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Note: I’ve updated the About Me and Currently Watching pages.

I got to thinking the other day, after my Bleach rant. I said that Bleach was “not a good anime”. I thought maybe today I would talk about something that WAS a good anime and why I thought it so. I sat around for a bit, trying to think of an anime that I felt was particularly excellent. Considering my major beef with the vagueness of Bleach’s plot and message, I wanted a show that was big on both of those. I wanted something that was a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end. Something that was clearly written in its entirety before put to production… this is what I decided on.

A personal favorite of mine that I highly recommend

For those of you who don’t know Gungrave, let me give you a little bit of backstory. Gungrave was originally a videogame for the Playstation 2. The game got average reviews, it was short and it had very little replay value… but the characters were amazingly well designed! Gungrave was one of the few videogames to be a videogame BEFORE it was an anime. Madhouse Studios (the guys who did Trigun, Beck, Chobits, Hajime no Ippo, Jubei-Chan and many many more good titles) picked this thing up and said “Dammit, men, we are Madhouse studios. Lets do this shit properly,” presumably while smoking three cigars and wrestling bears upon the backs of high-speed sharks, LIKE TRUE BADASSES. (My credibility seems to have slipped somewhere in there.)

Thank you, Red Entertainment and SEGA

Let us start at the beginning, the first episode. The first episode is intentionally slow, but we start off in the thick of it. It is dark. We get a view of some flowing blood. Then, the cowboy comes to life. Dust pours forth from his mouth as he breathes once more. It is him, a young girl and an old scientist and they are in a truck being attacked by ghoul-things. He comes flying out of the truck and starts killing the ghouls in an extremely satisfying “Well THAT one is dead” sort of manner. Then the girl identifies this character as Brandon Heat. (Now there is a name. ^_^) Freeze frame on firing Brandon. Play opening.

And the Fansubbers got the lyrics right on the first try!

Now we rejoin our trio hiding out in the ruins of a town that looks like bombed-out Italy. There are some names tossed out, (The scientist insists that the young girl should call the cowboy by his new name, Beyond the Grave. Because English is Super Cool) and our heroine Mika sets out to annoy her silent undead protector. She starts limping after him as he wanders the town. (Apparently, she’s injured and annoyingly vocal about it.) We see some destroyed building that doesn’t mean anything to us yet, Grave freaks out a little. We go to a graveyard and see some rocks that don’t mean anything to us yet, Mika is annoying. All through this, awesome music is streaming in.

And then the mafia shows up. Men in suits! With guns! And sunglasses! They want folks dead and they have the numbers to make failing at it still look impressive. Ah, but they have a secret weapon. We haul up another ghoul-critter, which we now know to be an “Orcman”, except THIS one has a fine tailored suit… WHICH HE BURSTS THROUGH TURNING INTO A HULKING BEAST WITH GUNS FOR HANDS! Grave beats him after a fight and the day is saved. We then cut away to an unreasonably tall and obviously metaphorical skyscraper where a man in an obviously metaphorical white suit is told that his evil monster has been destroyed. Apparently the monsters have camera-eyes though, since it sent back an image… an image of a man this mafia boss killed years ago. Credits.

This is an Iconic Ending, by the way.

Wait… WHAT THE HECK DID WE JUST WATCH?! It was a collection of scenes taken mostly out of context. It did nothing but raise questions all over the place! How did this guy come back from the dead? What are the orcmen? Why is he deadset on protecting Mika? Why was he dressed like a cowboy? (We never do get a decent answer to that last one… I can only assume its Doctor T.’s hobby.)

I used to urge people away from watching the first episode, simply because it is basically episode 17 without Brandon’s flashbacks and internal monologue. We are going to see these scenes again, later down the road. Then, I realized something… we need to see this now and here to set our state of mind. In the very first moments of the anime the TRULY important questions are asked by Brandon himself (though we don’t yet know whose voice that is.)

“Were we wrong? Did we…  make a mistake? I can’t remember where it all went wrong.”

The first episode sets up a scenario for us and, in the same breath, tells us that it was not always so. To a person who skipped the first episode, the first half of the series is a story of two B.F.F.s who join the mafia together, resulting the the betrayal and death of the main character. To a person who has these questions to hold on to, the series takes a different tone… you begin trying to answer Brendan’s questions. Where did they go wrong? At what point this Brandon’s best friend Harry turn away from the path? The first half of the series makes the first episode almost feel like some sort of surreal dream… there is no way this realistic mafia story could develop into that sci-fi thing… right?

Ah, but it can. After all, it was meant to be from the beginning. As I’ve said, Gungrave was a story completely written before it was made into an anime. The supernatural elements are introduced near the first quarter mark… and then forgotten, buried by characters that simply don’t want to remember them. They resurface again with a vengeance at the middle and they become dominant for the entire later half… right up until the last episode, where they are washed away.

There are those who criticize the series to be slow, however I find it to be beautifully paced and artistically arranged. There was a scene in which they played the music from a nearby dance party over a large group of mafia men gunning down another mob in slow motion… glorious. There are also a lot foreshadowed moments, poetic moments, visual metaphors and so on. It took me a little while to notice, but the main character is alive for exactly one half of the show. When he dies, the ending credits lose their color.

One thing that will always keep me coming back to Gungrave is the character design. I’m not talking about cosplay-riffic costumes, either. I’m talking about character. Gungrave is a beautifully woven story featuring extremely believable and human characters. These are people full of emotion and humanity. These are people with history and personalities… not just backstory and quirks! Whats more, these are people WHO AGE. When we start the story, Brandon and Harry are a mere 16 years old. When we end, they are both gray-haired old men. (Granted, one stopped aging and one aged faster from the stress of his job, but hey.) The anime mostly leaves it up to you to keep track of the flow of time. They do, however, drop in a helpful indicator, a child. Over the show, you watch this girl grow up into a woman. Every time the child appears after a gap someone will ask her “So, how old are you now? Thirteen? Wow, we must be getting old, eh?”

Another thing that I’ve loved from the start of Gungrave, it is a tragedy with comedic elements. That is to say, it is an anime about a rise and a fall, dealing with death, the destruction of accomplishment and the loss of meaning. By comedy I don’t mean laugh-out-loud comedy, I mean simply that life goes on, despite it all. After the first episode, we know that everything that Brandon and Harry build is going to start to crumble by the third act. This isn’t a story in which my favorite character dies, this is the story of how and why! This isn’t an anime in which characters are killed off, this is a story in which people die.

Though, I have to say, my absolute favorite thing about Gungrave is the ending. I don’t want to spoil too much, so please believe me when I say that this isn’t a spoiler and certainly won’t come as a shock after a few episodes: EVERYONE DIES AT THE END. I counted, there are 3 characters with names, not counting the cat, that survive to the end. (Miranda might have also, but, then again, she could have had a heart-attack and died by the end of the second episode for all we know.) That is an AMAZING amount of closure. Please pause and think about an anime ending recently that pissed you off. I know there HAS to be one. Did you get the mikan ending, the classic “Our battle has only begun! Here’s hoping for a new season!” Did you get the unsatisfying harem ending where the main character never decides who they love in a freaking LOVE COMEDY?! How about the “and they all lived happily ever after despite logic” ending? (I’m looking at YOU, Code Geass.) No, my friends, the last episode of Gungrave is a beautiful piece about the nature of human lives and mortality. At the end of it, the only thing you can do is fight back tears from the very last line, pick yourself up and walk away… after all, you are still alive.

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