During its first volume, we made a pact with Gungrave; I was sceptical about the generic supernatural elements seen the in the first episode, but soon forgot my complaints as the story switched modes and transformed into a gripping mafia tale of two best friends who will inevitably become the worst of enemies. We allowed ourselves to enjoy this compelling character driven series knowing full well that sooner or later, we would again have to face the cliché Hellsing-esque gunplay, ghouls and zombies.
And despite the fact that all the characterization added over previous episodes makes the supernatural action more interesting than expected, it’s still somewhat disappointing to see Gungrave #3 forcing the realistic character dynamics and Mafioso drama into the background and allowing the stylish but emotionally stagnant action to take the spotlight.
This zombie-filled volume is far from a failure, but the compelling portrayal of Brandon and Harry’s ambitious ascent of Millenion (their local mafia syndicate) was so engrossing that these episodes felt somewhat lacking, almost hollow.
In Gungrave #3, we meet a new larger than life character in the violently eccentric Blood War; rumoured to have murdered over 300 men, this flame haired war veteran is released from a corrupt prison thanks to the wheeling and dealing of his Mafioso buddy Cannon Vulcan.
Cannon is a big part of the Lightning organisation; the only syndicate in town with the strength to even consider rivalling Millenion’s strangle hold on the city.
Drawing parallels to Harry, Cannon turns out to be a ferociously ambitious man and it soon becomes clear he will be the devious cunning behind Blood War’s intimidating muscle.
With Blood War having barely set foot outside of prison, they soon initiate plans to take their violent ambitions to the streets of Millenion and their trump card (with years in the making) is necrolyzation; essentially the reanimating and total control of dead bodies- turning lifeless corpses into indestructible gun-toting zombies.
The scene is set with Blood War’s necrolyzed troops hunting down frightened mafia executives and even when Millenion’s overwhelming strength in numbers fails to dent Blood and Cannon’s all-or-nothing war efforts, the task of stopping them is handed to the talented team of Harry and Brandon.
It’s their most vital job yet, where failure, even in the face of indestructible foes, is unforgivable.
Amidst the somewhat uninspiring action, the strength of writing in Gungrave again shines through. Blood War and Cannon Vulcan initially come across as cardboard cut-out villains with little or no real understanding behind their violent crusades, but as is illustrated with some well placed flashbacks and sentimental landscapes, their friendship and (perhaps more importantly) motives are fleshed out to the point where you can’t help but admire their strength of ambition and loyalty to one another.
Along side the street-warfare, we begin to see some telling changes in Harry and Brandon.
If possible, Harry is now more desperate than ever to reach the top of Millenion and his smarmy charm and cunning ambition is forcing him to look beyond Millenion’s vital code of honour. Even his dangerous courting of the daughter of powerful mafia executive Bear Walken could be seen as a cynical attempt to curry favour with the organisation’s top brass.
At the other end of the scale, Brandon’s undying loyalty to his friends, including sweat-heart Maria, is ironically forcing them apart.
Brandon heaps everything on his own shoulders to protect his friends, often taking on the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs to save his men from mortal danger and no where is this more evident than with his failing relationship with Maria. Having neglected to even visit her for years on end, Brandon only wants for Maria to be happy but obviously feels his appearance will just bring more trouble to her. Tragically, it’s his prolonged absence that makes the now fully grown up Maria unhappy and depressed.
Despite suffering from some hiccups early on, Gungrave #3 continues to build the spectacular legacy of Harry and Brandon with a rare level of refinement and skill, ramping up the anticipation of certain tragedy with every passing episode.
Even two relatively minor villains like Blood War and Cannon Vulcan are treated with an outstanding level of respect and maturity, giving the viewer a chance to feel a little sympathy for what could otherwise have been a pair of generic villains-of-the-week.