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.
ED: “Yoru no Kuni (夜の国)” by Annabel