First Impressions – Gangsta

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Time to put the Manglobe curse to the test.

OP: “Renegade” by STEREO DIVE FOUNDATION

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So begins the Summer 2015 anime season, and it kicks off with one of my most anticipated series (and your most anticipated, so far).  And Gangsta doesn’t disappoint – it’s everything I expected it to be based on my limited survey of the source material.  To rely on good old Midousuji-kun once more, this show is not a mass-produced model.  It’s gritty, ugly, rough, graphic and downright bleak.  And that’s not exactly the conventional recipe for commercial success in anime these days.

I’m one of probably about six people who’s actually pleased to see Manglobe’s name attached to a property I care about.  I like Manglobe – they take chances, both with their material and the way they adapt it.  They display a consistent respect for the traditions of the anime medium without being bound by them.  And Gangsta is about as clear-cut a case of “horses for courses” as you’ll see.  Their work is rarely slick, pretty or polished – it’s beautiful, but in a coarse and challenging way.  And that’s a perfect match for the sensibility of Kohske’s manga (which she was just 25 when she began serialising).

There are obvious film noir influences on Gangsta, but it’s that peculiarly Japanese spin on it that has, over the decades, provided some of the medium’s most interesting series.  This one is set in the town of Ergastulum, a dingy and disheveled place where the streets are run by mafioso, street thugs and cops on the take.  Ugliness defines Ergastulum, from the poverty to the crumbling buildings and most of all to the behavior on display, but there’s a harsh beauty to it as well.  The Italianate houses and staircases and steep hills give one the impression of a modern-day take on the last days of the Roman Empire.

Central to the story are two “handymen” (literally “convenience men”), guys who do the work so dirty even the dirty cops and gangsters don’t want to do it.  It’s a classic odd-couple pairing – the blonde and bearded Worick Arcangelo (Suwabe Junichi) is a gruffly slick-talking jokester.  But it’s the dark and silent Nicolas Brown (Tsuda Kenjirou) who makes the biggest impression in the premiere.  Nic is deaf, uses his ability to read lips to his advantage and communicates mostly by sign language.  He’s also a “Dogtag” – the meaning of which isn’t immediately made clear, but which clearly strikes terror into the heart of everyone who finds this out.  And given Nic’s superhuman skills with a katana and ruthless efficiency in dong his job, that terror is truly justified.

The first episode introduces a wide array of characters – most played by legendary seiyuu – as Nic and Worick are tasked to take out a new hoodlum in town who’s been breaking both the laws and the rules.  One of the unfortunate prostitutes under his thumb is Alex Benedetto (Noto Mamiko), towards whom Nic shows a rare thread of human concern (and to whom he offers a handkerchief – from a distance – after her face has been bloodied by a john).  Both the local gang boss, Uranos Corsica (Umezu Hideyuki) and the local top cop, Captain Chad Adkins (Kanao Tetsuo) want the new guy and his entire crew eliminated (they meet in a club called “Bastard” to discuss it) – and that’s exactly the sort of job that handymen are hired for.

Gangsta spares us no detail, either of life on the streets in Ergastulum or of the job at-hand.  Violence (not excluding sexual) is graphically and unapologetically portrayed.  This is definitely not a feel-good story, but I think the real narrative appeal here is that the bits of decency and humanity that do exist like diamonds against that dismal backdrop.  Finding beauty amidst the ugliness is a big part of Gangsta’s angle, and that very much fits with Manglobe’s aesthetic.  The animation here is not smooth or seamless, but the backgrounds and character designs are distinctive and striking.

There are some striking dramatic moments in the premiere too, most especially for me when Nic finally speaks – this was a wonderful performance by Tsuda in depicting Nic’s rough and labored communication, so full of the rage that clearly drives him, yet somehow making him more vulnerable as well.  The comparisons are going to be flying fast and furious I’m sure – Baccano!, maybe vintage Watanabe Shinichirou, or Jormungand – but Gangsta is very much its own animal.  It’s not a mass-produced model, and Manglobe doesn’t make mass-produced anime – this is a marriage made in Heaven, even if the world it depicts is a lot closer to Hell.

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ED: “Yoru no Kuni (夜の国)” by Annabel

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8 comments

  1. P

    Wow,a noir/mafia anime that does not heavily depend on New York cool and Jazz music for its sensibilities, that is rare.

    So far I'm in for this ride. Like the character designs and Nicholas is sure to be superstar anime character this summer (his seiyuu is on point!).

    I know this is random but I notice sometimes for these more realistic character designs, the guy's shoes sometimes look off but they look good in this one lol.

  2. S

    This was really good! That moment when Nicolas spoke has to be one of the best scenes I can remember in recent anime. Gotta check out Laplace next – if they were both keepers that'd already make a good season for me!

  3. g

    Well, I wonder. Maybe in the anime world it isn't a mass produced model but in the manga world isn't it stereotypical seinen, like what we, Westerns, associate with the demographic: blood, violence, nudity, sex, even using a rape as a drama? And when I've seen our main male cast first thing I've thought was: "Wow, aren't they similar to a main pair from Dogs: Bullets & Carnage?" (Ok, that was my second thought, first one was: "Wow, cool design… except yaoi hands").

    Don't get me wrong, I like Gangsta for what it is, a pure action anime/ manga. But I definitely haven't started to read it because I expected some unfathomable deepness. I've started to read it because the cool design, I've been intrigued because one of MCs was deaf (and using a sing language) and I've stayed, when I've learnt an author is a woman, because I wanted to see if she, as a woman, will make some fresh input into a combination of the demographic and the genre (I have to say I'm rather disappointed with her in this department).

    I feel I'm too old to buy an idea that gritty settings = reality and an adult content = maturity and I'm definitely not buying because all of that, it means superior piece of media. I'm glad I'm beyond a phase of an edgy cynicism for a long time now and I can't believe I used to be into thinking: "OMG! At last an ode to the violence, without a shard of a morality play in the sight!". Sigh…

  4. G

    Drop this piece of trash then. It's an embarrassing and putrid waste of time.

  5. S

    I don't think anyone here has been in that kind of mind setting since we were, like, 12 though, nor anyone's expecting any unfathomable deepness either. It's just that we have things that we like about anime as a medium (stylistically mostly) and it's nice to see that applied for once to a kind of setting and story that does not involve the now dreaded words "high school". Is it realistic? Dear lord, there's a guy cutting down a handful of mobsters armed with guns using only a katana. Of course it isn't realistic. It's really the anime equivalent of Sin City for what I've seen until now. But it looks entertaining, compelling and stylish, with a tinge of freshness. I don't think Enzo's review implies much more than that really.

  6. g

    Well, you will be surprised then. Or many people are just 12 on the Internet (literally or metaphorically). 😉 Yes, for now there's a novelty of not being set in a high school. But I think there's a difference of being liked because it is [something] than because it ISN'T [something else].
    And it seems I think it's a trash or I despise it, when it's not true at all, I'm reading the manga, still on my list as one of an obligatory violent manga title, I like variety.

  7. S

    I didn't mean "here" as in "on the internet", I am sadly aware of the general state of things (and yes, many are probably LITERAL 12 yo anyway). I meant specifically on this blog, and Enzo in particular ofc. If you go to MAL… well, different story.

  8. g

    Oh, so it was misunderstanding – for both of us.
    Well, only first part was a directly commentary to Enzo's review (I guess it isn't unique overall to me because I read much more manga than I watch anime), the rest was my rambling and some scepticism, not only towards the anime but rather Gangsta. as a whole. I didn't have a chance to talk too much about the manga. A fandom was rather small (now I expect exploding in the numbers) and most of people were on enthusiastic and uncritical side. So yeah, most of it is a casual commentary.

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