Gungrave Vol. 1
Is there a real reason to start a show in the middle? The technique, known as in media res, has been used for centuries to attempt to heighten tension in a narrative. We've seen examples of it in the OVA version of Record of Lodoss Wars, Divergence Eve, Gasaraki, and Fullmetal Alchemist (just to name a few). It's a way to get the audience into the thick of a show before going back and showing the story up to now. But does it always work? Gungrave starts off somewhere in the middle of its narrative, and frankly, it's a bit odd during the first episode. Thankfully, as soon as the second episode begins, we are thrust back in time to what has come before; when this happens, Gungrave becomes an engaging series that I am itching to see more of. But it's a bit of a leap to get past the opening 20 minutes, to be sure.
As the show opens, we are treated to a resurrection of sorts. A young man known as Brandon Heat has come back from the grave with the help of a scientist. Equipped with amazing guns and a body that acts like perfect kevlar, he is able to easily defeat a band of psychotic suitclad bad guys and their robotic henchmen. We are told only briefly of a shadowy organization, Millennion, that appears to want Brandon dead...for perhaps a second time.
Without warning, in the second episode we head back in time. Brandon Heat is a reticent young man who's made friends with a little gang of small-time thugs. None of them is all that menacing, but they've formed a family of sorts. Harry acts as a pseudo-leader, and he's Brandon's best friend. Besides this homey band of ruffians, Brandon's got a girlfriend, Maria. She's being raised by a guy she calls Uncle, and he's not too fond of the trouble Brandon finds. Nevertheless, she's enamored with him.
Problem is, there are lots of small gangs around the city, and a few of them have connections to larger crime syndicates. When Brandon and Harry's troupe get involved in a fight with Deed and his cronies, they have no idea what awaits them. All of a sudden, the petty bickerings and rumbles become deadly. As the violence escalates, the bigger thugs in town start taking notice, and the Millennion group steps in to avenge their own. Brandon and Harry find themselves caught in the midst of this circle of violence and loss, and as the first volume ends, they take dangerous steps to assure that they and those they love will not become additional casualties of the warfare.
During the first episode of Gungrave, I really started wondering why this had become a top-rated anime. I'd already heard that the show was based on a video game, which is usually the kiss of death. Though the choreography of the action was interesting enough, it looked less like a sure thing and more like a retread of Midnight Eye Goku or even Fist of the North Star. Guys left for dead coming back from the edge and taking their revenge is almost cliche. So why would it be worth watching another 25 episodes (or even the other 3 left on the first disc)?
It's just at the moment where I was most nervous when the show kicked into gear, surprisingly, by shifting into reverse. Once the backstory of Brandon Heat took the forefront, all of a sudden I became interested. Gone were the robotic villains; gone was the superhuman brandishing revolvers of mass destruction. Instead, a very human story comes into play. Brandon hardly says a word to anyone, yet we can hear his thoughts, and we realize that he is a far cry from even the other members of the gang he runs with. Sure, he's handy with his fists and feet, but he's a good kid in with a rough crowd. The other members of his band aren't saints, but they are decent people. We get a lot of setup, so when the blood starts flowing at the end of episode two and continues until the end of the disc, I felt it more in my gut than in most shows. The fact that nobody is immune to falling by another punk's bullet makes the show more intense as well.
It seems like a long time to set up a story, but by the end of this disc, I had put the rest of the series into my Netflix queue. Does the show seem all that different from the standard cliches? On the surface, no. But the way the story is told keeps you guessing. What exactly is the Millenion organization, other than the mafia? How is it that Brandon is essentially undead in episode 1? How does the first episode track with what we see in the rest of the disc? I'm even ready to go back and analyze the first episode, now knowing what I know, to see what I missed. Ultimately, it's the story that's pulling me into the show more than the technical side of things. Sure, it looks pretty good for a TV show from 2003, but it's not stunning. The music is appropriate enough, but not particularly memorable. But once you're hooked, those things don't matter so much. It's got atmosphere and style that goes past the individual elements.
I'm giving this first volume an A-. Once it was finished, I really enjoyed it, but I can't help but feel that the first episode could have been stronger and less cliched. In hindsight, I want to watch it again; the first time, it feels derivative and a little plain. But my strong advice is just to keep watching. Sure, if all you want is weird robotic creatures and a dude acting like Superman with revolvers, then you might be bored after the first episode is done. But the program gets far more rich and complex the further it journeys, and I expect it will hook you like it hooked me.
Gungrave Vol. 1 -- violence, profanity -- A-