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 Yasuhiro Nightow (Trigun) is about a slain Mafia Hitman-Brandon Heat who through the help of necrolyzation, returns from the dead. Well equipped with twin high velocity pistols called Cerebrus and a Coffin with a few surprises, Brandon, now dubbed "Beyond the Grave "seeks revenge against Millennion, a criminal organization ran by the man responsible for killing him, his best friend Harry MacDowell!

The 25-episode animated series might share familiarity with concepts that range from Hong Kong and Sci Fi cinema as well as mianstream comics, however, it is the brilliant storyline, that is Gungrave's strongest asset.

And this is due to a more expansive backstory into the videogame-based adaptation, giving it depth compared to the shoot em up Playstation title.

Aside from the first episode-Destroyers in the dusk, a good chunk of this Gungrave takes place prior to the narrative from the videogame also the foundation of Millenion and how Harry has taken a g shift from being a slick con artist to being this ruthless power driven megalomaniac to the extent of betrayal.

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, its Harry, who falls within the higher ranks of the criminal organization and his ambitions go to the extent of achieving his dreams by any means necessary!

The flashback arc is ripe with familiar to the Berserk Anime series when you compare Brandon and Harry to Guts and Griffith. The parallels are there however, Gungrave is more character focused even with 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, Brandon pays for it via deadly consequences.

The most pivitol scene from episode titled; "DIE"

This brings the Millennion flashback storyline to an abrupt closure thus, concluding back to the present day with its science fiction aspect in tow. Now, Brandon with being "resurrected" as the necrolyzed gunslinger called Beyond the Grave  his first order of business, is to protect, avenge and have revenge! 
As with the videogame, Beyond the grave or "Grave" for short, engages the "Big Four",  his former friends, now major adversaries. The latter episodes is conducive of  the "Monster of the Week" template,a familiar staple in Anime as the main hero is pitted against a different antagonist creature each week.

What I liked about those episodes, is how each adversary contained a backstory detailing their motivations when pledging loyalty to "Bloody Harry" and the new Millenion.In the case of Bear Walken, there's more of an humanistic aspect, honor  and even remorse.
What is seen in the "Third act", goes full circle with Harry being on the receiving edge of karma that brings about survivor's remorse, guilt, regret and finally, redemption. for the most part, Gungrave could be described as this hybrid Sci Fi Shakespearean, if not Machiavellian mafia drama. Its finale "Dusk of the Destroyers" packs an emotional gut punch that differs from of the videogame’s continuity. Harry wasn't painted as a one dimensional antagonist as it was evident in the episode "Then", where the final flashback sequences add more depth to his character even to the extent of advising Brandon to get an honest job and find happiness with Maria. It's a metaphor of the choices one makes that can decide their fate in life. Sadly, Brandon lacked purpose other than his undying loyalty.

If there are 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 potentially romantic relationship with Maria for the sake of the organization. Although it was mentioned that Brandon and Maria were lovers, it wasn't demonstrated in the 25 episodes. Brandon looked more like a shoulder for Maria to cry on if anything. Unfortunately, he never had the chance to fulfill his love for Maria due to some headstrong  loyalty to the Code of Iron , or  maybe  that he realizes how his line of work as a sweeper, may be  too much of a burden to Maria.

From my perspective, this was unexpected as I feel that it would make more sense at least within the story's context, of why Brandon's motivations for coming back from the dead would be to avenge Maria's murder and to protect their daughter. Mika (Had Brandon and Maria became a thing.)

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 during the latter episodes, tend to be a bit watered down, possibly as a means to meet deadlines. Maybe I expected more from the brilliant Madhouse studios? It's funny how Grave shatters the Orgmen-Necrolylzed soldiers who resemble Resident Evil 2's Mr. X/Tyrants with one bullet as if they were made out of glass. It felt cheapened but still entertaining to see his opponents go down.

As for the Japanese voice acting, for the most part its superb! That being said, is it just me, or the fact how annoying Mika sounds especially when screaming and crying? It's almost as if the same actress who voices every adolescent girl. Gungrave is one of the few examples, where the ending theme is superior to the intro. "Until the sunset turns red" is an unforgettable song and easily fits the series' setting.
Despite the Science Fiction, Crime Drama and even Superhero trappings, at the end of the day, Gungrave is very drama oriented and it excels at it! This is why I find myself  binge-watching the entire series almost every year. it's that fucking good!

Another critique, albeit minor, were a few uninspired character names like Blood War, Ballibird Lee or "Bob Poundmax"? (Make of the latter what you will.)Now Bear Walken sounds legit as do Brandon Heat. (Is his name some bizarre homage to Brandon Lee who starred as The Crow, another hero resurrected from the dead to enact revenge upon his killers?) Grave's wardrobe is left to be desired by some, but Nightow-san is probably a fan of Westerns. Aside from Triggun, Grave's "coffin" is an homage to the original Django, I guess.

I wish there were more to Grave demonstrating his necrolized abilities, instead of being limited to firing dual high-density pistols and the coffin cannon. It would not have hurt to let him use a few melee weapons or hand to hand combat other than his confrontation with Bunji in the episode titled; "Brother. Yes, Brandon was handy with firearms when serving as Millennion’s enforcer, but he was also a streetfighter when growing up in the slums..

Those complaints aside, I am a fan of this series and highly recommend it to lovers of high concept crime dramas, John Woo gangster films, RobocopUniversal Soldier, The Terminator, Scarface, Kill Bill, Deathlok, The Punisher, Leon the Professional and of course, The Crow. You can't do any worse!

Gungrave may not share the same iconography 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, one and done! In short, Gungrave is a satisfying revenge thriller with heart, soul and "bromance".

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

Now available for Playstation VR!

Coming soon to Playstation 4!