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"Samurai Gun" Vol. 1: Tokugawa Cowboys

Cowboy Bebop‘s stylish bounty hunters generated one of the largest and most devoted followings in anime history. This lesson was not lost on studio executives, who have been trying for some years to come up with “the next Bebop,” and although wave after wave of new anime titles continue to crash upon these shores, most would agree none succeeded. But the latest effort, Samurai Gun, is nearly on target.

Originally a manga serialized in Young Jump Comics, the show was produced jointly by Avex Mode and ADV Films–and it would be interesting to learn what creative input ADV provided. It is the story of ace gunslingers who fight for justice in tumultuous late 19th century Japan. The setting is right out of The Last Samurai, but this time the hero is only half Caucasian. His team is reminiscent of the Galaxy Rangers, with their nearly identical costumes and reliance on trusty sidearms to right society’s wrongs. The slick animation, varied characters, and noirish atmosphere do somewhat recall Bebop, but with less humor and, so far, not quite the same depth. Still, the show is intentionally mysterious, and it is only by the third episode that the pieces really start to fall into place, so I’m sure it has a lot of growth ahead.

Our hero (or antihero) Ichimatsu is a deadly, one-eyed marksman. His family killed when he was a child, he is somewhat of a loner and burns with thoughts of vengeance. He is the star member of an underground vigilante squad known as the Samurai Guns, which act on behalf of the mysterious Council Intelligence Department. When he isn’t slinging lead he works along with the beautiful singer Kurenai at the lively Dragon Palace Tavern and occasionally chats with his skinflint schoolteacher friend, Daimon. Another character, the kindly prostitute Ohana, is his confidante and would like to be more, but Ichimatsu keeps things platonic, perhaps because his sister was raped and slaughtered before his eyes. The Guns’ activities earn them the animosity of the shogunate, which considers them a dangerous threat to its power. Under the direction of the icy Watou, it soon begins an effort to exterminate them.

In the first episode, “The Man with the Samurai Gun,” the sadistic triplets of an esteemed government official hunt young women for sport. No, not what you do on a Saturday night. At least I hope it’s not what you do Saturdays, because these guys use arrows. Anyway, fellow Gun Daimon asks Ichimatsu for help. Initially the latter is tired of killing and doesn’t want to get involved, but eventually the haunting memory of his sister’s murder spurs him to action.

Next, in “Experimental Railroad,” Ichimatsu is recruited directly by the Guns’ boss, Matsuzaki, to investigate a railroad being constructed by the shogunate. The train is designed to generate electricity and be used to torture resistance members for information. And the scenery is to die for. To Ichimatsu’s surprise, Kurenai also turns out to be a Gun and joins the mission.

The disc concludes with “The Sleeping Flower,” which bears the amusingly inexplicable Engrish tagline “still life in mobile homes.” The vicious Onimaru, formerly the shogunate’s head assassin, bears a grudge against the Guns and begins killing prostitutes to draw them out. We learn Ohana was sold to a brothel two years ago, and though she doesn’t find the work too hard, her boss is ruthlessly unforgiving. Her favorite customer is Ichimatsu, who comes only to talk and conceals an intriguing dark side. When Onimaru targets Ohana, Ichimatsu goes looking for blood.

The existence of the shogunate and the widespread use of Western inventions suggest Samurai Gun is set in the 1860s, but some of the inventions used are many decades ahead of their time. I raised an eyebrow when a Tommy gun appeared, and just about fell out of my chair when a jet pack showed up. So I think it’s safe to say this is some sort of alternate reality, retro future, like in the sensational Steamboy. As far as social commentary goes, Ichimatsu’s mixed parentage does bring up the issue of racial tolerance, which is an increasingly pressing topic for today’s Japan. Apart from the racist who kills his family, most characters warmly accept Ichimatsu as no different than anyone else, although the odd admiring remark surfaces about his light hair and, uh, manliness. The somewhat benign presentation of prostitution would seem to lower the series’ odds of airing on U.S. television, and though it’s historically accurate, it hopefully does not indicate that Japan’s recent boom in paid high school dating has increased acceptance of the trade. Of course, prostitution has never borne quite the same stigma there as it has in the U.S.

Antiheros like Ichimatsu are common enough in anime, but his character hints at a greater complexity. Unlike similar characters, he is not obnoxiously anti-authority or selfish, but kind, withdrawn and weary of his profession. His dark side manifests itself in the brutal way he dispatches criminals, and hopefully the series will explore this further. Daimon looks suspiciously like Lupin, but he is largely serious and devoted to the cause. Here, though, he does little more than play second fiddle to Ichimatsu. Kurenai also remains rather thinly drawn, although she does seem to be protective of Ichimatsu. Ohana is very sweet and caring, outwardly unaffected by her occupation but inwardly conflicted. So far the villains haven’t made much of an impression. Watou eventually proves a formidable opponent, but he’s rather bland and his henchmen are one-note homicidal maniacs. The rather flat dub is passable but lacks the spark of the original dialogue.

Those looking for epic clashes will presumably have to wait for future episodes, because Samurai Gun‘s fights are usually concluded in a quick blaze of gunfire. There’s plenty of blood, though, if you’re looking for that. Women have a hard time of it on this show. In the first episode they get impaled, in the second electrocuted, and in the third blasted by shotgun. Not that the Guns pull any punches. Apart from the slippery Watou, their opponents all get filled with lead. In the most exciting scene, the Guns fight their way through a train to rescue a prisoner and are forced to make a desperate decision when the cars suddenly separate.

The animation is, on first impression, very slick and impressively fluid for a TV series. However, by the third episode the quality seems to drop off a little, maybe because director Kazuhito Kikuchi takes a break from storyboard duty. Hopefully that episode was the exception. Very little CGI is used, except for the occasional slow motion “bullet time” shot, and it looks rather awkward when it does turn up.

The funky rap/rock theme makes the artsy opening credits very reminiscent of Bebop. In the episodes themselves, the score is rather subdued, but the occasional use of traditional Japanese cues gives it a unique flavor. Reportedly the final version of Volume 1 will contain production sketches and something called “Fun with Audio.”

Is Samurai Gun the next Cowboy Bebop? That’s for the viewers to decide, but fans of Bebop and the like will find plenty to enjoy. It had me at the ramen-western premise. A Magnificent Seven cameo would really seal the deal.

Samurai Gun Vol. 1 will be in stores Aug. 16 from ADV Films.

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