For a genre as well represented in mainstream film as the “mafia & gangster epic”, it’s rare, despite it’s known diversity, to find anything in Japanese animation close to rivalling Goodfellas or The Godfather. Gungrave is here to emphatically re-address this balance and while we’ve been forewarned that the story will eventually fade back into more familiar horror and action based territory, for now I’m loving every minute of watching best friends Brandon & Harry climb up the ranks of Millenion (the biggest crime syndicate in town). The romance, the ambition and the betrayal evident in only the best mafioso stories is here in spades, weaving together the type of engrossing series that Tony Soprano’s dreams are made of.
We rejoin Gungrave with Harry & Brandon setting foot in the luxurious Millenion building for the very first time, Harry being particularly taken a-back by just how far this crime organisation’s reaches.
After meeting their new war-torn boss, they are soon split up and sent to work in different departments. Harry being a particularly talkative and charismatic figure is soon doing odd jobs for some powerful gangsters while the quiet Brandon is sent to work in a dingy betting and lone-shark business.
Weeks (even months) go past without Brandon seeing Harry, but after they coincidently run into each other on the job, they are soon back talking and being the best of friends again. Harry is noticeably smarter looking and more confident as he introduces Brandon to two of his newest pals, the chicken chomping “master of information” Bob Poundmax and the politically-connected Ballabird Lee; both are just as ambitious as Harry and have plans to reach the very top of Millenion.
A few evenings later, Harry breaks into Brandon’s lonely apartment to let him know the location of his dear friend, the beautiful blonde Maria; she is now living with the benevolent and protective “main man” of Millenion, “Big Daddy”. Now Brandon is left to decide whether or not to risk everything by seeing Maria, knowing full well he is more than tempting the harsh wrath of Millenion.
As stylish as this series looks, the characters are where Gungrave #2 shows it’s true quality. This second volume spans over 4 years, introducing us to Millenion as well as illustrating the subtle changes time has forced on the maturing Brandon and Harry. Both men now come across as confident and professional people; Brandon has started to come out of his shell and seems thoroughly content with his life but Harry’s ambition is more potent, more dangerous than ever; his lust for power is matched only by Brandon’s fierce loyalty to his friends and “family”.
Outside of this core relationship, we slowly learn about life in Millenion. Headed up by the friendly “Big Daddy”, they are a well-organised crime syndicate bound by a “code of iron”. Betrayal is an issue heavily handed in this volume, showing that despite their casual “family” attitudes, the top brass in Millenion strongly follow their own code of ethics and if anyone breaks them, friend or foe, the punishment will be absolute.
As we have come to expect from Madhouse Studios, the animation seen in Gungrave #2 is as consistent as it is attractive, with Yasuhiro Nightow’s character designs being particularly favourable. The way the characters hunch, move and stand more than simply compliments these meaty personalities; the tentative straight posture of Brandon conveying all of the important emotion found lacking in his rare, quiet dialogue.
The soundtrack from Tsuneo Imahori hits all the right notes, whether it’s defining the mood for a slick mafia meeting or emphasizing the forbidden romance tempting Maria and Brandon, it effortlessly edges Gungrave further towards the bitter-sweet story it promises to become.
Much of the most memorable dialogue seen in Gungrave #2 is poignantly narrated by an introspective Brandon, hinting at much of the regret and sorrow he is bound to come across later in the series.
Gungrave #2 wastes no time by throwing us into the nitty-gritty lifestyle of a mobster, but it’s not all about wise-guys though as Brandon particularly comes across as a genuinely like-able, romantic bloke who wants nothing more than his friends to be happy.
Gungrave is heart-wrenching already and with too many bloody promises yet to be fulfilled; it’s scary to think that this series will only get more exciting as future volumes take the reigns.