Patreon Review: Speed Grapher (2005) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Patreon Review: Speed Grapher (2005)

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Note: outside pieces on films or art I have something specific to discuss, future reviews are going to be chosen by my supporters on Patreon. This is the first of those reviews on the anime series Speed Grapher.I'm something of a late bloomer to anime. Outside the biggest titles of the 1990's and early 2000's, such as Dragon Ball Z and Cowboy Bebop, my exposure to the form's been limited. That started to change earlier this year when I watched Netflix's Devilman Crybaby on a whim. The intense violence, unflinching sex drive, alternately nauseating and insane visual style, sympathetic ear toward young people, and - most importantly - deep well of empathy sparked an interest that went beyond the moving images. I watched multiple variations of Devilman, including some episodes of the cheesier '70s series, and went back to read the manga. This led me to Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Demon Slayer, Kill la Kill, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and now, thanks to the latest patron request, today's review for Speed Grapher.

The plot of Speed Grapher is deeply appealing to my sense of justice and understanding of visual language. Wartime photographer Tatsumi Saiga returns from Japan's fictionalized Bubble War and begins putting himself in salacious or dangerous situations to photograph the powerful in an attempt to bring them down. He gets wind of a mysterious club consisting of the most powerful men and women in the world that get their pleasures fulfilled at a price. When he's discovered among the ranks he has an encounter with the club "goddess", a 15-year old girl named Kagura Tennozu, that awakens a power inside him to destroy whatever he photographs.Setting aside the thematic resonance of the setup for a moment, there's a lot of creative juice in the basic concept of Saiga's power. He learns to harness his power using different cameras, focal lengths, shutter speeds, lenses, and direct his now destructive creativity where it needs to be. That speaks to the pride of being technically proficient in a specific art, in this case photography, where tricks of light, shadow, and fog pose different challenges when Saiga rescues Kagura and goes on the run from the club. It's also power used idealistically. I love the idea that Saiga's abilities used to be symbolic, trying to capture the powerful in a position of weakness in an attempt to bring them down. Now it's literal, he has the capability to destroy those in power with a single snapshot.

This also threads the series with a leering voyeuristic charge that ebbs and flows in strength throughout. The earliest episodes are the strongest in portraying the ugly truth that can be captured with Saiga's camera. His first trip into the club is a disgusting marvel as we are not spared the saliva, suction, bondage, and (primarily) grotesque men that see other humans as a means to their own pleasure. They're not easy to watch, culminating in the sight that comes to haunt Kagura when she floats down to a man riddled with sores and gaps in his teeth ready to take advantage of her. Nothing else in Speed Grapher hits this ugly high, but one constant is an accurate insight into humans and pleasure. No amount will ever be enough to satisfy the powerful as needs can be, at least temporarily, fulfilled while pleasure is the hole that we can stuff as many products or experiences into yet will never be satiated - at least for most.I'd be remiss to not consider how this speaks to our present moment here in the United States. The recent high-profile death of Jeffrey Epstein threw a, what looks to be temporary but we'll see, light on underage sex trafficking in service of the powerful who want to rape. Even Speed Grapher's more fantastic elements of borderline demonic debauchery have a contemporary basis in reality. Epstein wanted to have his penis and head frozen so that he could sire children in the future. That's mad scientist speculation in service of an evil person that barely bothered to conceal either his crimes or perverse wishes. It's that perversion of the human body that fuels many of the villains Saiga and Kagura have to contend with throughout Speed Grapher. Humans that aren't interested in pushing their bodies to the limit for the better understanding of all, but humans that see their bodies as barriers to the imagined pleasures that they think they can attain.

That's where the primary target of Speed Grapher's villains, the bodies and minds of women, creates a tough web to get through. There's a recurring visual motif of women being exploited, sometimes willingly, by both the villains and protagonist. The exploitation ranges from the direct and brutal, such as the early episodes of bound and gagged women being milked, to the marketable and coercive, like when antagonist and club lead Choji Suitengu uses images of a hypnotized Kagura to sell a line of beauty products. The top-down exploitation of women even has its grips in Saiga who plays on the dreams of schoolgirls by shooting photos of them in an attempt to get more information about Kagura. Best intentions, and ultimate results, don't change that this is a society that has the exploitation of women as one of its top priorities to sustain itself. Director Kunihisa Sugishima is wise to not make any aspect of this exploitation pleasurable. Be it a smudge or glint on the camera, the saliva-filled mouths of the leering men, or the crass text of marketing language - Sugishima never pleases the viewer with the exploitation.This does present another tough challenge in the character of policewoman Hibari Ginza. She oversexualizes herself nearly to self-parody with gigantic breasts, an outfit with a neckline that opens down almost to her crotch, and an erotic fixation on Saiga that involves licking his scars. I was uncomfortable with her at first as it seemed she was a sort of fan-service character for the men watching. But the early episodes create a parallel between Ginza's presentation and Kagura's innocence being exploited. Both have assumed a guise that lets them exist in the worlds that care little for their survival. The difference is Ginza's guise gives some ground to the men seeking to exploit her so, when the time comes and she is tempted by the club, she is nearly led astray. Kagura is a reminder that Ginza can't escape her own exploitation, overcompensates her own sex appeal as a result, and her attempts to satisfy those leering at her will never be enough.

The ability of power, even power mostly in the service of exploiting women, to reach across lines of gender and sex to tempt Ginza finds a strong avatar in antagonist Suitengu. He is vastly more interesting as a character than protagonist Saiga, who has a ho hum backstory and exists primarily as a vessel for the symbolic power of his camera. Suitengu is both exploited by and in turn exploits the system in an attempt to crush those that effectively sold him into military slavery. This is where Speed Grapher's topical crunch goes beyond women. Men are similarly held to disgusting standards where their bodies are little more than fodder to be fed to our system of global capital in forever wars. Yes, the system is weighted more heavily toward oppressing women, but I appreciate how Speed Grapher has the nuance to show how men are also exploited in a different way only to direct their rage toward women. Suitengu's reprehensible treatment of Kagura and her mother is part of this. It's in the service of a larger idea of justice but that justice still involves crushing innocent people and engaging in the kind of systemic oppression that Suitengu seeks to destroy.I'm usually of the position that the ends don't justify the means as the means justify themselves. But Suitengu is a great foil to this idea through multiple conversations with Saiga during their encounters. One line just about perfectly sums up a criticism I have of the left, and Suitengu has of Saiga, when Suitengu says, "I loathe guys like you who don't know the torment of begetting money and spout naive rubbish about love and freedom." Suitengu is crushing innocent people to change the world because he understands that the power the elites wield has to go somewhere. If it doesn't go to him, it'll just go to another cabal elsewhere, and the process will begin anew. This in no way justifies the pain Suitengu causes to change the world, but it does show he has an understanding of it that can't be obtained through the lens of Saiga's camera.

How this change is manifested felt disappointing initially. The early episodes are so good and the systemic critiques so thorough that I felt let down when Speed Grapher shifts to more of a "monster of the episode" format. The monsters themselves are often effective, especially the chilling biomechanical dentist and mute actress who becomes a siren to her targets, and it wasn't until the series finished that I understood their purpose. They go beyond a villain for the moment and instead show the corrupting influence of the club, and by extension Suitengu's single-minded pursuit of vengeance, from the top of the food chain on down to the people at the bottom. It's not as thematically satisfying in the moment, I just needed to breathe at the end to see the full scope of Speed Grapher's critique via the monsters.Speed Grapher still stumbles in the presentation of its LGBTQ+ characters. I'm thinking here of Saiga's homosexual neighbor Bob. He pops into the show as a shrill caricature, constantly speaking in a tight whine, and is animated as though he's constantly on the verge of tears. Thankfully, his presentation calms down after these early episodes and even leads to a moment that is wholesome in the context of Speed Grapher. Bob leads Saiga and Kagura to safety in a club run by transvestites who offer a moment of safety. When we watch the show, it's an enthusiastic display of pride from the performers and the crowd is similarly into it. This is a rare moment where just about everyone may be performing or putting on a mask of sorts, but it's a shared illusion built on pleasing one another that's mutually beneficial.

Another aspect of Speed Grapher that's stuck with me after the last episode is its use of music. Duran Duran's "Girls On Film" sets the tone during the credits interspersed with quick voyeuristic shots of Kagura putting on clothes and the various depravities of the club. I loved the frequent intrusion of the dirty sax during Speed Grapher's more salacious moments to the point that it became a sick joke, like when the sax kicks in on a shot of Kagura's body when being carried to safety by Saiga. The use of classical music is also a keen touch, often entering the soundtrack when the club members are at their most violent, and provides another unnerving counterpoint to the visuals.

In isolation, there are aspects of Speed Grapher that might seem as exploitative as the system its critiquing. Taken on the whole, Speed Grapher is must tighter thematically than a first blush suggests. The more lurid aspects of Speed Grapher and shifts in pacing make it difficult to recommend, but I'm happy was given as an option for my first anime review. It's a good challenge to those looking for a series that has powerful moments with pockets of humanity shining throughout.

Posted by Andrew

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