The city of Ergastulum is one devoid of law. Run with an iron fist by the Mafia, this is a city where death and the living frequently mingle, sex and violence replace bread and butter, and strength is the only virtue recognized, usually at the business-end of a gun.
Welcome to the world of Gangsta, the 2015 anime by studio Manglobe, based off the currently running Monthly Comic @BUNCH manga by Kohske.
Is this a deal gone sour, or does Gangsta truly bring us an offer we can’t refuse?
Ergastulum is a dog-eat-dog world, built on a foundation of crime and corruption, ruled by power and fear. It is a world rich in detail and history; ruthless, violent and discriminatory. Gangsta is a show which doesn’t hold back; its clear focus on brutality and distinct lack of ethics providing a stark image of a festering world.
Everything in this show is more than it first appears, which makes it thematically engrossing and fascinating to watch. Even the cliche things like the superhumans, usually thrown in as a “cool” factor in various other shows, are instead used as an integral part of Gangsta’s world, with far-reaching consequences and effects, as the mercenary-like Twilights. From the disabilities brought on the Twilights due to their genetic alterations, to the societal implications of racism, slavery, oppression and drug-reliance, Gangsta forces its audience to accept that the world isn’t as pretty or as simple as it may seem.
If there’s one complaint to throw at the story, it is in its pacing. For while the world is interesting, the show can plod along, and fails at points to convey a sense of thematic urgency, or keep up interest moment to moment. Many times there are slow methodical sections which seem to be there to pad out the runtime. It mellows what would otherwise be a riveting show into something which is interesting, but not necessarily compelling all the time.
The characters in Gangsta are distinct as people, something many of shows fail to do. The main cast does fall into the trap of having standard, gritty, scarring backstories, which while it makes for decent characters, is so rote that it leaves something to be desired.
Maybe the most refreshing part of the character is that their actions and reactions seem true to life, realistic, and more importantly adult. These characters have real desires and act out based on their own circumstances. Among the cast are mercenaries and mobsters, prostitutes and addicts, but also simple doctors and grandmothers, all of whom are faced with the harsh realities this world provides. There is no clear cut villain, no “correct” solutions, and this allows both the scenarios of the show to be distinctive to Gangsta’s world, and allow these characters to react meaningfully. This “adult” tone and world helps this show immensely, allowing it to be incredibly immersive as a show.
The best example of a character being controlled by their environment and forced to act in particular ways is Worrick. After watching the brutal deaths of his family at the hands of Nicolas, he’s still forced to allow him to live. Firstly he unspokenly wants Nic to suffer through all the pain he’s gone through, and secondly Worrick knows that he can’t live by himself, and thus losing another person would only be detrimental to his survival. He was also forced to be a gigolo, another sacrifice necessary in the face of survival. Survival is only accorded to the fittest, and as emotions are only a weakness to be exploited, they’re usually kept under rough exteriors.
Yet emotions persist. Humanity persists, despite the surrounding squalor and atrophy. And that’s something that’s really powerful; allowing a deep sense of connection. You can see it in the little things: how the Handymen get along with the crime families and the residents; how they may bluster and threaten, yet still watch each others’ backs. Co-operation was the reason our world came to be, and thus co-operation shall be humanity’s saving grace.
Another excellent touch for the characters of Gangsta as that all three of the main cast are broken, some psychologically but also physically. Nic is especially of note, as his deafness, which would make him seem disadvantaged is instead overshadowed by the care taken to flesh him out as an empowered individual, and that’s something that was refreshing and decidedly nuanced.
Voicework in Gangsta could be better, as moods and tones are often heavily influenced by the characters’ speech. Alex’s voice(Mamiko Noto) in particular doesn’t seem suited to the role, the breathiness sometimes feeling out of place. It does however lend a sense of how she’s the ‘damsel in distress’, though that part admittedly only lasted for the first episode.
Nic, as a mostly deaf person (sometimes he seems to be able to hear gunshots. Weird.) is in turn given a rough and unschooled voice, provided by Kenjirou Tsuda, which is really fitting. It drives home the fact that as a Twilight, as a superhuman cripple, he wasn’t even given a choice in his own life.
The soundtrack is often hit and miss, the jazz pieces not quite fitting certain scenes. It’s not the kind of music that I listen to, and it’s often kicked into the background. This isn’t an actual problem, however as a music lover, it’s often a great feeling if the BGM could interweave itself into the story; it doesn’t just help to create mood, music can and has been a substitute for actual dialogue. You can get a lot from the sound playing in the background.
Both the OP and ED are among my favorites from this season. They’re simply stellar. If there’s a reason the OP is bad, it’s that it promises something Gangsta doesn’t fulfill sometimes. (I’m looking at you, BGM.) Renegade, by STEREO DIVE FOUNDATION, is an upbeat, action-packed dubstep track, a near-unskippable prelude to Gangsta, while the ED, Yoru no Kuni by Annabel, is the shadow to Renegade’s light; an emotional ballad about hope and looking towards the future. The OP and ED feel interconnected, and the lyrics fit very well to the storyline. They’re both awesome, at least give them a try, even if you’re not gonna watch the series!
Gangsta’s visuals are as thematically good matches to the tone of the series as the opening and ending themes, though not perfect. The shadowy grimness and squalor are perfectly portrayed amid the blacks, whites and reds of the color pallette. Design wise most of the characters look good, though some of the more background characters (especially males) seem to have similar features, with only their noticeable scars to differentiate them from one another.
On the animation side, the show is proficient, though some of the action seems a bit choppy at points, especially when the camera is zoomed out on some of the wide angles. It never bothered me greatly, and only on repeat viewings did some of its technical deficiencies even become noticeable. In comparison though this show shines as a display of a cohesive visual world.
If there is one detriment though to this show, it is its ending, or rather the lack of an ending. You see, Gangsta, like a lot of Anime, is an adaptation of a manga, and thus has a source whose story is firstly not complete, and secondly may not fit within a twelve episode season. However instead of taking the route of making an anime-only storyline in order to create at least a partial finale, studio Manglobe decided to simply stop the show dead in its tracks at the point they reached, leaving basically all major plot threads unfinished, uncertain, and unfulfilling. It’s a true shame too, as to the uninformed the show feels like it might have been able to wrap up decently all the way up until you watch the finale and realise that no, there is no conclusion, there never was going to be a conclusion, and that to be satisfied you will have to track down the manga to finish this story.
As of now there is of course no word if a sequel series will be considered in the future (which seems incredibly unlikely, since Manglobe was recently declared bankrupt, and the mang is still being produced), but even in the event of a second season came out, that does not diminish the fact that this season is an incomplete story.
Krakken_Unleashed - Gangsta is an enigma to recommend. As a concept I love its world and its characters. I love that it takes risks in showing tough subject matter, and its treatment of characters with disabilities, deformities and drug related issues. In technical execution it is quality work though not perfect, but as story the anime fails with an ending that is so mismanaged that I cannot in good conscience recommend people seeing this show without warning them that this will not be satisfying as an experience. I want shows like Gangsta, just I want ones that actually end satisfactorily.
Ascendant-Izanagi - It’s hard not to like Gangsta. It’s a show that’s got it all, from good characters, a good setting, and most importantly, a good story. It’s always a shame to see a show with such great potential fall flat on its face right next to the finish line, but unfortunately Gangsta falls into that pit. It’s still a show I’d recommend to just about anyone, but the recommendation would also come with a warning.
Review co-written by Krakken_Unleashed and Ascendant-Izanagi
Header Image by Unimplied and Krakken_Unleashed