Gungrave: Series Review

Matt Brown (Editor in Chief) — February 23rd, 2009
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I wonder if some people actually bury their guns in honor, with a headstone and everything. It might say something like, "Here lies Elena, beloved rifle of The Butcher, who is now useless." Or maybe some kind of wacky religious symbolism — about a warrior now at peace, his weapon cleared from both mind and soul — would be present. Would the burial be private, or would a crew of sniffling soldiers pay their respects?

Alas, Gungrave isn't about graves for guns. It's about love and family, and squishy things. It's about protecting the people you love, except when ideology dictates that you should kill them instead. Above all, it's about raising an army of undead monsters to retaliate against those who would deny you what you want. And what do you want? "Freedom."

If you've read my reviews of the first several episodes of this series, you know that I wasn't wild about how it started (save the first episode). I regret to report that the remainder of the show didn't do much to change my opinion.

Gungrave is based on the video game (a third-person shooter) of the same name. It tells the story of Brandon Heat, a small-time scrapper turned mob hitman, who gets himself murdered, then resurrected, and goes on a quest for revenge. After his Unholy Unearthing, he is christened as "Beyond the Grave," a name that can only be described as confused, given his corporeal existence. But I digress.

Part of Gungrave's strangeness is where its appeal lies — on the surface. The action in the series is well choreographed, and the special-effects genius of Madhouse Studios really shines through in this series. The problem is everything else — specifically, the show's childish depiction of the mob. Because it insists on exploring the lives of Brandon and "Bloody" Harry MacDowell (the Bad Guy) in depth, we see firsthand how messed up Gungrave's world view is.

When Paramount was looking for a director for The Godfather, a common response they received was that romanticizing the mafia was immoral [1]. The finished product did contain much of what could be qualified romance, but was balanced by grim portrayals of the consequences of the lifestyle. When viewed in full context, the character rituals and attitudes in The Godfather are a fools' theatre — their idea of "family," an impossible dream.

In Gungrave, the Millennion crime family was started by a man they call Big Daddy, presumably to protect his buddies from the cruelty of society. (The show isn't big on details.) Brandon and Harry, best friends at the time, come under the syndicate's umbrella when their smalltime extortion business shows better organization. The early parts of the show chronicle Harry's ambition to rise to the top of the organization, and Brandon's development as an assassin.

The remaining character of significance is Maria, a girl Brandon is sweet on initially, but he distances himself from her after becoming a killer. Big Daddy takes care of her, as a promise to an old friend, so the three are often in contact.

Through these activities, we are supposed to learn what Millennion is all about, and get an idea of how the newcomers might change things. This is an ordinary, healthy way to tell a story, but there's one problem in this case: it's boring. Gungrave adopts as its core message the notion of family loyalty portrayed in standard-fare mob stories, but excludes the foolish pride, arrogance, territoriality, and sense of entitlement that normally comes with it. The picture it paints of the organization is one of roses and sunshine. It downplays the importance of long-term friendships and blood relationships, and even portrays them as unjust in comparison to the other "family."

The series becomes more entertaining when Big Daddy denies Harry a big promotion (though for me, the damage was already done). Harry then proceeds to take what he wants by force, and winds up shooting his best friend in the process. But it's not until Harry goes after everyone tied to Big Daddy (including Maria, and her daughter, Mika) that newly-undead Brandon springs into action.

While "Beyond the Grave" does battle with Harry's evil organization, the series imparts one last nugget of wisdom: that Brandon is Millennion. This is an insult to Brandon — one of about three characters in the whole show who has any common sense. They're portraying Brandon as loyal to the Millennion of Big Daddy, when he shows a clear pattern throughout the series of favoring friends over The Family. I'd give the writers credit if they were being ironic, here, but I believe they're completely serious.

It might be possible to ignore the problems with the backstory, and enjoy Gungrave as an adrenaline-packed shoot 'em up. I wouldn't deny that the action in the series is entertaining; for me, it salvaged some value out of what otherwise is a complete disaster. I characterize the story development in the show as a missed opportunity. The writers had an interesting setting to work with, but wound up filling it with a lot of hot air. I cannot recommend this series.

[1] Oscar Wilde said that books aren't moral or immoral; they are well written or poorly written. I'm tempted to take that further and say that while books themselves escape a morality judgment, the act of publishing poorly-written books is immoral. I want my time back.