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September 19, 2006

Speed Grapher

A cameraman delves into a hidden world of money and power—plus the powers that transcend them both
Speed Grapher
Vol. 1 (Eps. #1-4)
Vol. 2 (Eps. #5-8)
100 mins.
MSRP: $29.98 hybrid DVD
By Tasha Robinson
Much like Paranoia Agent, the 24-episode series Speed Grapher launches straight into some deep explorations of various characters without immediately bothering to show how those stories fit together, and the results are intriguing but initially a little baffling. Episode 1 introduces Saiga, a jaded photographer and former war correspondent harboring bitter regrets and well-documented talents.
Its dry, serious central plotline is also clearly aimed at viewers who value sophisticated, drawn-out serial stories over instant gratification.
In a post-economic-crash future where the rich have gotten even richer and have made Tokyo their playground, Saiga investigates and skillfully penetrates a secret club straight out of Eyes Wide Shut, and winds up in mortal peril. Meanwhile, a celebrated dancer becomes a political assassin by night, donning a weird fetish suit and gaining unearthly powers that let him bounce through a horde of bodyguards and twist their heads off as though they were badly made toys.

Episode 2 leaves Saiga behind and tells the story of Kagura, the 15-year-old scion of an immensely powerful political/economic group. Jealous of her beauty, her powerful, cruel, manipulative mother has been starving her, counting on her natural meekness to prevent her from rebelling. Meanwhile, her mother's associate Suitengu has been using Kagura as the center of a series of rituals, convincing her that her memories of the experiences are dreams.

Kagura and Saiga meet by the end of Episode 1, but it takes several more installments for the ramifications of that encounter to become clear. The results are literally explosive, as her kiss unlocks his "Euphoria Factor" and gives him the power to destroy anything by photographing it. Obsessed with gaining her freedom, she fixates on him as her savior, but the group behind the mysterious club will stop at nothing to get her back. Saiga is now a Euphoric, an elite creature with a power supposedly based on his secret desires, but he isn't the only one out there, and most of the rest are vile, twisted creatures who'll do anything to help get Kagura back to her guardians.

Political plotting and twisted obsessions
Speed Grapher is a dense series with a lot going on, from the political machinations in the background of these episodes to the many odd subsidiary characters. Episodes have a tendency to introduce odd figures almost as throwaways—for instance, Saiga's weepy gay masseur neighbor, or Kagura's piano teacher, who interrupts her lesson to complain to Suitengu that he needs fresh young arms for his darling, a vaguely glimpsed feminine figure kept in a side room, bathed in brilliant light, covered in maggots and surrounded by what appear to be piles of decayed arms. Even some of the more significant characters, like the sexually rapacious cop who periodically molests Saiga, tend to make brief appearances and then disappear without comment.

These kinds of details give Speed Grapher a rich feel that's mirrored in the lovely visuals, which tend to be earth-toned and muted, as if to reflect the numbness of life in a city where a few perverted bastards have power over their victims' minds as well as their lives. Studio Gonzo rarely disappoints these days; it seems to go out of its way to try to pull off difficult effects like smoke and sprays of blood (which pours out copiously in this series), and the animators certainly seem to love pulling out the Euphorics, who tend to move in eerie and inhuman ways.

Speed Grapher is obviously and profoundly aimed at adult viewers: It's graphically violent and graphically sexual (though more in an aggressively forthright way than a cutesy, teasing fan-service way). Its story is complicated and packed with names, alliances and developing depths. And it carries a strong and not terribly subtle message about the soul-deadening effects of economic greed—not generally a major problem among the underage set. Its dry, serious central plotline is also clearly aimed at viewers who value sophisticated, drawn-out serial stories over instant gratification. Paranoia Agent fans take note: This is heady stuff.

As much as this series starts devolving into monster-of-the-week by disc two, I still found it pretty fascinating. It's wildly unpredictable without being goofy or random. —Tasha