Review/discussion about: Gangsta.
Gangsta. makes me, naturally, think of the word “gangster”. I am not a gangster myself, much to the surprise of everyone who knows me. To be honest, I am not sure where that line is drawn. I like mathematics, but that does not mean a gangster cannot like derivatives and integrals, too. The opposite it true as well; I might not do hard drugs but I certainly love caffeine.
I was in a gang once, though not the gruff, cool type. Our gang was called “The Five Musketeers”. It was me and my four best friends in elementary school. We did everything together, from group projects to field trips to recess. Where one of us was found the other four were surely somewhere close by. We had each other’s backs at all times.
While The Five Musketeers does not outwardly compare to Gangsta.’s portrayal of gangsters, inwardly there is an implicit comparison. A “gang” is not hastily strewn together. A gang is a group of people with common interests and, most importantly, mutual understanding of the others in the group. And in this anime, understanding plays a pivotal role throughout, gangster or no.
While The Five Musketeers are replaced by Nicolas and Worick, Gangsta (dropping the period from here on out for sanity and grammar reasons) is all about the seedier side of life. Guns. Drugs. Women. The anime injects its own fantastical aspect in the form of “Twilights”, but the anime is, at its core, a gritty, gangster gallop.
The first half of Gangsta focuses mainly on setup, and in order to do so adequately the anime takes its time delving into the past. Doing so puts everything into perspective. Not just the characters, but also the harsh reality of the situation they find themselves in. The past is mired in violence, so for Nicolas, Worick, and Alex, continued violence is normal. Therefore letting the viewer see such harshness – child abuse, relentless murder, and sexual exploits – acclimates the audience to these same types of events as they happen in the present. It is subtle and subconscious, but it works. Framing the narrative in a past-and-present dichotomy also lends itself to parallelism. To put it differently, seeing where everyone was compared to where they are now immediately establishes connections. Watching as the conflicts remain unchanged or seeing that Nicolas is still loyal to Worick after all these years speaks volumes about the stage and the actors at play. All of this possible because the anime spent so much time divulging the past.
Thematically speaking, the past also holds relevancy. Considering Ergastulum and the conflicts, the past can sometimes be difficult to escape. Indeed, as much as people want to leave the past behind, there is always a part of one’s upbringing that sticks with him or her. Alex experiences this with her hallucinations, as does Worick with his nightmares. Interestingly Nicolas, the man who seems to hardly care about anything, is also affected, his relationship to Veronica something he cannot forget. Gangsta does not stop with just the past, though. The show also dabbles into other important themes. One of the more prominent is the prospect of family and what a “family” really means. This obviously includes Worick and his relationship to his father, but Nicolas and his relationship to the mercenaries, Nina and her relationship to Dr. Theo, and Ms. Corsica and her relationship to her gang are further examples of the family idea. A theme on what it means to be human is also dabbled with throughout the anime. The Twilights are often considered monsters, but the fear of their insane abilities and horrid backstories skews this definition. Nicolas alone shows how compassionate a “monster” like him can be – giving Alex a handkerchief to clean herself up or playing with Nina proves he is not the heartless beast that the world sees him and other Twilights as being.
“Dabble” was used both for the family and for the human themes because the anime does not outright explore these motifs. They are there but to call them ideas that were properly investigated is not entirely fair. This is mostly due to the second half of the show; the second half of Gangsta takes an arguably weaker approach. Revealing bits of the past, like Alex’s jumbled memories and Delico’s early upbringing, still exists but is not as important and not as prevalent. Instead, the anime shifts its attention away from the Handymen and towards the expansion of its narrative. It is at this point that the biggest problem of the show begins.
Gangsta has a penchant for adding plotlines to its narrative. This sounds quite nice on paper; more plotlines means more action, more action means more character interactions, more character interactions means more captivation. Multiple plotlines induces complexity since each individual plotline involves its own set of events while also overlapping with the other plotlines that are happening concurrently. Gangsta’s problem, though, is that these plotlines never end.
A plotline ideally wants to wrap up in a concise manner. Character arcs finish, events logically play out, and a (relatively) satisfying conclusion is reached. That does not always happen, especially when it comes to narratives that have way too much going on. Under these circumstances, the plotlines are either rushed or left far too open, both options leading to botched arcs and unexplored ideas. Gangsta settles arguably on the better of the two routes. The plotlines of the anime are diverse and many: the cops, Monroe’s attacks, the new hunters, Nico and Worick and Alex, Delico and his sister Erica, Marco and his bride-to-be Connie, Alex and her younger brother and her past, Nina and Dr. Theo, and so on. That is a lot of plot, and for Gangsta twelve episodes was not enough. So rather than even trying to put a bow on the package Gangsta simply shipped an unclosed box. This method is the better of the two because the anime, at the minimum, is doing justice to what has happened instead of creating a false conclusion that ruins what came before.
Again, this is a problem. Gangsta not ending its tale and instead leaving literally every plotline up in the air eliminates all satisfaction since none was given. The audience is left pondering what happened to Worick, if Alex and Nicolas really ever did cross paths before, and how Marco will save his fiancée. This is not imagining where these characters will go, as if the audience is free to interpret future scenarios. There are clear paths the events are designed to head down before reaching this point of daydreaming. This outcome can be blamed on a variety of issues, from the lack of time to poor organization, but regardless leaving the anime as inconclusive as Gangsta did is not conducive to a strong narrative.
Luckily the plotlines are not cumbersome in their presentation despite how many are running simultaneously. The reason is the dialogue. Explicit explanations are rarely used within Gangsta, passing comments the only insight into the world. The “Four Fathers”, the Twilights’ “compensation”, and the ranking system are all pieces to the puzzle, a puzzle that the viewer constructs while watching as opposed to having the whole picture painted for him or her. Keeping the dialogue away from the silver platter and more on the “show; don’t tell” mentality allows the anime to thrive. The action happening on-screen takes precedence as opposed to outright informing the audience about what is unfolding. This also has the added benefit of making the dialogue feel more natural, further heightening the faux naturalness of the unnatural Ergastulum.
Unfortunately for Gangsta, a lot of problems in its art and its animation persist throughout the season. Most notably is the actual animation which is sorely lacking. Animation reaches a high point during the fight between Nicolas and Doug during the middle of the season. Otherwise, the anime is filled with many shots of characters standing still and not doing much of anything. Even then the bare minimum is used, mouth movements the only consistent use of animation. That is, despite all of the guns, the swords, and the fists, Gangsta rarely goes out of its way to animate the parts on-screen.
The art fares slightly better, mostly when it comes to the backgrounds. Ergastulum is heavily influenced by Florence, alleyways and markets aplenty. The buildings, too, are of Florence design, the small windows, the side-by-side-ness, and the colors teleporting the audience to a new yet familiar locale. While the buildings and the areas visited tend to repeat, repetition of this kind fits snuggly within the confines of the show because of how much it adds to the everyday feeling. Again, the gangster lifestyle permeates the characters’ lives, so having the same sense of “seen this before” existing within the show (the art) has the weird side effect of symbolizing that same, repetitive feeling. Simultaneously, the majority of the show takes place in the smaller, often seedier areas, furthering the evil vibe Ergastulum gives off.
Besides the backgrounds are the other nuances, such as the camera and the lighting. Camera-wise, Gangsta can get tricky, especially when the camera is used to provide a first-person perspective from Alex’s or Worick’s point-of-view. Lighting does not follow suit, although the dullness of the mood can arguably be attributed to the feeling Ergastulum exudes: danger and despair.
As for the character designs, despair gives way to hope. The designs are sometimes subtle, such as Nicolas’s thinner eyes representing his Japanese heritage or Alex’s initial white dress symbolizing the purity she still holds despite how impure she might be now. Other features of the designs are loud, like Worick’s eyepatch existing as a constant reminder of the past and Dr. Theo’s missing fingers evidence for the amount of labor he has undergone. There is also an air of maturity about the characters (excluding Nina and Doug). Hair on their hands, the rough contours and scars on their faces, and their tired, baggy eyes markedly increase the age of the cast, aligning with the more mature tale at hand. And one would be remiss if their actual outfits were ignored; suits, button-up shirts, and stylish attire are rampant, fitting the period, the place, and the part well.
Gangsta is filled from top to bottom with a host of characters. Some are one-offs like Galahad and others are a bit more prevalent yet still just outside the realm of relativity like old lady Joel. The ones who garner the most attention, though, are Nicolas, Worick, and Alex. And rightfully so, considering their main character status.
Nicolas grew up (essentially) without a father. He grew up with no respect. He grew up indoctrinated, believing himself to be nothing more than a tool, a monster, a fiend. For Nicolas, that was enough. Getting the drug for his body and fighting in battles was all he needed to keep going. This is all assumed, of course; the audience does not witness his life before arriving at the Worick household. But based on his treatment at the hands of the soldiers and the rumors about his genetic kind, it is not an unimaginable stretch to think that Nicolas’s life before meeting the prim and proper boy was filled with turmoil. His life starts to improve (however slightly) when Worick enters the picture.
Worick is coincidentally similar to Nicolas. Worick had a troubling childhood at the hands of an abusive father. The only comfort Worick had was in the books he would read, but even then his super-human memorization and reading abilities made this more an aside rather than a retreat. This combination made him into a smart kid; Worick was not ignorant of the world around him. However he gets a reality check when Nicolas appears. He sees first-hand what Twilights are capable of, how Twilights act, and who Twilights really are. Worick quickly realizes, though, that Twilights, and more specifically Nicolas, are not that different from himself. In this case, Worick empathizes with the young boy. They both experience physical and emotional pain that ultimately creates the friendly relationship they establish. That is to say, for the first time, Worick and Nicolas have someone they can confide in: each other.
And this is what is shown. Nicolas relies on Worick to teach him how to write, to communicate, and to live. Worick, in contrast, relies on Nicolas for moral support. The climax of their relationship occurs when Worick orders Nicolas to kill his family, but that moment, while violent, also highlights how they help the other. Afterwards Worick and Nicolas essentially go rogue, supporting themselves for the most part. At this point, they have already gone through trauma and subsequently development. This is why the season hardly had any growth for Worick and Nicolas in their current age because Gangsta was more preoccupied showcasing how the men got to where they were. How Worick’s free-spirited nature stems from the freedom he finally had on his own, how Nicolas’s utter loyalty derives from Worick being the only person who ever truly cared for him. They are what are known as “best friends”. For them, their connection is a perfect match. Worick the brains and Nicolas the brawn. Worick the eyes and Nicolas the ears. Worick the gigolo and Nicolas the “Tag”. They are a duo destiny designed. They are clearly two halves to a whole.
But a third half unexpectedly emerges in the form of a young woman named Alex. When the audience first sees Alex, not much thought is given towards her. She is “just another prostitute”, applicable doubly so because of the city she finds herself in. But soon it is revealed that she is a struggling soul. She wrestles with demons, both internal and external to herself. It is not until Worick intervenes that Alex makes that first step forward: shooting Barry’s mangled corpse as a means to release all of her built-up frustration. All of this is within the first episode. The show makes her dire need of help evident, and through Nicolas and Worick’s aid, she finally finds the home she had always been searching for.
Alex soon discovers that, like the narrative portrays, the past is not always easy to overcome. Her hallucinations, her fixations, and her fascinations are psychologically induced. Despite Nicolas and Worick inviting her to their abode, despite leaving her old life behind, despite learning more about things she never knew, she is still fighting herself. Dr. Theo is the first to notice, and his work should not be forgotten, but it is thanks to Worick’s quick thinking head (both literally and figuratively) that Alex is ultimately saved. This makes sense on a symbolic level. Alex’s mind was in chaos, so it took a completely sane and intelligent one to get her to recover. This also makes sense on an interpersonal level. Alex is someone who has never really known compassion let alone amicable relationships. Thus, getting into her head that she is a changed person, that she is a woman who can finally feel safe, required another head to make that happen.
Her relationship with Worick – as well as her relationship with Nicolas – begs a question: how does she, Alex, the third half, fit into this whole? She is not a socializing wizard like Worick is, nor is she an all-powerful, sword-swinging fighter like Nicolas is. Compared to them she seems useless. Compared to most people, she seems useless. Nina is a nurse, Ms. Cristiano leads one of the most influential families in the city, Connie runs a weapons store, and so on. Alex does not – cannot – do much of anything. Therefore Alex occupies the most unique role in the anime: Alex is the norm. Alex does a lot of listening and a lot of thinking. She answers the phones for the Handymen and she comforted Worick when he had a nightmare, and later on she is shown to have the makings of a singer. But for the vast majority of Gangsta, Alex is the most normal of “normals”. She barely stands out from the myriad of interesting people around her, granting her that outside perspective. Hence, in a clever move, Alex is the audience. She witnesses the brutality, the racism, and the people of Ergastulum, meaning she is the lens that the viewer uses to see the given world for what it is.
Alex does more than mirror the audience. Alex also mirrors Nicolas and Worick. Like the two men, her past is filled with pain of all different kinds. Pain whose scars do not subside. Still, she tries to understand Nicolas and she tries to help Worick, just as Nicolas and Worick have always done for one another. But it is more than simply reflecting the way Nicolas and Worick lookout for each other. For all three, they have something in their lives that is simultaneously helpful and harmful. Worick has impossible memorization skills, but that is both a blessing and a curse. Nicolas has insane combat abilities, but that is both a blessing and a curse. So what of Alex? For her, Worick and Nicolas are both a blessing and a curse. They saved her. The perfect match gave her a chance when nobody else would. Yet they also brought her into some of the most dangerous set of events imaginable. Indeed, Alex is warned time and again that staying with them, let alone in Ergastulum, will spell her doom.
Due to the narrative stopping itself prematurely, this doom is never actually shown. It seems like it is heading down that path, considering the numerous amounts of conflict occurring at the same time when the story “concludes”. This all says nothing of Alex’s recollection of her brother and her probable past with Nicolas. The audience unfortunately does not get to see the full extent of Alex’s – and Worick’s and Nicolas’s – character arcs. However for what was given and where the anime managed to get to, the gigolo, Tag, and prostitute are more than poised for further development down the road.
The original soundtrack is so awesome that it has to be talked about first. No matter what someone might think about the story and its characters, Gangsta makes it very difficult to deny how amazing its OST is. The tracks are first and foremost entirely mood setting. Slow jazz ensembles ooze coolness. Snapping fingers and clapping hands are both catchy and fitting. Hard beats push the atmosphere into hardcore territory. The sounds engross the audience, transposing them from their own world to the world of Ergastulum, thereby turning the show into an experience rather than simply something to watch. Ambient effects are simultaneously alien and comforting, coinciding with the anime’s own feeling. Snare drums punctuate the normalcy of the happenings in the city. And haunting choir compositions capture the depressing reality of the situation everyone finds themselves in. The OST is nothing short of music juggernaut.
While the OST is hands-down the best aspect of Gangsta, the voice acting, the opening theme, and the ending theme are likewise strong in their construction. Starting with the voice acting, the performances provided are often executed well. Most notably is Kenjirou Tsuda as Nicolas. His speaking voice, strained and garbled, adds another dimension to the deaf man. Junichi Suwabe as Worick also lends a nice voice, his suave and teasing way of talking turning him into the most lighthearted person in the city. Mamiko Noto as Alex also deserves a shout-out, her tired voice reflecting not just the difficult life she has lead but also the difficult life anyone leads in this crazy place.
Last but not least are the OP and the ED. The OP is echoing, electrifying, and engaging. The beat is instantly catchy, the strange sounds and high-pitched “singing” inviting the listener to prepare themselves for what the anime is about to dish out. In the middle the piece transitions to a loftier tone, but that matches the aspirations of the characters involved; Ergastulum might be a harrowing city to live in but everyone still has people and dreams worth fighting for. And while the final lyric might ask one to “peace out”, the whole piece makes it hard to follow such an order.
As for the ED, it takes a dichotomous approach. The pace slows down considerably, the female vocalist showing nice range and giving soft singing that balances the usual craziness witnessed minutes prior. And rather than funky sounds, the ED relies more on regular instruments like the guitar and the piano to get across a completely calm composition. Interestingly, the contrast between the OP and the ED symbolizes the medication that the Twilights take: the uppers and the downers. The OP pumps one’s adrenaline whereas the ED soothes one’s mind, as if the audience is meant to be treated as a Tag. Given the addictive qualities of the opening and ending themes, interpreting them as drugs is not that far from the truth.
There is an extremely small moment in the season that captures what this anime is all about.
Nicolas is in bed after his altercation with Doug and after the downers were shot into his body. Worick asks Nina how she could have heard him (Worick) coming for help, considering the heavy downpour of rain. In response, Nina does not immediately answer. Instead, she burns her lips on the coffee she was drinking as she fumbles at the embarrassing question. The anime did not have to have this slight stumble; Nina could have simply said outright why. But by her being unable to process what was just said, followed by her messing up, reflects the events of the anime. There are numerous instances where misunderstanding leads to horrible conclusions: the racism towards the Twilights, Worick missing Alex’s troubled signals, Doug trying to take out “Gunslinger Danny”, and so on. Of course, Nina’s brief clumsiness is cute, funny, and telling of her relationship with Worick (that much is undeniable) but that moment is relatable. Natural. Pure. And collectively, that moment symbolizes just another day in Ergastulum.
Besides doctor visits and coffee, the anime also manages to include other lighthearted scenes. Nicolas playing with Nina’s cheeks shows how kind the relationship between them is. Connie feeling up Alex’s breasts to determine if they are real or not is funny, especially when the art changes into a more comedic form. Ms. Cristiano’s reaction after Galahad slammed his hand on the table after the clearly evil Four Father was discourteous towards her was adorable. These scenes are accentuated due to the melancholic atmosphere that Ergastulum, the characters, and the anime emphasize at all times. So, again, while these moments are largely insignificant to the proceedings of the show – and even more important, insignificant to its purpose – having them around humanizes the nonhuman experience. This is not a startling contrast or even a necessary one, but having the contrast around improves the anime’s impact when all is said and done.
Comedy aside, I was impressed by the first half of the anime. Seeing Nicolas and Worick’s background through flashbacks, worrying about Alex’s transition from squalor to safety, and learning about Ergastulum through the minor details of the dialogue crafted a promising start to the anime. After Alex overcomes (for the most part) her psychological issues, and the anime starts to continually add more and more to its narrative without properly concluding any part of it, is when the entertainment starts to dwindle. This is for a variety of reasons, the biggest being the focus shifting away from Worick and Nicolas and to Ms. Corsica, Delico, and Marco. Alex is still around – it was nice to see her finally catch a break for once with her solo – but the minor characters clearly take over the direction of the anime. This is possibly due to both Worick and Nicolas somewhat stagnating as characters since they do not have a personal conflict occurring as the multiple set of events start to unfold, but displacing them as much as the show did in the second half was not something I was in favor of.
I was also not a fan of Mikhail, one of the Tag killers. Erica was fine because of the relationship she has to the other characters, specifically her brother Delico. Mikhail, on the other hand, was downright annoying. He is supposed to be creepy since he is a child who is obsessed with murder, but because his background as a villain was little more than “killing is fun” I found him lame rather than scary. Another aspect of the anime that perturbed me was Doug’s death. The anime put a lot of emphasis on his character, going so far as to establish a relationship between him and Nicolas. So when the show did choose to kill him off, I found the move questionable. Even worse was the manner in which he was killed. The point was probably to demonstrate just how strong the incoming, “Tag 2.0” bad-guys were since one of them took Doug out with one swipe. But I could not help but feel that they could have treated his character a bit better than they did.
Gangsta. (bringing back the period) has a lot going for it. The incredible sound-work, the interconnected characters, and the setting of Ergastulum are all aspects of the anime worthy of praise. At the same time, the show has a lot going against it. The tightly-packed yet unfinished narrative, the lousy animation, and the questionable choices in the latter half of the anime are all aspects unworthy of that previous praise. However the positives slightly outweigh the negatives, and while The Five Musketeers is a gang that no longer exists, if the gang was around it would definitely see this one as an interesting venture.
Story: Fine, a strong first half gives way to a mediocre second half due to adding plotlines that the narrative never concludes, with themes on the past, family, and humanizing that vary in exploration
Animation: Fine, below average actual animation, okay art direction, nice character designs
Characters: Good, Nicolas and Worick share a strong relationship, Alex is even stronger as a character, and the three together make for an interesting and interconnected gang
Sound: Great, good OP, good ED, fantastic OST, above average VA performances
Enjoyment: Fine, symbolic moments and fun scenes are interspersed, but entertainment dwindles the further along the season progresses
Final Score: 6/10
Thanks for taking the time to read my review. If you want, take part in the discussion below! :3