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Camera kill
A UK region 2 DVD review of SPEED GRAPHER, VOL. 1 by Slarek
 
"I was teaching her that there is nothing money can't buy."
Shinsen after delivering a memorable lesson the
manipulative power of wealth to her shocked daughter.

 

The unjust division between the richest and poorest in society has been part of science fiction film lore since its early days. It was the foundation of Fritz Lang's groundbreaking 1927 Metropolis, and 79 years later it's central to Kunihisa Sugishima's intriguing anime series Speed Grapher.

Set in a not-too-distant future Tokyo, a decade or so after a conflict known as the 'Bubble War', it presents us with a society in which increasing economic divisions have given birth to a corrupt and super-wealthy elite, whose power and influence is steadily growing at the expense of society's poorest and most vulnerable. Sandwiched disdainfully between these social extremes is Saiga, an ex-combat photographer now denied a passport and reduced to working as a tabloid photojournalist. He's fed the occasional crime scoop by Ginza, a golden gun-toting female detective with an itchy trigger finger and a cheerful disregard for the rights of suspects. She has the hots for Saiga ("A gal who needs a gun to get wet, a guy who needs a camera to get it up. We're the perfect match," she tells him), who appears to sleep with her more for business than passion, something he left back in the war zone and has been looking to photographically recapture ever since.

While on a typically dull paparazzi assignment, Saiga picks up on a lead that points him in the direction of an underground organisation where the rich are able to satiate their wildest sexual desires. The chosen few are offered the opportunity to partake in a very special ceremony, where a kiss from a goddess may bestow on them a powerful but potentially deadly gift. Saiga gets close to this ceremony by hijacking the disguise of one of the invited elite, but when the goddess descends he realises that this is the perfect image he has been searching for. Oblivious to those around him, he takes out his camera and his cover is blown. He's on the verge of being killed when the goddess kisses him instead of the intended recipient. The effect on Saiga is dramatic, distorting his features and transforming his photographic skills into a weapon of destruction.

Speed Grapher is less than coy about its subtext. The rich are either easily manipulated or unscrupulously evil and all of them are greedy, self-centred and amoral. My, how things have changed. Prince of the dastardly wealthy is Suitengu, the insanely wealthy organiser of the underground pleasure society and whose partner Shinsen is as loaded as he is. We know this just from where she lives, in a huge house with a battery of servants located at the top of a skyscraper – she even have an elevator to lower their chauffeur-driven car to street level. Not that she rides in it – that's to transport her young daughter Kagura to school and back. Unlike her mother, Kagura is not happy being rich – she feels trapped and longs to know what true freedom is. Her imagination is fired by a poster she sees around town featuring the words "Are you happy?" and the picture of a young girl who has lost her home and her family, but whose expression reflects the simple freedom that Kagura aches for. She doesn't realise that this picture was taken by Saiga. You might wonder why she would care, but by the time we get to know Kagura, the two are fatefully connected.

Kagura may sound from the above description like a poor little rich girl who is too spoilt to appreciate what she's got, but she has good reason to fret. Her mother has taken an increasing dislike to her, jealous that her daughter's beauty is starting to bloom when her own is fading, and has taken to playing mind games on her and giving her an empty lunchbox each day, its food passed to her chauffeur to gorge on while he waits at the school gate. What Kagura is only dimly aware of is that it is she who fulfils the role of goddess at the ceremonies overseen by Suitengu, and that she is imbued with a special power that enables her, with a single kiss, to unleash in a select few their deepest held desires as superhuman abilities, a power known simply as Euphoria. It doesn't happen to many, and at this early stage in the story we know only of one, megalomaniac dancer Shironane, who in his off hours can transform into a bendy stretchy super-villain capable of leaping vast distances and twisting the heads off of anyone looking to cause trouble for Suitengu's secret society.

If all this is starting to sound a little complex, then it's because the initially non-linear narrative is busy with character and incident and is not interested in laying everything out in easy steps for the sleepier audience members. It expects you to make the connections and keep up with the unfolding story. The good news is that it's actually quite easy to do, but there are enough narrative twists to keep even the more observant on their toes. This is particularly evident in episode 2, which initially appears to dismiss the previous episode's cliff-hanger ending as the dream of a character you need to be paying attention to realise was actually part of the earlier story at all (unless you watch the trailer at the end of episode 1, of course). Two thirds of the way through, a brief but perfectly timed insert establishes this episode's timeframe in relation to that of episode 1. I, for one, was both surprised and a little delighted – in that one moment, so much that was mysterious suddenly fell satisfyingly into place.

Speed Grapher engagingly blends a number of recognisable anime sub-genres into an enjoyable and surprisingly workable whole. The sociopolitical thrust of the main story has within its framework an empowered anti-hero, a super-powered villain and a hot-dressing but deadly girl with big guns. It's she who provides the lighter moments in these early stages, particularly her favourite claim when offing a bad guy that she was acting in self defence – "Don't make me self-defence you!" she warns one terrified unfortunate after disposing of one of his henchmen.

A crucial test of the first few episodes of any series is that it hooks you enough to make you want to see more, and Speed Grapher certainly does that. The story is busy with incident, and though it may be a little obvious in its socio-politics and guilty of some romantic over-simplification (I do wonder just how 'free' the poster girl actually feels after losing her family and home in a war zone), its heart is still in the right place. Its reflection of the present and increasing rich/poor divide is not so far fetched, nor is the corruption and financial bullying depicted here – in Speed Grapher Tokyo, just about everyone has their price and idealists are a rare and dangerous thing. Sound familiar?

I'll happily admit that I'm already looking forward to volume 2. It's an involving, well constructed series that throws just enough curve balls to keep the viewer guessing, but delivers a variety of familiar anime pleasures en route. Just one thing – this is, like many modern anime series, not one for the kids. If you want evidence then check out how Shinsen deals with the teacher who drops round to complain about her treatment of her daughter.

For the record, Volume 1 contains the first four episodes. All official listings have them named as Depravity City, Goddess of Greed, Film Like a Bullet and Lethal Headshot. The subtitles more crudely rename them as Corrupt City, Heaps of Cash, Photographic Death and Destruction and Plundered Girl.

sound and vision

Anamorphic 16:9, this is another NTSC to PAL transfer from MVM. It's not at all bad, but the sharpness is not quite there and, coupled with an animation style that adds a misty glow to some edges and a white haze to whole scenes, it had me rubbing my eyes a few times to check it was not me. This is largely a stylistic choice by the filmmakers, though, and is still very watchable.

The original Japanese stereo track is joined by an American English 5.1 dub. The 5.1 has superior bass and sporadically effective use of the surrounds, but the dialogue is a lot quieter in relation to the sound effects than on the stereo track. The dubbing is pretty good as these things go, with Christopher Sabat a suitably noir-ish Saiga, but the young Kagura is clearly voiced by an adult. The Japanese track is still clear and with good separation, and I'll go with that one every time.

The subtitles are yellow and very clear, displaying a crispness that is superior to the picture itself. There is some minor translation creativity, including the above detailed episode names and the decision to change "shit" to "damn."

extra features

Character Cast Auditions (12:25)
Voice director and line producer for the American version Christopher Bevins talks about the voice casting process and is accompanied by for audition examples, including the odd fluff. This is actually more interesting than I was expecting.

Art Gallery (1:30)
A rolling mixture of production drawings and stills.

Textless Opening (1:33) and Textless Closing (1:33)
The standard graphics-free opening and closing sequences. Not bad, but a long way short of Paranoia Agent.

There are also Trailers for Ikki Tousen and The Law of the Wild.

summary

Speed Grapher arrives with a solid fan base already behind it and it's not hard to see why. The first four episodes set the series up well and leave you teasingly unsure where it will go next. Series followers actually rate some later episodes even higher than the early ones. Roll on volume 2!

Speed Grapher, Vol. 1

Japan 2005
93 mins
director
Kunihisa Sugishima

DVD details
region 2 UK
video
16:9 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
Japanese
English
subtitles
English
extras
Character cast auditions
Art gallery
textless opening and closing
Trailers
distributor
MVM
release date
16 April 2007
review posted
15 April 2007

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