Another Studio Madhouse anime and another one with an unknown director. This time they got Toshiyuki Tsuru. He has really only previously worked on various shows doing the odd storyboard or key animation here and there. Interestingly enough, the character desigs are from the Trigun series creator Yasuhiro Nightow. For an anime based on a third person shooting PS2 game by Sega, and how most anime based on games turn out very lack-luster, hopes were not high heading into this one. With Madhouse working on almost everything of note in this era and a director with zero experience, expectations could not have been lower.
However, Gungrave sets itself apart from other game-based anime and somehow manages an interesting story out of a pretty dry plot. Gungrave starts off with a bang. A man code named “Beyond the Grave” is brought into a crazy zombie-esc battle to kick some tail and take names. Then the story back tracks a couple decades for about half of the 26 episode series. The audience then gets to learn about Beyond the Grave before he was given that code name to a time when he was known as Brandon Heat. There, Brandon and his best friend Harry MacDowel are shown from their early street gang days and due to exceptional events lead to their rise in the massive criminal organisation known as “Millenion.”
We see immediately from that first episode that Harry does betray Brandon, and the buildup in that first arc is fantastic. The audience slowly see a series of dominoes slowly falling into place ranging from when the street gang dissolves to Harry’s personality change within organized crime. The characters throughout the show are rather interesting other than Brandon. Harry and the people within in and out of Millenion go through various build-ups and life events all while Brandon remain the silent loyal follower of both Millenion and his best friend Harry. There is even a love relationship thrown in with Brandon from the start. This in itself adds to that unfolding deck of cards to the inevitable showdown at the end.
Then, after Harry’s inevitable betrayal of Brandon, the second arc starts. This is where the show falls heavily. After all of that build and after riding the emotional roller coaster, fans are rewarded with zombies, resurrecting bodies, Resident Evil style T-virus mutations for stronger soldiers, and finally a conclusion. At least the story does have a conclusive ending. This second half just does not live up to the first. The writing is absent and replaced by run and gun monster of the week encounters. This is probably where the source brings the show down. There is plenty of repetitive action for some entertainment along with bro-love moments and lost love moments.
Speaking of the ups and downs of how this story unfolds, Gungrave does do something right. As stated before, the beginning arc has an appealing way of how the criminal organization Millenion operates. Within the core part of the story, once Brandon and Harry escape the low life of street gang members and become full fledged members within Millenion, we see the progression of the two main characters. The audience gets to experience almost all of Brandon and Harry’s life. This is done in a way portraying each of their paths to the top. Brandon more or less remains the same, but his demeanor does change. Brandon is still quiet, but as his outward appearance changes into a loyal emotionless assassin, inside he is still the same reserved person he was in his youth. Although, as Brandon gets older, he does tend to talk a bit more openly. Harry on the other hand over-goes a total character overhaul it seems. He wants to get out of the slums and work towards creating a name for himself with Brandon by his side. Somewhere along the line he loses sight of his morals and this leads to questionable decisions unfolding some crazy circumstances. Within these events are some of the most emotional moments a mob drama could ask for.
Now for the more frustrating elements of Gungrave. When it came to the sci-fi action part of the show, this was not done properly. The needless zombie killing seems to never end once it starts. The animation and movement quality is all over the place. Sometimes it would be high quality with gorgeous backgrounds, and other times it would be plain flashes of light with zero animation. Now, the side characters met along the way are very lack luster. There are couple good ones, but the story hardly focuses on them. Instead, Gungrave would rather focus on a trope ridden character. Once a setting and certain character development occurs with some of the higher members of Millenion; the writing is replaced by repetitive action. Some of the most emotional parts of the show are almost ruined by an action event that does not fit, almost negating what had just happened. This is of course primarily seen in the second arc. The women characters in Gungrave are the worst by far. They are almost all identical becoming basically arm candy for the mob. This even includes a main Millenion made-man’s daughter. The woman barely develop any identity, and this is a major miss on the shows part. Even the main love interest Brandon has from start to finish is nothing but frustrating. Moments would unfold between the two characters and the only thing the audience is left with is an empty feeling of “ugh.”
The animation and music are nothing outstanding nor memorable. It was the writing and the lure of that first arc which made Gungrave so interesting and fun. When the story turns into a plot for revenge, the anime loses what made it so fun in the first place. When a mob story turns into a sci-fi plot straight out of a zombie shooter, it just cannot hold a high place. Together Gungrave turns out to be slightly above average. If a mob story is of interest then arc one is almost perfect. If nonsensical sci-fi gun violence is fun, then arc two is below average.
TL;DR: For an anime based on a video game, Gungrave separates itself from the flock of mediocrity or lower. Focusing on the mob development and brother moments between Harry and Brandon are done better than most. That second arc however turns a possible hidden gem of an anime into something of disappointment. The action scenes are done decently enough and even though animation is sporadic at times, it is not a deal breaker. That lure of how such good friends end up going on a path of self destruction and revenge will keep the audience engaged from episode to episode.
Recommended Audience: Fans older in age is appropriate due to the mob element of Gungrave. If a crime drama is what you are looking for, look no further than this.
Gungrave betrayed a couple friends to a 3/5