Gungrave (2003) Anime review

In each hand he wields "CERBERUS", his twin handguns and on his back he carries a coffin filled with heavy weapons. Cloaked in darkness and smelling of the grave, he is back to kick ass!

Revenge is a dish best served cold, cold as the unliving! Based on the hit Playstation 2 videogames during the early 2000's, Gungrave created by Red Nightow (Trigun) is about a slain Mafia Hitman-Brandon Heat who through the help of science, returns from the dead to seek revenge against Millenion, a criminal organization run by the man who responsible for Brandon's demise-his best friend!

This 25-episode animated series might share familiarity with concepts that range from Hong Kong and Sci Fi cinema as well as mainstream comics, however, it's the brilliant storyline, that is one of the Anime’s strongest asset.

Aside from the first episode-Destroyers in the dusk, a good chunk of this series takes place prior to the narrative from the videogame also the foundation of Millenion and how Heat's “BFF” had taken a gradual shift from confidant to becoming some impatient, ruthless power-driven sociopath ergo the name; “Bloody Harry”!  Brandon who is stoic, doesn’t add much when it comes to dialog however, after the end credits of each episode, there’s a little narration from his perspective as to his decisions, doubt and most notably, the repercussions that followed.

During the events of the highly praised episodes "Young Dogs" and "Rain" we are introduced to the supporting characters, Maria, Jolice and Kenny who through an unexpected outcome, plays into the regrettable decision making for both Harry and Brandon. (Childhood friends from an orphanage, who became petty criminals within the vicinity of some fictional slum town.) While Brandon is pretty much an ambivalent Assassin, Harry, who falls within the higher ranks of the criminal organization, is  highly ambitious to the extent of achieving his dreams by any means necessary!

The flashback arc is ripe with familiar Mafia tropes as in murders, internal power struggles and of course, betrayal. The latter example, is prominent in episode appropriately titled "DIE". Here, we have Brandon being faced with the most difficult decision of his life. When he makes the right choice, due to his uncompromising moral compass, Heat pays for it via deadly consequences.

The most pivitol scene from episode titled; "DIE"

This brings the Mafia flashback storyline to an abrupt closure thus concluding back to present day with the science fiction aspect that is primarily based on the PS2 game itself. Now, Brandon being "resurrected" as the necrolyzed gunslinger called Beyond the Grave and his first order of business, is payback! As with the videogame, Beyond the grave or "Grave" for short, takes down his major adversaries in each episode (respectively) taking a turn for the "Monster of the Week"-a familiar staple in Anime as the main hero is pitted against a different antagonist creature each week.

What I liked about these segments, is how each villain contained some backstory of their motivations behind supporting the new Millenion and in some cases, remorse after being dealt with.

What is seen as the "Third act", is when shit gets real starting with Harry receiving some serious blowback via karma leading toward moments of survivor's remorse, guilt, regret and finally, redemption for the major and supporting cast. In so many ways, Gungrave could be described as a Science Fiction Shakespearean tale if not Machiavellian. Its finale packs an emotional gut punch when it comes to a few surprising twists that is outside of the videogame’s continuity.

If there is one or two major gripes I would have about Gungrave, that would go to the squandered romance storyline between Brandon and his love interest, Maria. There was this potential buildup that was discarded as an afterthought with Brandon becoming way too much of the shy, introverted silent protagonist, and what infuriated me more, is his decision to abandon his relationship with the beautiful Maria.

This was a negative decision from a writer's perspective, because it would make more sense, content wise, for Brandon's motivations for coming back from the dead. To avenge Maria's murder and to protect their daughter Mika from the revenge driven Harry.

However, for those of you familiar with the games and the Anime, this was not the case regarding who is Mika's father. Although the pacing is far from dull, the animation although good, seemed watered down especially during latter episodes. Perhaps I expected much more from Madhouse?
The Japanese voice acting for the most part is superb, but Is it just me, or the fact how annoying Mika sounds especially with the whining, screaming and crying sounds? It's almost as if it’s the same actress who voices every adolescent girl.

Then, there are uninspired silly names like Blood War, Ballibird Lee and Bob Poundmax?!? Okay, Bear Walken at least sounds legit as do Brandon Heat. (Is the protagonist’s name some bizarre homage to Brandon Lee who starred as The Crow, another hero resurrected from the dead to enact revenge upon his killers?) I just wished that there was more to Grave demonstrating his necrolized capabilities, instead of being limited to firing dual high-density pistols and his coffin cannon. It wouldn’t hurt to have him use a sword or throw more punches and kicks every now and then.

These complaints aside, I really love this series and highly recommend it to lovers of high concept crime dramas, John Woo gangster films, RobocopUniversal Soldier, Kill Bill, Deathlok, The Punisher, Leon the Professional and of course, The Crow.

Gungrave may not share the same popularity as Trigun, but, the series is ripe with nuance, not to mention, a spiritual successor to both Nightow's iconic Space Western and the Berserk anime due to the latter having fascinating similarities. With the palatable animation, impeccable soundtrack that includes an unforgettable outro and of course, a cohesive story followed by a cathartic conclusion, Gungrave is a satisfying blend of a revenge superhero sci fi crime drama bromance!

Gungrave is available in Bu-Ray format and can be seen on streaming apps like Hulu and VRV.

Happy 15th Anniversary, Grave!

Coming soon to Playstation VR!


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