Gungrave Vol.01: Beyond the Grave Review
Some grudges are worth rising from the grave for…..
Set in a crumbled futuristic world run by mobsters who use mutant creatures called Orgmen to clean up their "mess", Grungrave tells the story of Brandon Heat. Brandon used to be the most skilled enforcer for the number one crime syndicate: Millennion, but was betrayed by his best friend and the organisation's boss: Harry Mcdowell. Now, thirteen years after Harry supposedly had Brandon killed the legendary enforcer has returned and he's taking out Millennions Orgmen with relative ease – something unheard of from a mere human. Aiding Brandon in his war against Millennion is the brilliant scientist Dr. Tokioka, and a young girl named Miki whose mother was tragically gunned down by the Millennion group, but not before helping her daughter to escape with a firm order to seek out her old friend Brandon. Just what happened between Harry and Brandon for things to turn out this way and how was Miki's mother mixed up in it all?
Take a dollop of Cowboy Bebop, a sprinkling of Hellsing, then mix together with the narrative of Berserk and you have Gungrave. Just like Berserk the opening episode serves as an introduction to the "present day" world that our hero inhabits: a city where gangsters are using zombie soldiers to ensure the balance of power tips in their favour. Just like Berserk our hero is the only human that can fight these monsters on equal terms, and just like Berserk we quickly realize he's not quite as mortal as he once was and he has a heavy grudge to bear on the man that did this to him! Not only is this an effective introduction to the major players of Gungrave, but there's also no time wasted in giving a hefty glimpse at Brandon's formidable skills with his favourite dual gun armory, with two lengthy Orgman battles for our hero to contend with. Each sequence is slickly composed and edited to provide just the right first impression of where this series is headed, but when the smoke clears the story jumps back thirteen years to the start of Harry and Brandon's story. Unfortunately for action freaks, after this jump Gungrave takes on the far more conventional, human – and dare is say it, derivative tone of a standard rags-to-riches gangster drama.
Don't worry though, it's a good one. The older Brandon and Harry looked like mentally crumbled shells of ordinary humans, the scars of past events bearing heavy on both - although obviously a lot more heavily on Brandon! However once the story flashes back we can clearly see the brotherly bond and deep loyalty they once felt for each other and the rest of their crew: Kenny, Jolice, and Nathan. This small gang is introduced as almost nothing more than honourable ruffians; Harry earns most of the group's money as a philandering grifter, fleecing wealthy broads for all they're worth; Kenny dabbles in petty theft, Jolice owns the diner where they all hang out; Brandon is the protective muscle, and Nathan is; well… He's Nathan. Each has their own distinct personality but its clear that Brandon and Harry are vital to the group's dynamic, which is surprising because Brandon is a border-line mute with not more than five words to say each episode, whereas Harry has the gift of the gab and for most of this volume he's the more charismatic protagonist. Together they're just small time street punks – what the Japanese call: chinpira – happy with just their loyalty to each other and a pocketful of minor ambition, but as Brandon's opening voice-over tells us; this city has a nasty habit of chewing up small fry and spitting them out.
Sure enough, their small town idyll is disrupted when Harry seduces the girlfriend of a rival street thug named Deed. Deed's no direct threat to them himself; indeed the boys easily beat off his gang, but unfortunately for them his older brother: Mad Dog Ladd is back in town and this man is anything but harmless. Although he has bigger fish to fry carrying out orders from his crime boss to kidnap a young Dr. Tokioka from the Millennion Group, he still finds time to hit back with brutal vengeance on Harry and Brandon's group. Add to this is a romantic subplot where Brandon and local beauty Maria's love-life comes to an abrupt halt by her disapproving adoptive father – who just happens to have deep ties with the Millennion Group – and Mad Dog's arrival proves to be the catalyst that turns Brandon and Harry from relatively harmless, unmotivated young men into ambitious career criminals with only one organization in mind. And so the seeds of their downfall are planted.
Although the flashback story arc has remained firmly entrenched within standard gangster drama up until now, it's the pre-existing knowledge that that this is just a small initial stepping stone into a much more epic story crossing much wider genres that draws you in and maintains your interest – you can't help but absorb every minor plot revelation in the hope that later events might refer back to this simple start. Also, brief glimpses of the professional Millennion sweepers in action later on in the volume provide a tantalizing glimpse of the exciting skills Brandon will learn as he progresses within Millennion. So with Gungrave promising a heavy dose of gangster action, tragic betrayals, and a burgeoning paranormal horror subplot there's excellent reason to stick with the show past this first volume.
While I have tried my best not to reveal too much about each episode in these synopses, please bare in mind that the second episode and onwards may feature spoilers for the episodes prior.
Episode 01. Destroyer In The Dark: Miki, a young woman who has been on the run from the mod ever since watching her mother get gunned down, has arrived in an abandoned part of town looking for a man named Brandon Heat. Brandon was once the greatest "sweeper" in the city's most powerful crime syndicate: Millennion, but just like Miki he is now a fugitive himself. However, unlike Miki he bears scars that an ordinary human should not have survived from plus his strength and resilience to physical damage are far beyond normal boundaries. Just what kind of man is Brandon Heat?
Episode 02. Young Dogs: After flashing back to the start of Brandon and Harry's story, we catch up with them as young street punks in a small gang of minor criminals. They're a loyal bunch who try not to get involved in anything deeper than a spot of petty theft and minor fraud, but when Harry seduces the girlfriend of a rival gang leader they're drawn into a minor gang tussle that threatens to blow into something much more sinister.
Episode 03. Rain: The boys discover Jolice's dead body back at the diner and have no choice but to go into hiding below street level until they can find out who is after their heads. Meanwhile Mad Dog Ladd is busy kidnapping Dr. Tokioka for his crime boss before leaving the mafia family behind for good. With this final gesture out of the way he's free to finish cleaning up his younger brother's mess, but the kidnapping of Tokioka has not gone unnoticed and Ladd is now targeted himself by Millennion.
Episode 04. Go: With Jolice, Nathan and Kenny all dead, Harry and Brandon find themselves with nothing left of their old life in the city. Maria has lost everything herself and is still mourning the death of her adoptive father. However, when Jester's old friend: Big Daddy rolls into town new horizons open for all three youngsters, for he is the boss of the Millennion syndicate and he's come to take care of Maria in Jester's place.
PresentationPresented anamorphically at 1.78:1, this is a very fine transfer as expected from a show as new as Gungrave. While the colour scheme of the series can be muted at times and beautifully vibrant at others, it's always rendered cleanly and boldly with no bleeding, excellent compression and no composite problems like cross-colouration. Likewise the contrast and brightness levels are pleasing and the image detail is pretty high, with no problems like edge enhancements to distract. One unfortunate side-effect of the show's hazy design though is some pretty regular digital banding on certain displays, such a common problem for this style of animation I'm afraid.
Present on this disc are Japanese DTS5.1 and DD2.0 Surround soundtracks, plus an English DD5.1 dub. For the purposes of this review I put all three through their paces but stuck primarily to the Japanese DTS for general listening. They're all excellent tracks that will no doubt whet the appetite of any Anime fan with a good home cinema set-up.
The Japanese DTS5.1 track quickly immerses you into a wide, expansive soundstage that makes full use of every speaker in the set up during the shoot-outs. The action is delivered very aggressively, demons scream out loudly and gunshots boom into your ears, but throughout all this the dynamics are pretty tight. Dialogue is always audible and clear, with no tear and the score is suitably open and breezy. If I had to get really picky, I'd mention that it can sound a little harsh at times because it's so aggressive, but I think DTS whores are going to lap this one up.
The Japanese DD2.0 Surround is obviously nowhere near as aggressive or immersive as the DTS, but it's a strong track that makes excellent use of the stereo stage, ensuring the bullets zip by you with appropriate frequency. Dialogue again remains clear and audible and the sound in general feels warmer and more inviting than the take-no-prisoners DTS.
Last but not least is the English DD5.1 Dub. Again this just isn't nearly as aggressive as the Japanese DTS and the dynamics aren't quite as rich, but it does pack enough of a punch to make a big impact. The soundstage is also just as ambient and open as its DTS counterpart. Dialogue is as clean as the other tracks and the bass strikes a pleasant medium between the thumping DTS and warmer DD2.0.
I'm not the biggest fan of most English dubs for Anime shows, but I think the US cast has done a pretty good job with Gungrave. Ron Allen (AKA: Kirk Thornton) brings Brandon Heat to life effectively and naturally, although I would've liked him to sound a little more sorrowful during Brandon's voiceovers in episodes two onwards. Likewise Kari Wahlgren does a good job as Miki, emanating the right mixture of tenderness, resolve and sheer fear; but it's the older characters in the first episode that feature the best performances on this disc. William Frederick Knight sounds great as Dr. Tokioka and really suits his part, Abe Lasser (AKA: Tom Wyner) is even better as the old worn-down Bloody Harry, imbuing madness, regret and terrible resolve into the role with just a few minutes of screentime. I wish I could say the same about Tony Oliver, who plays the younger Harry during the lengthy flashback arc; he's a pretty hit and miss throughout. In fact most of the younger characters during the flashback sound unnaturally forced at times, but overall this is one of the strongest English dubs I've heard since Cowboy Bebop.
Optional English subtitles are present with no spelling or grammatical errors I can recall.