In the aftermath of a devastating world war, Japan has embraced capitalism to the point of extreme gentrification and has become corrupt beyond repair as the rich seek to satisfy their desires. Saiga, a photographer once assigned to cover the war who now works for the Tokyo police department as a correspondent, finds himself interested in a club known to contain numerous politicians and magnates and infiltrates them in order to uncover their workings. He finds them engaged in orgies and preparing for a deeply disturbing ritual, and in the process of documenting his finds he is captured and brought forth as the ceremony begins. In the process of an escape attempt, he comes into contact with this club's resident "goddess": a young girl named Kagura whose presence awakens latent supernatural abilities in all who touch her lips. Upon being kissed, he finds that he is now able to cause explosions by taking pictures and vows to rescue the apparently-enslaved girl and uncover the truth behind this organization, whose existence somehow seems to be closely tied to society's state of decline.
While Speed Grapher is hardly the first anime that I have found baffling, I remain at a complete loss as to what GONZO was thinking when its staff conceived it. This odd concoction variously tries its hand at political drama, thinly-disguised stories of superheroes, and science fiction, introducing new ideas at almost every turn and yet never quite finding the right balance or executing them satisfactorily. The cursory treatment of the series' universe and liberal borrowing of oft-tread themes make for an unconvincing narrative, and with the addition of a lazy production job and much unnecessary sexualization this failure renders Speed Grapher into a much less interesting story than it could have been. A compelling pair of leads and some interesting plot elements make it enjoyable if not particularly cerebral to watch for much of its run, but a lackluster ending and the complete failure to answer many of the questions raised somewhat nullify the fun, and while those who mind an unfulfilled story less than I do may still want to take a look, I warn the viewer that the disappointment I felt upon the series' conclusion was large enough to dissuade me from the cautious recommendation I may have given it otherwise.
Speed Grapher is a difficult series to classify, for while the cynical tone of its main character, heavy sexualization, and inclusion of crime drama and political drama as a central storyline bring American film noir to mind, an equal proportion of the running time is concerned with a story of superpower-endowed individuals akin to Marvel's X-Men, and while the show never refers to said characters as superheroes the episodic showdowns between Saiga and several less friendly "euphoria" (as they are called) make for a dark and disturbing take on superhero adventures. The story is neither original nor particularly intelligent, but the pacing is just right for the most of the series, as the action scenes are enjoyable and the main characters are on their toes to an extent that the story moves quickly and somewhat distracts from the flimsy story. Indeed, while I can't say that I was particularly impressed by Speed Grapher's premise, I did find myself easily drawn in and able to enjoy the series on a casual level. The problem, unfortunately, is that when the necessity to explain the details catches up, Speed Grapher throws its hands into the air and pleads ignorance. Its simplistic story of political corruption and decayed society results in a series of confrontations that would logically defeat the main characters, but these issues are instead conveniently swept away at series' end, while the attempts to explain the nature of Kagura's powers neither go into enough detail to satisfy nor escape the frustrating trappings of pseudoscience. Some potentially interesting pieces of drama, among them a main character's terminal illness, are solved to the benefit of the people involved but lack the logic and use of detail necessary to convince the audience, and near the end several predictable and clumsily-portrayed betrayals occur that severely eroded my ability to take the show seriously. Its also something of a shame that the Euphoria themselves are not particularly interesting as characters: while some of them display intriguing traits (a sadistic dentist with mechanical drills, chisels, and mirrors grafted onto his spine, a woman made of diamond whose reflective surface stymies Saiga's newfound ability) they virtually all share a generic personality of maniacal insanity and over-zealous devotion to some art or occupation, and while none linger around long enough to become tiresome, the repetitiveness quickly becomes a bit grating.
What Speed Grapher largely does get right, however, are its main characters, both of whom are quite easy to empathize with and whose predicament helps to keep the story interesting for as long as it does. Although Saiga represents another entry in GONZO's tradition of gloomy protagonists (akin to Hayami Tetsu from Blue Submarine Number Six), he remains enjoyable to watch nonetheless, veering towards cynical wit and a stoic temperament rather than any sort of self-pity and behaving intelligently throughout, while his behavior towards Kagura is skillfully portrayed as being protective but respectful, with no condescension or perversion visible. His profession as a photographer also makes for a compelling story akin to that of Nadesico's Akito: his instinctive drive to capture images on film later becomes an effective element as his newfound power makes it impossible to take pictures without causing an explosion, and his time spent as a war photographer comes to reflect his experiences running from the Euphoria and their masters. Kagura, who is revealed to be the daughter of an extremely wealthy corporation's chair, is at times a tad bit trite but generally pleasant to watch, and her exposure to the "real world" following a cloistered childhood and subsequent reaction becomes a compelling plot point. It's a bit unfortunate that the writers seem to have spent their energy on the lead characters, as the remaining characters largely serve as henchmen, act as vectors for comic relief, or behave illogically to the expense of the show's credibility. The ultimate "antagonist", a cold and Machiavellian executive named Suitenguu, is an interesting enigma for the first section but is given an unconvincing "tragic past" in later episodes, with the writers sometimes treating him as a true villain, other times treating him as some sort of pitiful antihero, and being unable to convince the audience of either. The worst character by far, however, is Saiga's colleague Ginza, a policewoman who inexplicably wears a uniform straight out of bondage pornography, fondles and lusts after Saiga in spite of his absolute disinterest, changes allegiance for no apparent reason multiple times, betrays Kagura and yet is apaprently somehow meant to remain in the audience's good grace, and engages in some deeply disturbing sexual practices, such as attempting to have sex with comatose characters. Her appearance and role in the story as a gun-touting cop somewhat resembles that of Ghost in the Shell's Motoko Kusanagi and may possibly be a reference to her, and yet she is nowhere near as fascinating or convincing, her hypersexual behavior and deeply mean-spirited personality alienating the audience from her by the end of the first episode.
Speed Grapher is not much to look at, unfortunately, and GONZO's animation is adequate at best and unacceptably runny and blurry at its very worst. The concept art of the characters, some of which is visible during the ending sequence, is quite beautiful, but in this case the detail seen in still life did not translate to the screen, and the show's artwork is largely plain and at times completely distorted and hideous to look at. The music, a series of endlessly repeated synthesizer and soft rock jams, is decent but largely forgettable, although Duran Duran's "Girls on Film" makes for a catchy opening, the first ending theme is a pleasant and somewhat folky tune, and the second ending theme makes for some good if rather generic rock music. I must point out, in addition, that watching Speed Grapher is occasionally akin to watching soft-core porngraphy, and the high degree of sexualization in this show is both uncomfortable and largely unecessary. The scenes set in the club amount to orgy, as the various members engage in public intercourse, bondage, and other practices to the tune of some very audible moaning, while other scenes of sex and attempted assault appear seemingly at random throughout the series. Though nothing is so explicit that it would be earn this an "adults only" rating (or, for that matter, well-animated enough to be at all alluring), it gets to be too much by the end, and while Saiga manages to avoid the kinky sex whenever Ginza is not there to try and fondle him, he and the much-younger Kagura do begin to develop a sort of affection whose implications are never properly dealt with. While the unremarked-upon age difference may perhaps be a relic of Japan's greater acceptance of such relationships, it will likely be somewhat disturbing to Western Audiences.
Speed Grapher shows promise at the start, but it falls apart too catastrophically and has a few too many glitches to for me to recommend it. Though the main characters make for a likable pair and the plotting is quite acceptable for a television series, its failure to explain itself ultimately turns the entirety into a tease, with the sexualization and poor animation taking away most of the sensory enjoyment in the meantime. There are better series that attempt a similar tale and fare better with a single story instead of weaving through several unfinished subplots, and because of this failure, Speed Grapher remains an unclassifiable oddity, one whose lack of focus completely undoes its achievements in the end.
I suppose I might say Speed Grapher is a "strong" two stars, but unless one can overlook its highly derivative and unsatisfying story, at two stars it shall remain. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: Though not strictly pornographic, Speed Grapher tries its darned hardest to be at times and will thus be completely inappropriate for children. Many episodes also contain graphic violence and disturbing dismemberment, while both the English soundtrack and the subtitles available on the R1 DVD have strong profanity.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (24/24)
Speed Grapher © 2005 GONZO
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