Well, even the best teams have off nights, I suppose…
As I mentioned before, I’m reading the corresponding GANGSTA manga chapter after watching the anime episodes to help solidify all the names, factions, and plot nuggets, and while the two are identical (so far) in terms of basic story, there are small cuts and line changes that dramatically affect the overall tone. The manga’s more graphic with its violence, more direct in its world-building, less tasteful in the way characters (especially Worick) treat women and marginalized groups, and sillier in its content, utilizing comically deformed faces and asides.
In other words, the manga looks a lot more like the anime episode we got this week.
Don’t get me wrong: The manga isn’t bad by any means, and I can see why some would even prefer it, especially if you’re looking for a lighter shoot-em-up instead of a quiet character study. For my money, though, the anime is by far the stronger overall production, as I adore its restraint, thoughtfulness, and graceful narrative control, particularly given the heavy subject matter. But regardless of personal preferences, if the anime had wanted to bring in more of Kohske’s humor and/or directness, waiting until Episode 8 to do so was a major tonal misstep, jarring at its best and downright awful at its worst.
In other words, this was one rough episode.
For starters, the few bits of plot- and world-building were thrown at our faces instead of getting worked into the episode via natural conversations or actions. Much of this week’s dialogue felt stilted or forced, but the most egregious was easily when Marco all but says “Let me exposit at you!” right before he explains how the Four Fathers divvy up Ergastulum business:
- Paulklee runs the Twilight mercenary guild
- Corsica deals in weapons and vice
- Monroe gives assistance and brokers business deals for “unaffiliated Twilights”
- Cristiano handles the distribution of Celebrer
Not even the animation team seemed to be trying very hard this week, given all the wonky movements and noticeably off-model character designs. Gangsta has struggled at times to give its action smoothness or a sense of depth, but at least people’s pupils were looking in the same direction. I’m used to a show’s quality dipping mid-season, but this was just plain distracting. Fingers crossed it was an aberration and not a sign of ongoing production woes.
By far the most puzzling and frustrating decisions this week were the tonal ones surrounding the female characters. Loretta Cristiano is Every Annoying Teenage Anime Girl Ever, a walking cliche in a show refreshingly free of those. While she’s at least got enough moxie and cleverness to keep her from being wholly irredeemable, her interactions this week were obnoxious, full of slapstick and shrieking that would be irritating on any show but stick out like a sore thumb in Gangsta. The less of her we get, the better off we’ll be.
And then there’s Alex. There was a lot of great stuff surrounding her this week, and I swear I’m going to spend the last part of this post talking about positive things because I’d much rather be doing that anyway, but… what the hell, Gangsta? When did you suddenly decide to use her sexuality as a punch line, or to make casual harassment something we’re supposed to find amusing? That kind of cheap, victimizing humor is callous at the best of times, but here, where Alex’s entire personal story line thus far has been about her recovering from physical and sexual abuse, it’s downright disgusting. This episode put a sour taste in my mouth from the moment it tossed it that “they feel real” joke, and not even its best scenes could ever quite wash that out.
You can do better, Gangsta. I know you can because I’ve seen you spend the last seven episodes handling Alex with sympathy and respect. You’ve been remarkably non-judgmental about sex work itself while also highlighting the many problems and dangers inherent within the system, most of which boil down to a lack of legal protection for the workers. This has allowed you to tackle abuse without once shaming or sexualizing the abused character(s), something many shows struggle with or fail at altogether.
You are a smart, mature series. You do not need to resort to gross groping jokes or have every other character leer at Alex just to remind us how much objectification she has to deal with on a regular basis. Remember when you showed Barry harassing her once, briefly, and then trusted the audience to get it? Do that. Don’t do this. “This” makes me write rants, and neither of us want that.
That said, not everything this week involved long sighs and twitching eyebrows. Animation woes aside, there were two good-to-excellent scenes this week, both dealing to some extent with Alex’s returning memories. An offhand question about Alex’s family leads her to remember a younger brother she’s left at East Gate, and she spends much of the rest of the episode struggling to solidify those memories. While the reveal came way too close to the actual appearance of said brother in Ergastulum, it’s executed well, particularly in showing how much closer Alex has grown to both the Handymen.
Worick provides a listening ear and reminds her that she still has a place to call “home” until she finds her real one, further solidifying the casual intimacy developing between them, but it’s Nic’s silent gestures that provide the emotional core of this scene. Observant and more concerned than he lets on, Nic not only notices Alex’s discomfort and intentionally interrupts her conversation with Connie, but then steps in and steadies her, grounding her again in reality and easing her out of a near panic attack. There’s a mutual fascination between these two, and an empathetic understanding as well, I think, and it comes through here in a moment made all the more powerful for its silence.
Then, of course, there was that final, lovely musical montage, which almost single-handedly saved the episode. It’s a beautiful number filled with beautiful shots: Alex crooning into the mic, looking comfortable, even happy (the camera lingers a bit, but I didn’t mind it here because for once that sexuality is on her terms, giving her a kind of power she hasn’t had before); the crowd transfixed, dreamlike and calm; and the fight raging outside, both in the form of the Nic and Worick’s “work” as well as the stranger (who’s got to be Alex’s brother) struggling to get past security.
Ergastulum is a brutal city, but the Handymen and Alex are able, through two separate performances, to provide a moment of peace and a sense of safety to the refugee Tags, many of whom seem to be living ordinary lives completely separate from the underworld violence. There’s something sort of heartwarming about seeing the trio using their talents to help others, whether that’s in the form of a song or a carefully wielded katana.
The scene rides the edge between hopefulness and irony, as the music speaks of new beginnings while the camera shows us how little things have changed in the last 20-odd years, with anti-Twilight hate crimes just as prevalent as ever. Like much of the episode, there’s a certain tonal dissonance to it, but here it’s intentional and serves a greater purpose, highlighting the contradictions inherent in the city and our main characters’ lives as they struggle to move forward but still can’t shake off the ghosts of the past.
Still, though, by the time the end credits roll, the overwhelming mood is one of regained strength and a renewed sense of purpose, particularly where Alex is concerned. Hopefully that will also be true of Gangsta itself, and we can continue to our finale with a little more grace and a lot fewer flipped tables.