Anime based on video games are for the most part marginal in quality, relying on the fanbase of the license rather than setting out to tell a thought provoking story. Gungrave has shown itself to be the exception to the rule, taking a mindless action game and converting it into a heartfelt drama that expands on an otherwise barebones plot. The franchise pools together some heavy hitters in the anime industry, hiring both Yasuhiro Nightow and Kosuke Fujishima of Trigun and Oh My Goddess! fame respectively.
The story is a simple revenge driven arc that follows Beyond the Grave as he is resurrected after being murdered by mafia overlord Harry MacDowel. The first episode acts as a spectacle of explosions and bullets before turning back the hands of time to a time when Beyond the Grave was better known as Brandon Heat and he was good friends with the man who killed him, Harry Macdowel.
The series goes to extensive lengths to build the relationship between the pair, detailing the evolution of both, from their beginnings as low-level street thugs to their rise through the ranks of the mob with their bond holding them together. However with their rise to power, the cracks in that friendship are made apparent by Harry’s lust for power and Brandon’s determination to do right by himself and the people around him.
The characters are far from cliché, demonstrating wants and needs dissimilar from traditional protagonists and antagonists. For Brandon, his climb up the ladder is a response to Harry, who wishes to gain absolute control over the organization so that he can create a world of peace and luxury for himself and his friends. As time moves forward, Harry’s ambition fogs his vision, causing him to become bitter toward everyone, including Brandon, who dedicates himself to silently protecting the organization and earning favor with the higher ups.
Eventually everything comes to a head and the pair’s friendship is shattered when Harry determines to take Brandon out of the equation. From there, audiences are propelled forward to the present, where Harry is transforming his underlings into literal monsters and Brandon returned to life as Beyond the Grave being the only one capable of stopping him.
The series delivers a strong message of friendship and responsibility and the test of a person’s integrity and commitment to others as their actions from the past define their future. It’s a surprising step up from a game that was built on mostly awarding style points while slaughtering monsters.
The series struggles in certain aspects in regards to its execution. Teasing a science fiction setting with unconventional characters in the first episode and then pulling back to a more contemporary setting threatens to confuse and alienate viewers, especially when so much time is spent in the past. For those who came to the series expecting blood spattering monster gore, this most likely proved a turn-off, despite the strength in the writing of Harry’s and Brandon’s growth as characters. No doubt some will also be thrown off by the unorthodox blend of monsters and gangsters that does make the well written story difficult to take seriously.
Gungrave is a break from the norm of video game based anime. It has intriguing characters, a smart story, and genuine emotion. It’s a solid addition for any anime fan’s library as-well-as anyone who prefers brilliant characterization.