tokioka “Dr. T”
Ryûzaburô Ôtomo as Bear Walken
Takehito Koyasu as Ballabird Lee

Directed by Toshiyuki Tsuru
Written by Yousuke Kuroda
Concept by Yasuhiro Nightow
Music by Tsuneo Imahori

Available from Amazon.com and Rightstuf.com.

The Premise

Brandon Heat is a street thug working for a crew run by Harry MacDowel. After most of their crew is wiped out by a rival gang, they join up with the Millenion organization, run by a patriarchal gangster known as Big Daddy, while Brandon’s girlfriend, Maria is also taken in by Big Daddy. As they work their way through the ranks, Harry’s ambition takes the better of him and he tries to take down Big Daddy. Brandon sides with Big Daddy and is killed.

Fifteen years later, Brandon is resurrected through a super-soldier medical procedure and with the task of protecting the daughter of Big Daddy and Maria, Mika. However, Harry has some super-soldiers of his own.

The High Points

The series recognizes the limitations of the video game’s story as presented, and rather then just treading on the same shallow plot, it takes advantage of its 26-episode length to provide a back story for the events of the game that would stand pretty well on its own as a mob series, without all the supernatural or science fiction elements. Consequently, this part of the series also adds a lot of pathos that the game didn’t have, by giving motivations to each of later fights in the series.

Additionally, the ending of the series, while I have my minor problems with it, is more approachable for those who aren’t familiar with the game, by changing it from its more gonzo The Really Final Level setup into a more grounded and tragic arrangement. To a certain degree, the conclusion of the series reminds me of the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2 (which was released after this, but filmed before), but less anti-climactic. By which I mean, it’s two people sitting around a table and talking, leading into a frenzied climax of violence with an ultimately tragic conclusion. Additionally, that conversation is very well done, with a some imagery used that I don’t often see in Japanese animation.

Also, I want to particularly single out for praise Harry’s fall from grace. One of the things in good mob films, is that when the mob boss falls, it’s always due to his own hubris. All the blood he’s shed washes back over him, and all the ill will he’s sewn comes back to bite him, and he sees it all coming. In that fall that we ultimately see his true nature – whether if it’s an attempt to flee and try to start again elsewhere, a plea for mercy when he granted none in the past, an attempt to understand where it all went wrong, or a brash and foolhardy last stand – and it’s always connected with a psychological breakdown. We get all of that here, with some well done flashbacks, to material we’ve seen before and some new material.

The Low Points

That said, the ending does have its problems. I came into this after having played the first game, and knowing of the existence of the second game, so I was expecting in some way to have some references to the conclusion of the first game, and setup for the sequel (which was in production while the series was airing). I was disappointed in this regard.

For starters, the climactic confrontation has changed venue from the top of Millenion’s headquarters to the ruined remains of the bar where the series, more or less, began. Second, I kind of liked the concept in the game of Harry having resurrected Big Daddy as a horrible monster under his control, and Grave having to kill this horrific version of his mentor and, considering the added back-story, that could have some effective pathos to it. Additionally, considering the creature designs in the game had been adapted well to the show, I was kind of interested in seeing how that creature design turned out.

Instead, they square off with regular guys in a bar, and slowly get shot to pieces. Frankly, once the action started, I actually found myself wishing we had more talking, as the action sequences were a bit generic considering this was the conclusion of the series. The audience was almost at the emotional climax of the series already, and with the right words and the right writer we could have gotten there with dialog alone. Apparently, though, Kuroda wasn’t the right writer.

Content Notes

There’s a fair amount of blood in this series, though nothing worse than, say, Cowboy Bebop, and some of the more gruesome scenes (decapitations, etc.) tend to happen off camera. No real nudity to speak of.

The Scores

Originality: As mentioned earlier, while this is an adaptation, this adds a lot to its source material. While it drops references to other series and films, both organized crime or otherwise (there’s an assassination attempt that references another assassination sequence from Clear and Present Danger fairly heavily), it feels like an almost entirely different entity from the game for much of the series. 5 out of 6.

Acting: The acting is generally very good across the board, with pretty solid performances from everyone. 5 out of 6.

Animation: I really was impressed by the animation. In particular, several of the episodes have some of the best face animation I’ve seen in Anime, which really helps sell the voice actors performances. 5 out of 6.

Production: The sound design is very good and the music is fantastic. Much of the mechanical design is very well done as well (and done by Kosuke Fujishima, creator of Ah! My Goddess). 4 out of 6.

Story: This show has what is probably one of the best mob stories I’ve seen done for anime, and the more supernatural, action-heavy revenge plot we get later is similarly well executed – with the mob story setting everything for that section up. 4 out of 6.

Emotional Response: By the end of the series, I had something of the sensation you get after you’ve watched a good tragedy, be it Greek, Shakespearean, or Operatic (conventional or Wuxia/HK Blood Opera)-emotionally smacked around, but satisfied. 5 out of 6.

Overall: I’d say a hallmark of a good show is whether or not you want to binge on it. I wanted to binge on this show, I did binge on it, and I was satisfied to have binged on it. 6 out of 6.

In Total, Gungrave gets 34/42