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Girls on Film: "Speed Grapher" is Dirty, Disturbing Entertainment.

by on April 17, 2008

As much as I enjoy the arts, photography is one art I’ve never been seduced by. So when I realized that Speed Grapher—a Gonzo-produced series recently released in a formidable box set, complete with a bunch of special features and 12-page color information booklets—I can hardly say my adrenaline started pumping.

The story takes place in the near future, when Japan has become a society where the rich languish in excess while the poor struggle to survive. Corruption is rife, and money dictates the lives of everyone.

Tatsumi Saiga is a former war photographer who found erotic satisfaction in his job. While investigating a secret club of the rich and famous, Saiga is kissed by fifteen-year-old Kagura Tennouzu, the heir to the mighty Tennouzu Group, and infected with the Euphoric virus. Tatsumi now finds that his ultimate fetish has manifested a physical power: whenever he uses a camera, his subject explodes. Death is now all he can take pictures of.

After rescuing Kagura from the club, Saiga goes on the run, and he and Kagura are caught up in a maelstrom of political ambition and revenge. Their biggest foe is Chouji Suitengu and a menagerie of other Euphorics like himself, all looking to take Kagura back and destroy Saiga.

There are some interesting themes in Speed Grapher, though that’s not to say all are startlingly new. Science-fiction stories have often dealt with the issues of power, corruption and freedom. Nor does Speed Grapher fail to deal adequately with those themes—in fact, it explores every nuance of ideological or fetishistic sin it can find. But the show does seem to sometimes think it’s doing something novel by dealing with such topics.

What really does make Speed Grapher interesting is the way it plays out these vices through the Euphoric manifestations of its episodic “monsters”. Some of these characters are truly disturbing, both in motive and visual design, and watching Saiga confront and deal with these antagonists is one of the show’s pleasures, be it Father Kanda’s holy fetish with electricity, Igaoka’s arachnid tattoo fetish, or (my personal demon) dentist Mizonokuchi’s teeth fetish. Each encounter has a different twist and carries a neat resolution. And the vices don’t stop there. You don’t have to be a Euphoric to be corrupt or debased, so expect many characters to show a dark side.

The show also manages to find ways to take Saiga’s camera “talent” and maximize its potential in battle. Rather than what I presumed would be a fairly pedestrian motif, Saiga’s photographic powers are actually invested in these duels, with a variety of environmental factors that affect photography actually becoming a curse or blessing depending upon their Euphoric manipulation.

Overall, the story is a fascinating one, and after starting out as a rather uninteresting lead, Saiga’s vulnerabilities and persistence make him an interesting hero. Lead villain Suitengu similarly makes for an interesting antagonist and a surprisingly sympathetic foil as the story progresses. In fact, Speed Grapher‘s strength comes from its array of characters and the uncertainty as to what secrets they carry. As the story expands, the world of Speed Grapher becomes more and more interesting.

The show isn’t without its problems, though. In fact, one might argue that the kind of moral decay it criticizes runs through the story itself. It would be fair to say, for instance, that the sexual objectification of young women is prevalent in much anime, and, on occasion, even minors aren’t exempt. The problem in Speed Grapher, I hasten to say, isn’t with the relationship between the thirty-three-year-old Saiga and the fifteen-year-old Kagura together, which is romantic yet non-sexual, and is clearly meant to be a contrast with their very depraved society. But it seems to me the show does fall into the standard anime trap of objectifying a minor. Many of the men in this story are interested in Kagura and grab at various parts of her anatomy, something which the camera never fails to focus on. This weakens the integrity of a show that supposedly tries to challenge the increasing sin within society, and it makes Speed Grapher seems guilty of the same moral degradation it disparages.

Aside from the hypocrisy factor, the relationship between Saiga and Kagura really falls flat. While Saiga’s background and dilemma makes him a fairly interesting character, Kagura is a very flat archetype familiar in anime: the childish, screaming, whining girl who needs constant saving. After 24 episodes, you really do hope things will end badly for her.

So I wasn’t ever able to truly figure out what Saiga saw in Kagura, and I actually wasn’t sure I wanted to. As I said, while it is stressed that the relationship is nonsexual, it’s played out like a romantic coupling without the romantic bits. By the end, it doesn’t feel as paternal as it does at the beginning. This lack of definition is in some ways welcome, but in other ways it is just messy. Kagura and Saiga’s companionship is certainly the weakest element of Speed Grapher, and I didn’t connect with it at all.

If you can get past these elements, though, there is a lot in Speed Grapher to reward you. There are some genuinely touching scenes amidst all the pain and sin. Foremost in my mind is a late moment between Suitengu and his sister that is one of the most evocative pieces of drama I’ve seen played out in anime for a long while. There is more to Speed Grapher than just fetishes and killing—but fetishes and killing do make up a large part of it.

The dub is good, through Kagura is shrill and annoying in both English and Japanese. It has a strong soundtrack carrying a great theme tune and incidental soundtrack by Shinkichi Mitsumune that is rich with film noir ambiance and seedy motifs. (The world-wide release was unable to obtain the rights to “Girls on Film” as it had in Japan.) The disks themselves have an assortment of special features, including a three-part documentary, actor auditions, galleries and profiles. My favorite is the US outtakes, which feature genuinely amusing moments. The information booklets that accompany the series are also a treat.

After 24 episodes, I come back from the world of Speed Grapher suitably impressed. This box set has received a great deal of attention; and while the character arc is unbelievable, awkward and charmless, the show itself makes up for their contrived relationship in abundance. It is an interesting and well-presented show, and if you can get past its few but large faults, you’ll find a worthwhile investment.

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