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- volume one: Beyond The Grave
voice cast: Tomokazu Seki, Kenji Hamada, and Tsutomu Isobe

director: Toshiyuki Tsuru

100 minutes (15) 2004
MVM / Genon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Michael Bunning
Videogames traditionally have a very poor relationship with other media. Videogames based on movies and books are generally worthless, and the reverse is usually true. So the fact that Gungrave is based on a videogame - a thoroughly mediocre videogame at that - does not make for a favourable first impression.

For those who don't know, the 'story' of the videogame is as follows: you play a resurrected assassin called Grave, on a one-man mission to revenge yourself on the endless hordes of baddies who killed you. You carry an enormous coffin on your back and use twin handguns called Ceruberus. That's right: two handguns, not three. No, I can't figure it - or the misspelling of Cerberus - out either. And that's about it. The game looks good, but it's short, repetitive and not very challenging. So expectations are remarkably low when it comes to the anime and the first episode appears to fulfil them in a thoroughly predictable manner.

An armoured truck races along a snow-covered highway then skids to a halt. Bullets slam into the side of the truck. Bestial, albino men approach. The truck's door opens and a silent, armed man emerges. With deadly accuracy he shoots the albino beast-men, who shatter into indigo crystals when hit with a bullet. The silent man goes back into the truck, which drives off. So far, so underwhelming. We learn that the silent man is the resurrected assassin, Brandon Heat, now known as 'Beyond The Grave'; that he was murdered by the mafia organisation known as Millenion; and that he has been brought back to life to protect the daughter of the woman he loved from Millenion.

Luckily, the next three episodes do away with the bland, unsurprising approach to the story and misnamed weapons; and deal entirely with Brandon's backstory. We learn that Brandon and his best friend Harry led a small group of hoodlums and over the next three episodes we see them take control of the local crime boss and eventually join Millenion.

The animation is top-notch; the characters are likeable and reasonably well-written; the stories are stylish and told with some flair, but unfortunately it all comes across as an inferior version of one of Cowboy Bebop's backstory episodes. Brandon and Harry are obviously supposed to resemble Bebop's Spike Spiegel, Brandon having Spike's fighting skills and Harry having the wisecracking personality, but neither manages (in the first four episodes) to inspire the viewer loyalty Spike commands.

It's certainly not all bad though. Gungrave might try (and fail) to be Cowboy Bebop, but so does lots of recent anime. The show's entertaining and intriguing, and there's plenty of time for the series to find its own identity. The sure knowledge of a huge disaster to come at some future point in the series keeps you wanting to watch more episodes to learn the rest of the back story; and there are enough interesting things about the 'present' of the first episode to keep you hooked even after said disaster.

On a more technical note: the animation is, as mentioned earlier, excellent and the look of the series is darkly stylish. The dub - always the worst part of any anime - is good (but still not a patch on the subtitles, which are perfect). There are 5.1 DTS and 2.0 Dolby digital tracks in Japanese, and a 5.1 DTS English audio option. Subtitles are English only. Extras are a little thin on the ground, in that there are only production sketches worth looking at. You also get text-less opening and closing credits, but really, who cares? You'll only watch them once, if at all. There are also trailers for several animes, which look interesting, but as they've got nothing to do with Gungrave, they certainly don't enhance the disc any.

If you're a fan of the videogames this series is based on, you might have expected more mindless violence from this first disc, but unless you're only interested in gunplay, you'll be pleasantly surprised at the way the series adds depth to the franchise, and you'll certainly want to see more of Brandon and Harry.

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