Tuesday, March 30, 2010

:anime: Blacks and Head Shots in Anime (Part 3)

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(Note: As mentioned before, because these cases not only involve the death(s) of a particular character(s), but can also delve deep into a show's storyline, naturally spoilers will be involved. Also, most of the titles covered are either for older teen or mature audiences.)

Case #3

Title: Gungrave
[Official Site - English]

Character: Bear Walken

Episode: 23

Description: One of the top executives in the mafia group known as Millennion. An enforcer and absolutely loyal to its leader, Big Daddy, "The Family", and the "Code of Iron". Tall, solemn, imposing figure respected by everyone in the organization. Average black skin tone; Gray beard, black, short, swept-back hair. Always wears a pair of shades and a suit, except at home, where he is normally seen wearing a kimono in his Japanese-styled abode (follows a strict samurai-esque edict). Dotes heavily on his only daughter, who he raised alone after her mother (presumably of Japanese descent) died when she was younger.

Background: Brandon and Harry, the two central figures in the series, are street punks and childhood friends that find themselves in deep water after Harry crosses paths with the wrong people, including a rival gang and its leader's dangerous hitman brother. With three of their friends already dead, along with the uncle of a female friend of Brandon's, Maria, the two come close to losing their own lives until Bear appears to avenge the life of Maria's slain relative, who was an old friend of his boss, Big Daddy, that he had recently visited on his behalf. After the incident, Brandon and Harry go on an angry tear through the city and become one of its most feared forces. Harry, however, begins to feel restricted by its confines and wishes to expand elsewhere, leaving Brandon to take care of Maria.

His friend, on the contrary, wants to come with him and both set out to leave--until they catch Maria exiting a car from a funeral procession. At the same time, a group they (roughly) cut ties have caught up with them begin to open fire. Maria's exclamation at Brandon's peril leads the men she was with--part of Millennion--to come to their rescue (Big Daddy took her in as a favor to his fallen friend). Impressed by their show of power, Harry instantly becomes entranced by the kind of life that might await him there and begs to join. After proving his worth, one of the higher-ups from the scene decides to give him the opportunity and allows him to board one of their cars--and to Harry's grateful surprise, Brandon follows suit, always wanting to stick close to his good friend, as well as Maria, who laid on the other side.

Harry and Brandon begin their rise to the top on different paths. While Harry partakes in the organization's various money schemes and operations, Brandon works in the muscle part of Millennion, helping collect payments and roughing up late-payers. Five years later, he is promoted to "Sweeper" and placed under the wing of the group's best, Bear, where he beings to handle hitman duties and assassinations. One auspicious case arises when two people are robbed and killed in Bear's territory, one of whom hailed from a group with ties to Millennion and was a guest of his. Complicating matters is that the killer was the delinquent son of Bear's closest friend, Sid, who tried to cover for his mistake and help him escape out of town.

Because the organization needs to save face, anyone involved needs to be eliminated. Sid knows what lies ahead and sits alone at a pier. Bear appears, remembering it as the place they fought over when they first joined Millennion, and the two share a smoke and some reverie together. Though he knew about it all along and Sid knew what fate awaited him for violating the "Code of Iron"--the core of "The Family's" beliefs of "never betraying those you promise loyalty to"--the normally hardened and resolved Bear is unable muster the strength to execute him. Brandon, who came along, entered the picture and before a sobbing, trembling Sid, did what Bear could not and put a bullet through his forehead. Tearfully, Bear embraced his now-lifeless body.

The Situation: Harry's meteoric rise to prominence and desire for power would breed a number of malicious turn of events all around. He has claimed over half of the organization, much of it through dubious means unfitting of the Code of Iron, and is the natural successor to the retiring Big Daddy's throne. At the announcement meeting, things do not go as planned and someone else is picked. Afterwords, a sore Harry eavesdrops on a conversation between Brandon and Big Daddy where the latter expresses his concerns about him and Brandon, who still believes his innocence, vows to uphold the Code. A paranoid Harry meets his friend later on in a tense confrontation that leads to his death and Big Daddy's soon after (primarily out of jealousy for "stealing" Brandon's friendship and loyalty from him), where he assumes the throne of the organization.

After the turn of events fifteen years prior, "Bloody" Harry remains the head of Millennion, using an army of reanimated, monstrous soldiers from a project he funded involving "Necrolyzation" from those times to expand the group to unheard of levels. Along the way, even Maria falls victim, as she was gunned down after trying to protect her and Big Daddy's young daughter as she escaped. The girl, Mika, is sent to the care of the runaway doctor who founded the project and Brandon (now known as "Beyond The Grave"), who was revived using the Necrolyzation process and aims to bring down Harry and anyone that gets in his way.

With everything that has occurred, Bear has been all too knowledgeable of the things that Harry has done and has never been fond of him, either. The single thing that has prevented him from getting rid of Harry early on or avenging Big Daddy's death is that his daughter, Sherry, has been deeply in love with him. Bear thinks the world of her and as a widowed father, has always wanted her to be happy. Harry, a ladies' man, was very aware of this fact when he was started moving up the ranks and made it a priority to get close to her and out of Bear's crosshairs. So long as he kept her safe and continued to make her happy, Bear would support him, despite his feelings. In the present time, the two have been contently married for years, with Bear still serving as a top executive, this time to his son-in-law.

Brandon's path of vengeance has already led to the demise of two of Harry's top executives. They had underwent the same reanimation treatment that Brandon and the Orgmen in Millennion's army had, but twinked to work on the living. These "Superiors" possessed superhuman capabilities and the ability to transform into even more powerful, but acutely grotesque, forms, and Bear went through the procedure himself to have the power to confront Brandon and protect the organization. He arrives at his hideout and delivers to him the challenge of a duel, taking place at his own home.

Once he arrives, the ensuing battle is fierce as Bear slices and Brandon shoots the house to rubble. Bear decides to take things to the next level by transforming into his Superior form and subdues Brandon, preparing for the final strike. He makes a full charge at him but is stopped in his tracks when Brandon is able to drop his gun from his obstructed hand into his other hand, which was free, and shoots Bear multiple times with his anti-Superior bullets, with the last one to the forehead. With the rounds' paralyzing and disintegration effects taking hold, Bear asks Brandon to finish it. As he tearfully remembers his deceased wife and Sherry, Brandon solemnly obliges and pulls the trigger.

Analysis: Of all of the cases, Bear's manner of death is perhaps the least egregious. One of the reasons for that is, unlike the others, it was actually fitting in the context of its narrative. Gungrave is a show very rich with intertwining themes and narratives and replete with complex characters and relationships (if the lengthy descriptions were any indication), and as such, his demise had a certain weight and "reason" to it, rather than the "forgone conclusion" feeling emitted from the James example in Blood+ or some of the others to be covered. The bind that Bear was in mirrored that of his best friend's (something that was not lost on him as he awaited Brandon's arrival), as did the consequences for backing the bad son (-in-law) / protecting his daughter, and betraying the organization of Big Daddy's. Overall, it cuts to the main theme of the show, which is the concept of family, protecting it, and the repercussions of betraying it, and the dichotomy between Bear and Sid's ultimate fates stood out as one of its most profound elements. That he died via a gunshot wound to the head felt like a more "sensible" death than any of the other cases.

Bear also has the most acceptable character design among them. In essence, he looks like a normal black person: no big, round pink lips, no stock-ish features, nothing inadvertently offensive. His appearance, depicted over the span of some twenty years, is basic but effective and his facial features are well-proportioned and realistic, as are much of the other dark-skinned characters that are shown. The character himself is very much an authority figure and one that is both feared and respected in the show. Yet, he also falls into the same category as Wolf did in Blassreiter as "The Traitor", though his position is more indirect and ambiguous, as an argument could be made about his perceived betrayal of Big Daddy's Millennion and the ways of old. Regardless, the trope is still present and the outcome remains the same, though played out more directly than in Blassreiter.

While the act of his death was not so, the way in which Bear's death unfolded felt somewhat gratuitous. Unlike any of the other cases, Bear is the only one to have received two shots to the head. Given the stylized gunplay in the show and the thematics, seeing the end volley of the shots that stopped the Superiorized Bear be one to the forehead was perhaps not surprising, if not expected. Regardless, that did not stop the moment from being particularly startling or jarring in its abruptness. Furthering matters is that the second shot, while symbolic and akin to a "mercy killing" (requested by Bear, no less), felt unnecessary. Excluding the first shot to the head and having him just be crippled by the accumulation of of anti-Superior shots leading to the finishing blow would have sufficed, dramatically speaking.

Was the actual end in of itself "appropriate" and effective? Yes, but that air of excess remains. If his type of death was the only one or two depicted in an anime, I might have had little of a problem with it. Yet, the trend of black characters getting shot in the head takes away some of its intended impact and places it in an undesirable, and unintended spot. Also of note is that unlike Wolf and James, only half of Bear's body transforms, so we see "Bear the Human" get shot, not "Bear the Unrecognizable Monster." All of the Superiors largely retain their human facial appearance, as their bodies are often the ones that undergo a hideous change. In Bear's case, his body bulks up and his right side sprouts spike-like protrusions with four or five stone hands floating alongside them.

Gungrave, like Blassreiter, has a very high death toll, with Mika being the only character of significance left alive. As both an unrelenting mafia tale and an action show filled with monstrosities, many of the characters die violently and often under hail of gunfire. As such, it should also be noted that Bear, nor Sid for that matter, were there only ones to have died by getting shot in the head. Brandon himself was shot through his eye at pointe-blank range after Harry riddled him with bullets in his first death and the first casualty among Harry and Brandon's friends in the beginning was insinuated to have been shot in the head, as was Bob, the first of Harry's inner circle to reveal his Superior powers, and Bunji, who was the last of that circle to face Brandon (a bullet hole is never explicitly shown, but it is expressed where he was shot). It should also be noted that Bear is the only black character to have died via head wound, as one of Brandon and Harry's friends from earlier on, who was also black, died from a shot to the chest. As for Bear's daughter, Sherry, she was killed not long after her father by a shot to the heart when she got caught in the crossfire as an ousted Harry fended off an assassin, leaving him an emotional wreck as he clutched her in his arms.

In respect to the series and the character deaths covered in the cases, Bear's remains the most apropos and least offensive of them. Unlike the others, there is a sense of purpose and reason as to why he died the way he did. One of the two head shots he received could have been done without and still carry the same effect as the final one that Brandon delivered at his request. Bear also had one of the most respectable designs for a black character in an anime and had a like personality, as well. While this particular case had its rationale and featured no stereotypical overtones, the same cannot be said for others cases...

[EDIT [04/23/10]: Screenshots added. (Source: DVDs)]

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