After absconding with the 15-year-old centerpiece of an underground club that caters to the depraved desires of the rich and famous, a former war photographer turned paparazzi freelancer tries to uncover the secret behind his explosive new power while keeping his rescue safe as they flee together towards freedom and away from monstrosities metaphorical and physical.
When I initially saw the signs for the upcoming release of Speed Grapher hanging in FUNi’s booth at some long-ago Otakon Dealer’s Room, I could not wait. The art looked gritty, like it had something to say without the annoyingly obvious sweat drops and permablush I’d come to associate with the medium. Soon after my blind purchase based on the concept and box art, I fell in love upon the second watch of Episode 1 (the dub). After nearly nine years of seasoned viewing since, I can safely say Speed Grapher stands out against most and above many, and that experience, not time, has revealed the show’s flaws.
For the uninitiated: the Tennouzu Group, the last financial powerhouse in a freshly popped economic bubble, runs an underground (literally and figuratively) club in the Roppongi district. Masked members, the crème de la crème of society’s rich and powerful (and anyone else able to scrape together the requisite annual sum), pay dearly to gain entrance but are rewarded with anything their hearts desire. A-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. Kagura, heir apparent to the Tennouzu group, is hated by its current president, her vindictive mother, for the youth and beauty that were once hers. Kagura is secretly hypnotized by the club’s operator into playing the role of The Goddess. Brought down solely for the VIP ritual (“the blessing of the goddess”), Kagura’s kiss either kills men or turns them into self-realized monsters with powers that reflect their true passions. Saiga stumbles upon one such blessing by happenstance and curiosity while on a job, takes a picture he shouldn’t, and steals a kiss he can’t refuse. The rest, as they say, is anime.
But where to start from a Ten Years Later perspective? Well, I am ten years older ten years later. To this fact, the series featuring a protagonist in his mid to late twenties is increasingly endearing with every passing year. The entire cast (save one person) is actually comprised of people who not once sit behind a school desk. There’s Saiga, who lives in a crappy apartment next to a flamboyantly gay masseuse named Bob; Ginza, a metro police captain with balls of steel and an omnipresent itch to enforce them; Suitengu, the blood-winged angel of sorrow and revenge; Kagura’s aforementioned mother; and all the other ancillary characters that set this cartoon beyond the realm of juvenile sympathy. In the season in which this piece is being written about and posted, how many other anime are offered with nearly an entire cast of non-teens drawn like they’re non-teens? Almost not even a single title, and certainly none with any sense of seriousness.
While all but one of the characters are 18+, one in particular nails the inner conflict for their age and station as a foil to Kagura: Hibari Ginza. Kagura’s pretty static as the idealistic innocence Saiga doesn’t believe could possibly exist anymore, but Ginza’s much more interesting as a complex representative of relative innocence (by contrast with her surroundings). This female captain’s competency (surpassed only by her intensity) intimidates her sole, public-appeasing, male superior, and her ambition lends to the succession of his role. Her justice-dispensing violence is excused with a giddy cry of “Self defense!” until she witnesses true horror, after which she becomes noticeably less happy in terms of both trigger and tone. She’s also an aging woman in a society with a youth fetish and has fallen for a lover seemingly being drawn away from her via the same. Ginza changes more throughout the series than any of the other characters no matter how dramatic a back story is suddenly slapped onto the villains. If I were a Tamarian, I’d simply have to say, “Ginza, yelling at Kagura, atop Tennouzu tower,” to let you know I’m talking about the pain of moving on and letting go. Ten years later, Ginza’s growth still wrecks me.
I’ve grown less fond of the defining dub, though I still think it stands as the show’s defining element. There’s no sub vs. dub debate here; the dub wins (for once) hands down. While the show transposes and fictionalizes Japan’s post-80’s economic bubble burst, it does so by way of storytelling stylized to emulate elements of noir. No, not Noir, noir. In this way, any language but English could be argued insufficient, and this is definitely the case for at least the translation of the Japanese, which misses the tone needed to properly reflect the visuals at every turn. The audio’s localization, however, nails it, and the script as well as stand-out performances by Clarine Harp as Ginza and Christopher Sabat as Saiga hearken back to cinematic history to cement this as a neo-noir tale. (For a more in-depth analysis of this, check out my article on Ani-Gamers.)
As much as I think the dub imperative for realizing the full potential of this series, the truth is that the voice acting, particularly from Sabat, often comes across as that kind of faux cool you sell to adolescent boys—hardboiled and ham-handed. Though, to be honest, Sabat’s just playing to an overly saturated script, and even that’s somewhat excusable due to the novelty of the noir nod (not to mention the intended audience). But the series also suffers from other VA-induced detractions. Christopher Ayres’ bored monotone for Suitengu, while fitting, is a rather flat performance. (Calling it subtle would be kind and not completely wrong.) Although what the script called for might be more at fault than the actress, Monica Rial’s Kagura will drive you up a wall with squeaky meekness, squeaky joy, squeaky confusion, and squeaky anger. Henchmen and monsters of the week offer better refuge for the ears, which is good seeing as a considerable amount of time is spent with them. Their often over-the-top deliveries reflect the euphoria they’re experiencing rather perfectly and sometimes in a very endearing hammy fashion that manages to work despite itself.
Although the through-plot is obviously what matters most, the monster-of-the-week nature of the show works better in this title than most. The monsters don’t always stick around for long in the frame story, but they do enhance tone and flesh out the world. Giving each monster a modest degree of back story that associates them with the depravation which defines the here-and-now makes their hunt for, confrontation with, and defeat by the protagonists all the more intimate and meaningful. Unfortunately, this lessens as the series goes on; whereas villains introduced earlier would span multiple episodes, villains introduced later get an episode and really seem like throw-away plot vehicles. Luckily, that doesn’t stop them from looking/acting creepy.
Animation production, a Gonzo and Toei Animation (Philippines) collaboration, reaps some lovely stuff. Unfortunately, characters go off-model often enough to detract from an otherwise visually defined experience. Otherwise, bright colors constantly battle with the encroaching blackness of shadow and night throughout the show’s run, and memory-grain very appropriately distinguishes yesteryear flashbacks via palate and light. (Yeah, it’s cliché sepia tone, but it works.) To my knowledge, Speed Grapher is not a celebrated or even well-regarded series; its dour atmosphere and adult themes/imagery do not seem to sit well—either for being too serious, too crazy, or a mix of the two that doesn’t jive—with those I’ve spoken to. This is a shame, especially given the obvious efforts made in stylizing the debauchery to seem a pedestal for grotesque as well as the creative and detailed designs of the euphorics’ monster states. It’s not particularly impressive animation ten years later, but it doesn’t detract from the viewing experience, and the art still has much flare.
Speaking of, the OP is a work of art on par with Cowboy Bebop’s but with a little more humor and a storyboard/visual theme that falls just shy of a unified concept other than “give me pulp.” While released in Japan with Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” as the backing song, the OP for the American release features a bass- and synth-heavy instrumental called “Shutterspeed.” The latter which seems to fit a lot better. I love a clever tie-in as much as the next anime viewer, but the OP, which features running, explosions, undulations, and saucy posing, demands the faster-paced music.
Ten years later, Speed Grapher (streaming on Hulu) still causes my eyes to tear up at the end, still makes me empathize with Ginza’s strife and admire her growth, and elicits utterances of “cool” from my inner 13-year-old. The world and character designs are still awesome in both their realism and outlandishness, and the dub is still one of the best localizations I’ve encountered to date for all it accomplishes. With that said, Speed Grapher is not a completely solid piece of work. The over-dramatization of hokey monologs can actually spoil the mood they’re inserted to help create; the monsters, especially later on, actually detract from solid character/story development or add gratuitous fetishism thereto; and plotting all too often borders on too convenient, irresponsible, or just plain unconcerned with circumstance. That said, the series is composed of 24 episodes that can, if you have the time, easily be swallowed in a few sittings.