Gungrave Vol. #1 (also w/box) (of 7) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Saturday, June 26, 2004
Release Date: Tuesday, July 06, 2004



What They Say
For Brandon Heat, death doesn't matter. Driven by his need for revenge, he returns from beyond the grave to cripple Milleneon, the huge mafia organization that uses undead monsters as its enforcers. His ultimate goal will be to destroy Harry MacDowel, the leader of Milleneon and, at one time, Brandon's best friend...

The Review!
Based on a video game with designs by fan favorite Nightow, Gungrave's first volume sets the present day stage and then begins the journey of one mans road to revenge.

Audio:
For our primary viewing session, we listened to this show in its original language of Japanese. Our listening experience was greatly enhanced as all the language tracks available here are in 5.1 format. Even better for me, there's the inclusion of a Japanese DTS 5.1 track which doesn't seem to have gotten any sort of release in Japan and is a real rarity when it comes to a TV series. I can't even think of one off-hand that has gotten that. While there doesn't seem to be too much difference between the DD and DTS tracks, the 5.1 mix in general is pretty solid. The opening sequence in the first episode has a good chunk of directionality to the rear speakers and there is a good use of it as well during some of the quieter moments of the show as it progresses. This isn't the most enveloping 5.1 mix out there but the growing number of them is a plus and hopefully as it becomes more the norm we'll see more actively mixed releases from the start.

Video:
Originally airing in 2003, Gungrave is presented here in its original widescreen aspect ratio and enhanced for anamorphic playback. The show itself is a dark and murky piece and that is beautifully presented here. With a heavy accent on shadows and the dark nature of it, there's no visible breakup or issues with solidity levels. It just looks fantastic, especially when they start doing the various flashbacks and we get the style used for it with the grain. When we do get the few moments of vibrancy with the colors, they're sharp and spot on. The opening episode is probably one of the more fluid areas of this particular volume since it's the hook episode and it does stand out quite well. All told, this is a very enjoyable transfer and a beautiful presentation that helps the mood.

Packaging:
Using the artwork from the regular edition of the Japanese first volume's release, we get the highly stylistic but simple character shot of Beyond the Grave with his double guns and bullet shells flying everywhere set against the golden hued backdrop. I'm not sure I can explain exactly why this looks and works so well, beyond the simplicity of it being fairly stronger and more "manly" than most other cover art out there lately. While the cover art certainly won't turn women away, there's a feel of something saying that this is a "man's show" with the look here. The back cover provides a couple of small strips of shots from the show with the episode numbers and titles listed between them while above there are two brief summary paragraphs that give away a little that isn't actually stated in the show yet. The discs features and clearly listed and we get the usual array of production and technical information. I'm still wishing Geneon would shift to a technical grid to help clean up the bottom of their covers since it's so spread out as it is right now. The insert is a simple piece with the shows logo on the front. It opens up two a two-panel spread that has the front cover artwork a little bit brighter and clearer while the back side has just the episode numbers and titles.

Menu:
Another striking and immersive design from Nightjar sets the mood for this show with various clips playing obscured through the center of the menu while it's surrounded by the kind of dark and near-realistic artwork that Nightjar is consistent with in their menu design, such as chains and scratches and the like. All of this is set to some of the instrumental music from the show in 5.1 with a decent length loop time to it. Access times are nice and fast and moving back and forth to the submenus is quick. On the downside, our player presets were not kept when playing the show.

Extras:
The extras included are pretty much par for the course and likely all we'll see for most of the volumes of this series with a few pages worth of conceptual artwork and the opening and ending sequences in clean format. Sadly, these sequences were kept in stereo format only so you can't just loop the opening or ending on a DD or DTS 5.1 mix and let it roll on for hours on end.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Gungrave has had something of an interesting cycle. Back when the PS2 game was announced, Nightow's popularity was at a real high here in the US after Trigun's release. There was some fear that he'd get sucked into the video game world and move away from anime and manga though as many others had done. While I didn't pay the game much mind, his designs for it were definitely striking and added some real style to what looked to be a pretty straightforward shooter.

Then they decide to do an anime based on the game, which always sends a shiver of fear down my spine. While the tide has turned slightly over the last few years in regards to conversions between the two mediums, likely due to the growing number of anime creators moving into games, the bad has still greatly outweighed the good. Gungrave looked like it was going to fall into something where it had such a simple game premise that we'd end up with either an overly simple anime that was just trying to capitalize on the style of the game or we'd end up with something that bore no relation to the game and only irked that crowd but wouldn't make the general anime fandom happy either.

What we end up with, at least by these first four episodes, is a show that manages to work but likely still irks some. Frankly, what irked me the most is that the summary paragraphs used on the DVD and in the promotional material really give away, well, most of the important stuff here in the first volume. Thankfully I didn't read any of that until after I had seen the show otherwise I would have been rather annoyed with it.

Gungrave's premise is very simple. In the present, the city is one of the more dangerous ones in the world where life is a constant struggle for survival. A young woman is on the run from the mafia and is somehow involved with an older scientist type who is helping her hide out. While at his place, she tries to understand his work, which is dealing with the apparently successful revival of a man who says precious little. He is a tall and powerful figure, very muscular and strong, but his expressions are that of the dead and of no interest in things. But something inside him is drawing him back into the city itself and the young woman, Mika, follows him there despite her own wounds.

Given the name "Beyond the Grave" by the scientist, he wanders the desolate streets for something familiar and ends up at what is likely his own former residence. The path then takes him to a makeshift gravesite where we get flashes of both her past and something from his own about a woman named Maria that was taken from him. He and Mika start to make something of a connection based on their personal losses and pain just before the mafia types show up to reclaim her. This clicks deep within Grave's head and he suddenly turns into a powerhouse in taking down the mafia men and their surprisingly powerful Orgman, a large albino type humanoid creature that's under their direct control.

This all seems well and interesting enough. We're treated to some great designs, some Nightow's and some of the designer for the show itself. The layout of the land is definitely something out of a war torn movie and the bizarre creatures that are in use here are definitely intriguing. And with the American mentality, there's always just something about the quiet man who just does what has to be done and seems impossible to kill. The cowboy myth of the tall, dark and handsome stranger is something of the embodiment of Beyond the Grave here in the first episode.

But that's just it, this is the first episode. And while it's a decent first episode it's not one of the best ones out there and it's easy to see why a lot of people got turned off of the show when it first came out. The series is basically pulling a "Berserk" here by providing a quick look into the present, to give the hook of Beyond the Grave in his "final form" and what's going on with the mafia types that want him dead. After that's done, the series takes that turn to go back many years and tell the story of the lead character as he used to be known and the people he used to run with.

That kicks off with an episode title that really sets the feel for things, "Young Dogs." While the city still looks like hell, it has a more functional and alive feel to it but the lives of everyone is still a struggle. We're given over to Grave as he used to be know, Brandon Heat, a young cocky and terribly strong member of a small gang of friends that do what they have to do to survive. He and his best friend Harry, the smooth operator to his more rough and tumble style, and a trio of others have their own little hangout, they pay their percentages to the local mafia boss and deal with the power struggles that occur on this level.

What we're treated to over the next few episodes is the beginning of the change in their lives as their street days comes barreling into dealing with the upper levels of society and the mafia as circumstances simply lead there. With the setup from the first episode, you already know what's going to happen. Hell, from the summary paragraph you know what's going to happen. Harry and Brendan, two friends that we watch live their lives together and do anything they can for the other, will eventually turn into enemies that are trying to kill each other. And going by the first episode, you can guess that Harry was successful since Brendan is considered dead even though he's trying to deal with everything as Beyond the Grave. The idea behind all of this is that it's the journey once more, watching how the lives of the members of this gang and this pair of friends in particular grapple and deal with being taken out of their initial environment after falling as low as they did and moving them to the next stage. Again, since the first half of the ending is known, as you figure the first episode fits in close to the end of the series, you know how certain parts of it turn out for better or worse.

Even with all of this, I have to say that it really does work. Brandon as a character is surprising since there's very little for him to say. When we go back to their younger days, even there he says very little. When he spoke in the third episode I could have sworn it was probably the first time since the flashback storytelling began. The friendship between him and Harry is the strong point and it's very well done here as the two are easily types you can see playing off of each other in their much younger days to survive to where they are now. While there are things out of the ordinary in the opening episode, what we get in the younger days is a dark gritty tale of young men trying to stay alive and find their way in the world. It's a far cry from a lot of other shows out there these days so there's definitely an appeal to it, between the characters, the violence and the rawness of it.

The character designs are quite enjoyable as well. While there are plenty of obvious nods in the design of Beyond the Grave with Nightow, such as the guns and the general bulk, a lot of the other designs do feel more towards the ordinary characters that populate his works. Some of the angularity that's regular in Nightow's designs gives way to a much smoother feel and minimalist approach, such as the messy hair Harry has or the long unkempt lochs of Brandon. The animation itself is good for the most part, though some of the vehicle sequences look truly amateurish as they move towards the camera. The bulk of the animation is really down to the characters themselves and the fights they get in so it's pretty well done as it flows through the city designs.

In Summary:
While the opening of Gungrave is obviously heavy on the testosterone level with the bullets flying everywhere, it eventually gives way to a hard luck buddy tale of two kids from the slums that work their way up the thug and mafia chain to try and find a better place in life for themselves. There's plenty of obvious material in these early episodes that you could see in most any drama cast in a similar vein but it's done with some solid style and a good brutality that's not seen too often in anime these days. While I'm still enjoying the continual shift and expansion of the offering of anime in the US, the "manly" anime that helped get the market going in the 90's shouldn't be forgotten and brushed off. If they keep bringing solid material like this with style and substance, I'll be looking forward to a lot more of it.

Features
Japanese DD 5.1 Language,Japanese DTS 5.1 Language, English DD 5.1 Language,English Subtitles,Production Art,Textless Opening,Textless Ending

Review Equipment
Panasonic PT50LC13 50" LCD RP HDTV, Panasonic RP-82 Progressive Scan codefree DVD player, Sony STR-DE835 DD/DTS receiver, Monster component cable and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: B+
Audio Rating: A
Video Rating: A
Packaging Rating: B+
Menus Rating: B+
Extras Rating: B
Age Rating: 16 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Geneon Entertainment (USA), Inc.
MSRP: 29.98/39.98
Running time: 100
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Gungrave