Somewhere in an unknown city, organized crime and monsters rule the land. With nowhere left to escape to, a young girl named Mika prompts the revival of a once great sweeper, Brandon Heat, back into the realm of the living. With the entire city under the ironclad rule of Harry MacDowel, Brandon Heat (now called Beyond the Grave) must put an end to the tyranny of Harry and his Organization, Millenion. But can he point a gun at the person he once considered to be his best friend?
Anime based on video games for one reason or another are almost always tantamount to one universal truth: they're usually nothing out of the ordinary and sometimes even rely more on the licenses they're based on than the actual quality of the work. Gungrave manages to somehow make itself a huge exception from that truth and makes outstanding use of an otherwise dry videogame plot.
The story starts out fairly simple. A man named Beyond the Grave is brought back to life using forbidden science and it seems like he came back "to kick some ass" because he was killed by a man named Harry MacDowel. After lots of stuff gets blown up in the first episode, we trek back about two decades into the past to a time when Beyond the Grave was still known as Brandon Heat and to a time where he was still good friends with that same man who killed him, Harry MacDowel.
During that journey into the past, we learn of how an immense friendship between the two was formed, a friendship able to transcend hard times and difficult decisions. From their lowlife street gang beginnings to their rise to power in the Organization, we learn how that bond between them was made ironclad and we also learn how it was destroyed by the very Organization that reinforced that bond.
The central characters themselves are rather interesting in what drives their actions.
Harry for example at the beginning was compelled to gain enough power in which he can create a world where there isn't any suffering or pain, a world where he can live freely with his friends doing whatever he wants, whenever he wants. But he slowly loses sight of his real intent in that climb up the ladder of power because of various circumstances that put him in a position where he must step over people, regardless of who they are, to get to his goal.
Brandon joins in the climb to power, readily following Harry's lead. His way of life forged by his various interactions with the people around him, he reflects on those interactions and develops the logic that protecting can only be done when you put the well being of others before yours. And through this, he dedicates himself to protecting the Organization and the dream that Harry had envisioned. He does this without saying much, putting emphasis on his actions rather than his words.
But then, something happens along the way and Brandon is killed because he becomes caught up between his duty of protecting the Organization and protecting his friend's dream.
From that point, we return to the present. With advancements in a technology he funded, Harry has begun using monsters, known as Orgmen, as a symbol of his absolute power to govern the city in the pursuit of his ever-elusive dream. The writing is still undoubtedly very strong even at this point, but many people may fail to realize this mainly since they can't take the idea of Mafioso suit-wearing monsters too seriously.
When you get past the cheese, there is a deep message about duty, responsibility and friendship with a good sense of character development that happens along the way as Beyond the Grave meets with people that he once considered to be his most valued and trusted friends. The past is contemplated and the parallels of both ages are drawn. And to achieve ambition, both sides go the distance necessary.
When I look over my analysis, I don't think that the game franchise tied the series down at all. Sure, it was different (dare I say "cool") and deviated in feel somewhat, but the importance of characterization and message is still made very apparent. When it comes down to it, what Gungrave does is what most mafia dramas do well: to derive sympathy from the audience for a set of people that are clearly doing wrong things to go through life and give it a sense of justification.
The final episode is a feat in itself, being completely different from what is expected. The ending of the series has just about everything. What I like most about the way the series ended is that it somehow packed a lot drama, dialogue, character development and ass kicking all into one episode. To put it lightly, I haven't seen any other ending in an anime that carries such a significant amount of emotional power. Endings generally do not get any better than the one for this show.
So at the end of the day, it's apparently possible to take a video game and turn it into a stellar anime adaptation that is well animated, has great music and is also quite deep. Gungrave is solid proof of this. While I'm not entirely sure if more game-to-anime shows will follow in the footsteps of Gungrave, it's nice to know that there's a show that managed to not only tear down that barrier of what should be presumed mediocrity and distinguish itself from the rest, but be brilliant as well.
Deduct two stars if you think gangsters and monsters don't go together. — Dominic Laeno
Recommended Audience: There is some blood and violence, but the series tries to work around this by having some major points implied instead.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Gungrave © 2003 Red / Project Gungrave
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