Being a low-key spin-off from a cult action video game, Gungrave was largely expected (like the majority of video game adaptations) to be all gun-toting style over substance. But of course, assumptions have a habit of being wrong and Gungrave #1 is a blistering start to what promises to be an epic mafia drama, intertwining personal ambition with a developing science fiction side story.
Despite getting off to a somewhat shaky and confusing start (we are thrown smack bang into the middle of a crazy battle between super-humans and monsters), the story quickly finds it’s feet as the gritty flashbacks kick-in and we meet a rowdy group of ambitious street punks.
The first episode is bound to leave you cold, cursing the cliché too-cool-for-school action choreography, but rest assured, it pulls the rather ingenious trick of revealing the bitter hatred between (Beyond the Grave) Brandon and ‘Bloody’ Harry before we enter the (more down to Earth) flashback mode and meet these two men; much younger and obviously the closest of friends. Naturally, this immediately makes Harry and Brandon’s friendship all the more interesting- since we know that at some point they will become enemies, we pay much more attention to their interactions; searching for any subtle signs or foreshadowing of what is promised to come.
I was captivated by the character development we see in the younger Harry. Over the course of this volume, we gradually watch him grow from a youthful, naive street punk into a hardened, focused man- learning every lesson of life in some of the harshest ways possible. Harry’s development climaxes in one fantastically under-played moment in which his eyes widen and facial expression drops’, delicately illustrating so much more about his state of mind than any stylish action scene could hope to muster.
It’s these subtle touches that lend Gungrave a real sense of sophistication and depth, allowing the viewer to use their imagination to piece together certain personalities and even grow attached to them without feeling manipulated or forced into doing so.
The heavy influence of maverick Trigun creator Yasuhiro Nightow can be seen throughout Gungrave. The ultra stylish character designs are attractive and just plain cool, while the gritty street setting creates a well suited atmosphere imbued with raw determination. Nightow’s obvious love of Western ‘gun culture’ is his most evident trait though, and his favourable if old fashioned ‘every honourable man for himself’ sense of morality dominates many of these characters.
The animation by the famed Madhouse Studios is similarly up to scratch; their work is consistently fresh, fluid and pleasant to look at, despite containing no obviously praise worthy moments.
Tsuneo Imahori’s orchestral-strings based score is the feather in Gungrave’s cap. Being very distinctive music, it projects a feeling sentimentality without ever sounding cheap or over-the-top. The funky ending theme is easy going, fast and upbeat; a somewhat optimistic musical conclusion to a story that is less than happy.
Gungrave #1 is a fine introduction to what promises to be captivating character driven story charting the rise of two best friends through the local organised crime syndicate. Its mixture of deep personalities driven by desperate ambition and stylish, attractive animation (complimented by a suitably sentimental score) make this show a real keeper; Gungrave is powered by gritty action but overflowing with feeling.