If you’re familiar with Samurai Champloo (and I would strongly recommend you become familiar with it if you aren’t already), you probably know Studio Manglobe… or, well, maybe you don’t. Both Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop—another very high profile and well known show for the unfamiliar amongst you—are, after all, mostly characterized by the involvement of director Shinichirou Watanabe in their creation and very often compared to one another as a result despite the fact they were made by entirely different animation studios. They’re also notable for being among the few original animes out there which actually manage to succeed, always a great thing to see in an ecosystem dominated by adaptations of already existing written works which are often eerily similar to one another. For me, the primary reason as to why both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo succeed, even setting aside my personal opinions about them (which are positive), is because they offer something that nothing else can; a totally unique atmosphere and presentation, a fascinating world portrayed in an equally fascinating way with artistic design and style utterly unlike anything else out there. And at first, it felt to me like Gangsta had the potential to capture that same feeling of uniqueness and genuine creativity. To explain why I bring up Studio Manglobe in the first place (though I’m sure you can already guess they were responsible for animating Gangsta at this point), I was warned long before actually sitting down with some buddies of mine to watch Gangsta that it was unfinished, albeit I didn’t quite realize how literally I was supposed to take that warning at the time—on the 29th of September in 2015, 5 days after the release of Gangsta’s 12th episode, Studio Manglobe went bankrupt. As far as I’m aware, there isn’t a lot known about what exactly happened; we know their debt was estimated at roughly 350 million yen and that they were considering other options like debt consolidation before their bankruptcy filing, but we know basically nothing definite about how they actually got to that point. We can reasonably assume that the bankruptcy was not as the direct result of any failure on the part of Gangsta itself, and instead a downward trend occurring over the span of multiple years of steadily declining revenue during which Manglobe was bleeding money and failing to make any of it back. I brought up the fact that both Samurai Champloo and Cowboy Bebop stand out as being original shows earlier because within an industry wholly dominated by studios which have found their success by piggybacking off of already existing material, Studio Manglobe was able to find success by making something of their own. It frustrates me to no end how little original material we see in the anime industry for the same reason it frustrates me how rarely brand new IPs are released by major studios in the video game industry—both are as the result of inherent risk factor. It’s easiest to make games based on already existing franchises because that will guarantee interest from fans of that franchise no matter what, whereas a completely new game willing to take creative risks is dangerous. So instead of seeing genuinely creative, boundary pushing releases with passion behind them, we get saddled with sequel after sequel after sequel of the same regurgitated, inoffensive, generic shit with a name like “Assassin’s Creed”, “Far Cry”, “Diablo”, “Overwatch”, “Halo” or whatever the hell else slapped onto it while developers play the game amongst themselves of copying eachother’s homework while trying not to make it look too much like they copied eachother’s fucking homework. Anyone with basic familiarity with the video game industry and a functioning prefrontal cortex can clearly see that the vast majority of big budget releases are now almost entirely motivated by trends; an attempt to try and deliver what the company thinks the average player will want and use it as a smokescreen for whatever other bullshit money-making schemes they are likely to accept, as opposed to making whatever it is the company wants to make simply because they want to make it and they want other people to experience it. My favorite stories are pretty much always those which somebody was dead set on telling—a game the developers desperately wanted people to play, a book an author desperately wants people to read or a show whose creators desperately wanted an audience to see it—but it is becoming increasingly rare to see bold, interesting new ideas get any kind-of budget behind them. Most of the professionals working in creative industries are just stuck doing whatever it is they’re told to, and go through the motions of doing whatever they need to do as opposed to taking their energy and really directing it towards what they want to do. The anime industry is much the same; animators stuck working on a bunch of copy-pasted, generic, trend-seeking trash, going through the motions because that’s simply what animation studios know will make them money. Yet with Studio Manglobe, it was almost the exact opposite; an animation studio that found success in daring to release completely new and original work, and eventually died because they chose instead of continuing to take that risk to pivot towards adapting already existing works, losing what made them genuinely special in the process. One thing important to note about the practice of either adapting a show or making a game as a part of an already existing franchise is that those which succeed in doing so without making something generic are able to succeed specifically because they actually care about the franchise they’re working on. Oftentimes the thing which determines whether or not animators and other creative professionals working on a project will put in the effort to create a really good end-product is the quality of the original source material or franchise itself—put simply, the difference between an animation studio putting out good adaptations and an animation studio putting out bad adaptations can come down to whether or not they’re picking good stories to adapt in the first place, regardless of whether or not the animation studio itself is talented. That doesn’t necessarily mean “good story” as in just a well-written story, but moreso “good story” as in a story the people at the studio really wanted to see adapted into an animated audiovisual format—I remarked while writing my review of Happy Sugar Life that it felt like Studio Ezόla were absolutely dead set on taking it’s amazing story and putting it on the big screen for people to experience, and that they genuinely cared about what they were doing regardless of whether or not they were the ones to conceptualize the original source material. Whereas Studio Ezόla’s adaptation of Happy Sugar Life was motivated by passion for the story they were adapting, much of Studio Manglobe’s work adapting light novels was instead motivated by desperation, a misguided chase after the rapidly rising trend of other such adaptations following the onset of 2008’s global financial crisis. They were making blind guesses as to what would and wouldn’t actually make them money instead of trying to find stories they really wanted to adapt, and it ultimately ended up leading to their death—at least, that’s the way it seems to me. And you know what the worst part is? Of all the anime adaptations that Studio Manglobe released over the course of its life, Gangsta—the one that they finally went bankrupt before they actually had a chance to finish—was easily one of the most unique and interesting of them all. So, what is it actually about? Gangsta is a Seinen anime—a term used to define shows which target a demographic of young adult men—chronicling the organized criminal underground and pseudo-governmental mafia of fictional sanctuary city “Ergastulum” as seen from the perspective of twin protagonists Nicholas Brown and Worick Arcangelo, dangerous and highly skilled mercenaries going by the moniker of “The Handymen” willing to do almost anything for anyone. Still, they aren’t a completely neutral force—their relationships with the city’s mob syndicates and policing forces largely define the work that they usually end up doing. Our story begins when the Handymen are contacted by the police force on behalf of the four “fathers” of Ergastulum—heads of its most influential crime families—to eliminate local pimp and small-time criminal boss Barry Abbot, who is working towards the ambitious goal of undermining Ergastulum’s delicate balance of power by toppling its mafia families and seizing control for himself. One of the girls working for Barry as a prostitute, Alex Benedetto, ends up in several chance meetings with the Handymen some time before Barry’s operation is toppled, and ultimately joins them herself as an assistant. Now that we’ve broken down the basic foundation Gangsta is built upon and the origin its story stems from, we can start delving deeper into what it actually is at its core. In its essence, I’d say the primary thing which makes Gangsta immediately engaging for a first time viewer is how expertly it uses organic, environmental storytelling in order to paint you a constantly evolving picture of the world it takes place in, and how it intentionally leverages your lack of understanding about the world and the people living within it against you as a tool used for the purpose of building up to something bigger-than-yet-personally-meaningful-toward those same people; not simply an aimless depiction of gangster culture as its title might seem to imply, but instead a study into the “how” of what made that culture so prevalent and the “why” motivating those who continue to uphold and drive that culture forward regardless of whether or not it’s really right to do so. I remarked while writing my review of Cyberpunk: Edgerunners that a central driving force behind all which unfolds during that show’s narrative is desperation, a dystopian society so hopeless for the average person that they don’t bother to ask the question of “why” when chasing their dreams and aiming for the top, and that’s also a central theme here in Gangsta—while the focus here might seem to be on the political intrigue and strife of Ergastulum, that’s merely a foundational tool the writers are using for the sake of developing a narrative far more personal and character driven—in essence, it’s merely a backdrop against which the story is being told, not the story itself. The central characters in-and-of-themselves are extremely interesting, and slowly learning about their backgrounds and watching the way in which they interact with and fit into the larger world being built here is engaging. The relationship between Nicholas and Worick in particular has a lot of depth that the show doesn’t actually get a chance to fully explore, which I suppose leads us into the primary thing which this show struggles with; aimlessness, a feeling as though all of the various story threads to which we are introduced over the course of Gangsta’s broader overarching plotline all ultimately lead to nothing and don’t have any kind of specific purpose behind them. This isn’t just as a result of the show abruptly ending without any real resolution after it’s 12th episode in the wake of Studio Manglobe’s bankruptcy (though that obviously plays a large part), but also because after the show starts to shift into its second arc—punctuated by the monotonous, extremely boring and expository recap “episode 9.5” which we’re treated to inbetween episodes 9 and 10—there is a distinct feeling that the show starts tonally shifting towards more over-the-top action at the expense of your own ability to suspend your disbelief; essentially, the story and the world itself becomes more unbelievable and fantastical the higher the stakes become to the detriment of what is actually supposed to make that world engaging in the first place. When I said earlier that Gangsta felt to me initially as though it had the potential to be something genuinely unique, the primary reason as to why would probably be how believable the story felt despite its more fantastical elements, managing to successfully straddle a thin line between over-the-top anime and gritty, down-to-earth crime drama that expertly uses good direction as a weapon for creating an atmospheric, recognizably seedy world similar enough to our own to appear realistic. What keeps that realism from breaking apart for most of the show’s runtime and ultimately helps the show to create personal character arcs within the overarching plot that have tension is the logical, thoughtful construction by the writers of the world itself; when I referred to Ergastulum earlier as a “sanctuary city”, that was in reference to a sort-of subcategory of humans living within that city known as “tags”, or “twilights”, the genetically transformed descendants of those who once used an experimental, addictive drug called Celebrer in order to dramatically enhance their physical abilities for warfare. Unfortunately the genetic transformation and addiction caused by taking Celebrer was inherited by the descendants of those who lived through the war, making them almost supernaturally strong, but at the cost of dependency on Celebrer in order to survive, a dramatically shortened lifespan, and numerous other disorders. Due to the inherently dangerous nature of their existence, Twilights were all eventually quarantined and isolated within the city of Ergastulum, then forced to follow the “three laws”, which are quite literally word-for-word Asimov’s three laws of robotics but with “twilight” in place of “robot”. This sets up not only a really interesting, volatile relationship between the Twilight and human elements of Ergastulum’s society as a whole, but also takes the over-the-top supernaturally-adjacent anime-esque elements of the show and frames them in such a way that they don’t feel too exaggerated. The twilights themselves are slaves dependent on a drug that they can only get by quite literally playing the part of robots, unable to use their incredible power against any human without ultimately dying for it; they’re compelling not because of their strength, but because their strength being a curse and genetic defect actually humanizes them. I really appreciated how what I initially thought would be a more simple narrative chronicling the power struggle between syndicates within Ergastulum’s criminal underground is given a lot more underlying depth by this much broader societal struggle, and especially appreciated how that societal struggle is depicted and presented to us through all sorts of different unique lenses, making it feel real and not nearly as black-and-white as it might otherwise have been in the hands of a worse writer or director. With all of that being said, the further into the show you get and the higher the stakes become, things begin spiraling out of control; you could argue that there is a sort-of logical progression the show is trying to follow insofar as the eventual escalation of violence between its criminal powerhouses and the way in which that relates to the aforementioned sociopolitical struggle happening in Ergastulum over the course of its entire runtime, but you can’t help feeling the tension is slowly becoming more artificial or manufactured when you start getting the exposition dump about how there just so happen to be some regular humans with “anomalous physical makeups” resulting in them having absurd supernatural strength, but not the same dependency on Celebrer that Twilights do. This is an issue for two reasons, the first being that it doesn’t make any fucking sense and is very obviously an artificial way to create tension by introducing super strong “twilight hunters” capable of putting up a fight against our central characters, and the second being that the notion there are superpowered regular ass people running around does a disservice to the entire concept of the Twilights by deflating the inherent threat they would otherwise pose to society at large, which is, you know, kind-of the entire reason why they’re all being quarantined within a sanctuary city in the first place! The most frustrating part is that this wasn’t necessary for the sake of creating drama. In fact, one of the aspects of Gangsta that I personally found to be the most interesting was the depiction of how terrifying it actually is to be a regular person forced into a fight against a Twilight—helping to clearly illustrate the reason why regular people find the Twilights innately terrifying and feel the need to control their behavior even if it’s morally questionable to do so—contrasted against depictions of how hopeless many of those same Twilights actually are, whether they’re forced to take refuge from anti-twilight extremists in safe houses or doomed to die fighting with their own people for the sake of someone else’s interests. It’s far more interesting to see Twilights fighting eachother while serving the interests of different people whose ideologies or objectives clash because it illustrates not only how they aren’t all of one mind, but how the threat they pose for regular people is being intentionally minimized by forcing them at eachother’s throats—Gangsta is willing to stop and question where and why the xenophobia originated in the first place, then present you with the question of whether or not that makes any of what’s happening as a result justifiable, which is in my opinion a very adult way to approach this particular subject matter. So why the need to try and create this sort-of artificial drama in a nonsensical way, ultimately taking away from the show’s most central, core concept and actual source of tension? It’s simply misguided, and not just as the result of semantics; you can see the tonal shift and disconnect in not only the convenience inherent within the world’s development itself, but also in things like character design, direction, plot structure, etc. There’s a noticeable difference between what feels adult and what feels juvenile, breaking your suspension of disbelief and pulling you out. And of course, all of this eventually culminates into an ending that quite literally wasn’t finished; the show just suddenly stops without any semblance of resolution or fanfare for anything, whether it’s the arcs of its characters, the escalation of violence between its crime families and social classes, all of it is just left and hung out to dry. I already made mention that I appreciated the show presenting its subject matter in a multifaceted and thoughtful way, but narratives like these largely defined by the way in which the events happening within them speak for themselves absolutely need strong resolutions in order to have impact or tell a story effectively—Happy Sugar Life is a really good example of that, a show that would be absolutely pointless and ultimately waste your time if not for the way in which it ended allowing it to make an impactful statement about the things which took place during its runtime. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—nothing is an excuse for this. A studio without the resources necessary to deliver on a complete story took on the responsibility of adapting one, resulting in a predictable outcome, and clearly didn’t communicate to many of their ground-floor employees how dire their financial situation was at the time when considering what accounts we have of some being abruptly let go without their salaries paid—regardless of however you personally feel about Gangsta or Studio Manglobe or what you think might have driven them to this point, that is indefensible negligence and needs to be acknowledged. And it’s not as though the production value of the show itself was poor; Gangsta has solid artwork, good action sequences with excellent choreography, solid direction, a great soundtrack, and decent opening and ending songs, it’s mostly well made with only a few minor animation hiccups and inconsistencies (there’s one specific scene of Alex drinking from a wine glass that I couldn’t help but laugh at). Whereas at the very least Studio Gainax seems to have had the decency to communicate their dire financial situation with their animators and other creative talents and attempted to work through the problem with them, Studio Manglobe instead opted to play pretend and keep everyone on the ground-floor in the dark about their sinking ship right up until their time came and there was no longer any room for them to maintain the illusion—that’s just a shitty, aggressively corporate move. And before I forget to mention it, it’s actually kind-of impressive how the recap episode I mentioned earlier is not only boring, entirely unnecessary and an inadvertent insult to the viewer’s intelligence as almost all of them often are, but it also manages to be bad even by the standards of the average recap episode; most of it is a character synopsis reintroducing you to people that you already know in the most expository way possible as opposed to an actual retelling of events, and it actually feels so disconnected from the show it’s supposed to support that it spoils a semi-important character detail about Worick before it is actually brought up during the next episode! There’s a stark contrast between the plain, uninspired way in which the recap explains Ergastulum and the characters within it to you against the organic and natural way the show itself demonstrates to you who they are and what they’re struggling against through their actions. All in all, it’s pretty difficult to recommend Gangsta with everything taken into consideration—the show does a really solid job at maintaining your interest and keeping you invested throughout most of its runtime, but can’t carry that momentum into its second act and ends on such a poor note that it’s almost wholly unsatisfying, leaving you feeling largely apathetic towards your experience with it—that, in and of itself, is part of the reason why this review has taken so long for me to write simply because I just didn’t feel invested enough to delve deep into what exactly the meat of this show is or where exactly it fails even when divorced from the bankruptcy that stopped it dead in its tracks. That said, there’s definitely enjoyable material here that might be worth taking a look at with the foreknowledge that the show is going to end poorly, assuming that you’re actually interested in its subject matter; Gangsta stands out somewhat as a show that, while at its best, is capable of appealing to an audience who would usually lack interest in anime at all. Anyways, I’ve got a glorious cookie empire to maintain (I’ve been getting back into Cookie Clicker recently and it’s probably not good for my health), so I’ll go ahead and end things there; thanks so much for reading as always, I’m gonna go relax now.

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