Review: Gangsta – eps 1-4

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If ever there were an anime series that did exactly what it said on the tin, it would be Gangsta. A new 12-parter adapting the seinen manga of the same name, Gangsta (also written as “Gangsta.“) follows a pair of unofficial peace-keepers working to maintain the balance of power between rival crime families in a fictional, vaguely Balkan city.

From their office in the back streets of the evocatively named “Ergastulum”, one-eyed sharpshooter Worick and deaf swordsman Nic are assigned dirty jobs by the cops and the criminals alike, but find their lackadaisical existence beginning to change after they decide to shelter Alex, an abused prostitute whose pimp they have been assigned to kill.

Right from the start, it’s very hard not to see a considerable debt owed to perennial favourite Black Lagoon, but I think that’s entirely forgivable. Contemporary action-dramas are not a common sight in anime, so it was with open arms that I welcomed this one; its characters chain-smoking their way round the backstreets with guns blazing at regular intervals. Based on these first four episodes, it feels like the meat of the plot has yet to be revealed to us, but the series is off to a promising start, even if I don’t think it deserves the vast praise already heaped upon it in some quarters.

While it does more than enough to draw in the viewer, the series seems unsure of its tone, pulling in two very different directions. The atmosphere is mostly downbeat and noirish, but the story still has all the heightened trappings of something more in the daft mould of a classic cheeseball action movie. For all its seriousness, it also relies on a moderately fantastical plot thread involving human experimentation, although in practice this feels far less intrusive than I feared it might beforehand.

Visually, the show has drawn some criticism, particularly for its continual use of cramped corridors and dirty alleyways as backdrops, but this didn’t bother me – it’s perfectly fitting for the subject matter. It occasionally feels as if fight scenes are taking place in the kind of boxy, predefined arenas you’d get in a computer game, but for the most part I’ve felt the alleyways bring a pleasing sense of claustrophobia. The characters occasionally sneak a look at the main street, but have yet to travel in it, seemingly aware that it isn’t where they belong. In a nice touch, the only person with a view out over the city is the abrasive-but-wise elderly woman who runs the newspaper kiosk.

Action scenes have been middling to date. All have been perfectly functional, but mostly little more than that, be they hampered by tv-level budgeting or uninspired direction, even if they do have the odd nice trick up their sleeves at times.

The show is generally better when it focuses on the characters themselves, although they too have yet to rise much above broad archetypes. Nic is well written (his deafness is effectively handled, from the use of accurate sign language to his laboured speech), but neither he nor Worick feel like anyone we haven’t seen before. Alex fares worst of all, having little to do other than hanging around the office to answer the phone and debate internally whether she is better off with or without the central twosome, but hopefully she may take a more active role down the line.

In general, I feel Gangsta is satisfying enough that I want to continue with it, but were it in any other medium, it would likely feel less compelling than it does. In anime, this kind of story is unusual, but if you’ve watched even a few crime noir films or tv series in the past few years, you’ll be on very familiar ground. The potential is definitely there for this to be something special, but I’m not quite willing to slap the ‘classic’ label on it just yet.

Gangsta is currently streaming for free in the UK through Viewster.