I saw the first episode of Gungrave a few years ago and thought it was shit. However a number of people told me that the first episode is not representative of the rest of the series at all and that IT GETS BETTER I SWEAR!!! For the most part they were right, you really are better off skipping the first episode altogether. It’s quite similar to the first episode of the Berserk TV series in that it spoils the entire plot with some dumb flash-forward that doesn’t work at all and you’d be better off starting on episode 2. However that first episode is maybe a little more representative of the nonsense that occurs later in Gungrave than people give it credit for.
Let me back up and start from episode 2. Gungrave is a gritty crime story about two
lovers I mean friends, Brandon Heat and Harry MacDowel, working their way up to the top of the crime syndicate Millennion (the N at the end is how it’s actually spelt, don’t ask). The story mostly follows Harry and his rise to power, making friends and enemies, tracking his tale from the height and back down again. You may have heard from other places that Brandon is the main character, and this is true only in the fact that the camera spends most of its time on Brandon. It’s not actually his story, because it’s hard to have a story about a person who has all the personality and speaking skills of a tub of lard who can shoot people.
It started to get really silly sometimes how utterly stoic Brandon was. It reminded me of silent video game protagonists. Other people would monologue at Brandon about how great he was and how much he must love Harry, then pause for a few seconds waiting for Brandon to respond before going “don’t talk much do you”. It got particularly bizarre when they started ascribing character traits to Brandon that I never saw him portray. All he does is shoot people and stand still. It felt like I was playing Half-Life 2 again where Gordon Freeman somehow becomes bearded Jesus without ever saying anything, except Brandon didn’t jump on tables while people were talking to him.
The story shares a few more similarities with Berserk with the how the burning ambition drives the two characters until things start to get strained (or at least that’s what drove Harry. Brandon was just dragged along like one of those cans on a string tied to a bumper of a Just Married car). I’m going to keep away from spoiling the big twist, although between the first episode and the fact characters keep going “GOSH I SURE HOPE X DOESN’T HAPPEN”, they did a mighty fine job of spoiling it themselves. There’s a fine line between foreshadowing and spoiling and Gungrave passes that line, then sprints away from that line, jumps inside a harrier jet and then flies several continents away from that line.
What’s strange is the thing the show doesn’t spoil is the completely ridiculous introduction of zombies. Out of nowhere, the show turns from gritty realistic crime story to nonsense sci-fi action. They are poorly explained, poorly justified, take up approximately half of the show, could have been removed from the show completely without harming anything, and make the whole thing difficult to take seriously when previously serious characters start sprouting helicopter blades out of their back. The entire arc is a nice 101 lesson in bad writing. What infuriates me the most is there was no effort to explain any of the zombie science. If you’re going to crowbar this nonsense plot thread, at least put some effort into it.
The writing in general is not very good. Between the crowbarred in zombies being terribly explained, characters monologuing at Brandon as though he’ll ever respond, a lots of general other clichés thrown in, it feels like a first draft rather than a finished product. My personal favourite font of bad writing was the scientist dude, whose every line was solid gold. What I loved was nobody seemed to pay any attention during his monologues, with even the chattiest characters turning to Brandon-levels of indifference whenever he started spouting his nonsense about how he must atone for his evil and how he’s going to hell. “I DO NOT DESERVE A NAME, CALL ME N FOR THERE ARE NO NAMES IN HELL”, an instruction I believe nobody ever listened to.
Equally bad but less funny was how the show completely rewrote the history of Big Daddy and Millennion towards the end of the show. Big Daddy was the boss of Millennion (I thought Big Daddy was a title, but even his wife called him that so I eventually figured that his name probably was Big Daddy, son of Mr and Mrs Daddy) and was generally all the things you would imagine the boss of a crime syndicate to be. By the end though he became this mythological figure who created Millennion for Good and Righteousness. Bear in mind that Millennion is a crime syndicate. Bribery, robbery, extortion, assassinations, threats, everything was run by Big Daddy. I started to agree with the character who was calling out that bullshit at the time when we were supposed to be the most against him, which undermined the entire story quite a lot.
At the core of Gungrave there is a fantastic story. At the key moments of Harry and Brandon’s arc…well, OK just Harry’s arc, it does a fantastic job of emphasising their relationship and how Harry got to the position he’s in. The ending in particular is so wonderfully done, far beyond what anything else in the show managed to achieve. A lot of people hold up Gungrave as some sort of beloved classic of the early 00’s, and if it has been over 5 years since you’ve seen it, I can see why you might think that. With enough time all you can remember is the core story of Harry and that ending left nice warm fuzzies. But if those people went back to it today, I can imagine there would be more than a few heartbroken anime fans realising that reality doesn’t live up to their nostalgia.