Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Gunsmith Cats (1995)

In 1991 Kenichi Sonoda created a comic book (manga) series about a pair of female bounty hunters. The tall one was a gun fanatic. The short one was a explosives nut. They lived in Chicago and kicked all kinds of butt. In a few years, the manga was popular enough to spawn a radio drama and an Original Animated Video (OAV) series. It was also series that brought me into anime fandom.

Rally Vincent (Amanda Winn Lee) and “Minnie” May Hopkins (Kimberly Yates) are doing what they do best, capture wanted criminals on the Chicago streets for some sweet bounty hunting action and money. Their pal, Becky Farrah (Tiffany Grant) acts as their info broker. She has the scoop on everyone in the city and will fork it over, for a price.

Things start off simple enough, when Rally and Minnie May capture a dangerous drug runner. But sleazy ATF agent Bill Collins (Rob Mungle) reveals that the goon was only the tip of the iceberg to a huge gun running case he’s working on. He convinces the gals (essentially by veiled threats and entrapment) to give him a hand at busting the whole ring. Of course things go very badly. There are shoot outs, home invasion, a car chase, abduction, conspiracy, corruption and even a crazy ex-KGB assassin mixed up in the whole mess. Can the Gunsmith Cats survive their latest adventure?

Good Points:
  • Excellent detail in the guns, cars and city of Chicago
  • A dub script filled with humor and snappy dialogue
  • Features three top notch action set pieces

Bad Points:
  • The animation quality dips a bit with each episode
  • Some suspect voice acting by the English cast
  • A bit lighter and sillier than the original manga

Gunsmith Cats is the type of anime series you don’t see anymore: the straight up action comedy. Likable leads, well-written dialogue and some great action scenes make this well worth seeking out. Sadly only three half hour episodes were produced, but you get what is essentially a 90-minute throwback to action flicks of the 70s and 80s. Also makes a great introduction to anime in general.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Rally and Minnie May make their first appearance
I better offer another disclaimer here. Gunsmith Cats is a hugely nostalgic series for me. I’ll write a whole blog about its role as my introduction to anime and the world of Japanese culture and comics. But I figure I have to say this ahead of time, so that you know this review will probably be colored by a bias. I’ll do my best to keep it grounded.

Luckily Gunsmith Cats is really a well-produced series (for the most part). One of the things that made the manga series stand out from the crowd when it came out in 1991 was the fact that Sonoda was a huge gun and car fanatic. The manga has tons of detailed views of the guns, bullets and cars. In addition, he did a lot of research on the city of Chicago, and many of the backgrounds and buildings are drawn directly from photos and films he viewed. In 1995, when the animation crew started work on the series, they followed his lead. Extensive research was done on all the weapons and vehicles in the show.

Welcome to Chicago
They even mimic Sonoda’s style of showing off the detail. The pre-credit scene has Rally holding her trademark CZ-75 and checking the safety at the perfect angle to show off the detail. The animation crew took a step further, travelling to Chicago and taking hours of footage to capture the look and feel of the city. This ends up grounding Gunsmith Cats as a very American looking anime as far as setting goes. Later anime that featured American cities would never go to such lengths. Relying on establishing shots of famous structures to create a sense of place.

Finally the sound crew was also invited along, and recorded all the weapons and cars used in the series for maximum accuracy. So, yes they actually found a 1967 Shelby Mustang Cobra in working order, and recorded it at racing speed for the exciting car chase in episode two. That is dedication!

Crazed Russian assassin? Is this an 80s action flick?
On top of all this is director Takeshi Mori’s desire to keep Sonoda’s visual style intact as far as action scenes go. The whole series plays out like a 70s or 80s action flick. Camera angles and editing will remind the viewer of Miami Vice or even The Blues Brothers. Sure there’s the typical anime style appearing every once in a while, but nearly all the visual style is inspired by Hollywood.

As far as character design goes, Sonoda was brought in for the first episode to adapt his trademark look (decidedly 1980s in style) for the OAV series. The result is a bit of a hybrid. The hair and physical features are certainly Sonoda. But the eyes and face appear much more like the AIC style made popular by Tenchi Muyo. It works well enough in the first episode. However, episode two and three end up going completely AIC in style, even simplifying the hair styles and bringing things closer in line with anime at the time. I’m thinking this was a cost saving measure. Episode two has an excellent and well-animated car chase in it, and the detail in the museum is the third episode is impressive. I’m guessing to keep the animation budget from exploding; Sonoda’s character designs got simplified.

Rally doesn't appreciate home invasion
I’ve already mentioned the realistic sound effects. The music is a bit surprising though. The score is primarily jazz and blues in style. The opening credits explode to a wonderful jazzy “Gunsmith Cats” theme synched to some fun and colorful animation. The end credits are a bluesy adaptation of the same theme that sounds like an improve session. One of the musical highlights is during the car chase, when a jazzy piece is used as Rally and Minnie May time the battle with the Russian assassin Radinov (Marcy Rae) to the music’s rhythm. Composer Peter Erskine’s score makes this OAV a very unique beast musically, something we wouldn’t see again until Yoko Kanno wrote here similarly jazzy, blues influenced score to Cowboy Bebop.

This is a 1990s dub script. That means that it came a time when dub writers were less concerned about really nailing the exact translation of a script as they were to staying true to the spirit of the script. Sometimes this ended up creating a very different experience in the anime and sometimes muddling the script a bit. It could be a detriment in serious anime (the dub script to Ghost in the Shell has been accused of this). But in comedies it was usually for the best. El Hazard was an example of a dub script that worked much better for American viewers than the sub script. Gunsmith Cats is another example. Matt Greenfield injects playful banter, snarky one liners and even a running verbal joke or two into the whole thing. It sounds like a script penned by someone who worked on Beverly Hills Cop or Midnight Run. The interplay between Rally, Minnie May and Becky is great stuff. But the ATF agent, Bill Collins gets some of the best lines with pithy observations and some great self-deprecating humor. The series even gets in those cliché but necessary lines that every action flick needs. Stuff like “That’s dirty pool. Now I’m pissed!” and “I’ve got one more thing to deal with… or should I say two things” (Radinov talking about her job to take out the bounty hunting duo). There’s just a spirit of fun in the dialogue, and with the right actors it just clicks.

Agent Bill Collins - Sleaze with a capital "S"
This is one of the very first English dubs for the North American distribution company ADV. These early dubs had nearly all the same cast members in them, and seemed to vary in quality. Gunsmith Cats is one of the better ones. The cast is completely on board with the script and knew just how to play it. Amanda Winn Lee as Rally and Kimberly Yates as Minnie May nail all the banter scenes, sounding just like room mates and partners who are friends, but know all of the other persons buttons to push. Yates nails Minnie May’s cute but devilish personality. Her wicked chuckle as she’s about to commit some breaking and entering is classic. Lee nails the tough girl with the heart of gold for Rally. In the first episode she is at her best when interacting with Agent Collins. Her bantering with the agent during the gunfight finale is handled perfectly. Lee only gets a bit over the top when Rally starts really feeling the pressure in the second and third episode. Reading the manga, you never got the feeling that Rally would let her guard down too often, or appear less than cool and in control. But there are a few times when Lee sounds a bit too nervous or frightened.

Rounding out the main cast is Marcy Ray as the Russian assassin and Rob Mungle as Agent Collins. She lays on the Russian accent very thick, but it is completely keeping in line with the 1980s action movie style. She does a great job playing the cold killer who loses all control when Rally bests her. After that, the hatred comes through loud and clear, barely under control until she’s screaming in pure rage during the finale. Yeah it’s over the top, but it fits the show (and is very close to the Japanese version).  Mungle just lets the smarm come out in his voice. His interaction with Rally is very funny, as he tries to impress and hit on her all at once. He gets a bit overblown in a few places, but for the most part it is a good performance.

The Gunsmith Cats (and Becky) make a discovery
The only real downside to the dub (aside from Lee’s more extreme moments) are some of the gasps, back breaths and incidental vocals. Sounds odd, I know, but it actually takes a bit of talent to pull these little sounds off well. Japanese voice actors are very good at it. And most of the English cast would become very good at it a few years later. But in these early dubs, some of that kind of things sounds really… well no way to dance around it – orgasmic. One scene stands out, when Rally, Minnie May and Becky discover one of Radinov’s knives embedded in the hood of Rally’s Shelby Cobra. This sinister moment ends the pre-credit scene for episode three with a bang. Unfortunately the gasping, huffing, moaning and groaning the actresses do in those 30 seconds sounds so perverse you can’t help but laugh. Comparing it to the Japanese sequence, you can see what was being attempted: a non-verbal representation of surprise, shock and horror from three women. But man, in English, you wonder if some kind of lesbian orgy kicked off in the recording booth.

I’ve touched a bit on the direction already, especially concerning the action scenes. I really love the pre-credit moments for each of the three episodes. They are perfect and lead right into the exciting opening credits. It’s a combination of the Japanese direction, and the English dialogue that makes them so perfect.

Creative use of split screen during the warehouse battle
The pacing on the first two episodes is top notch. The story flies along, toward the climactic action scene. The series is plot centric, so most of the characterization is lean and mean, coming from dialogue and action. Editing is crisp, but not confusing at all. There are a few mini action scenes in the first two episodes. These tend to be a bit more humorous and fun than the finale set pieces. The best of the smaller scenes is when burglars attempt to rob Rally and Minnie May and find a house full of guns, as well as two women armed to the teeth and more than happy to use deadly force.

But it’s the set pieces that still impress me. The warehouse firefight in episode one is pure 1980s action movie material. It’s got the one-liners. It’s got the two heroes versus an army of thugs. It’s got clever solutions to tricky problems. It’s got Rally’s blouse strategically tearing (that’s directly from the manga actually). It’s got the cliché line “This isn’t over… it isn’t over by a long shot!” It’s got an explosive finale.

One of the best animated car chases
The car chase in episode two is equally impressive and remains one of the best-animated car chases I’ve seen. Keep in mind, this whole series was made before computer animation really started to make animating action scenes easier. It also skips all the usual anime cheats of freezing the frame, panning over static shots or having the background go abstract to save on money. Gunsmith Cats shows the car driving scenes with clarity. The most impressive sequence when Radinov uses her shotgun to blow out the tires of big rig and causing it to spin out of control and nearly smash Rally’s Shelby Cobra.

The final episode is where things drop a bit in pacing. The climax is Rally vs. Radinov in a museum that’s undergoing renovation. It’s a classic cat and mouse duel. On it’s own it works fine, slowly building tension as each woman attempts to out maneuver the other. But the rest of the episode is also a slow build. Radinov and her employer attempt to wrap up loose ends, Agent Collins is pulled from the case and a trap is set for the Gunsmith Cats. It gets a bit too plot heavy and slows down the momentum a bit. It’s more obvious if you’ve just watched the faster paced episodes leading up to it. But on it’s own, it works fine.

Minnie May carries a wide assortment of bombs
One other minor quibble is the use of the explosives in the series. Minnie May has all kinds of grenades, C4, dynamite… you name it. But each time she uses one of her weapons, the victims end up blackened and dazed – like Wile E. Coyote from a Warner Bros. cartoon. It’s really bizarre, especially since Rally maims plenty of people with her gun, and Radinov is absolutely brutal in her assassinations. It’s an odd choice, and I’m not sure if some attempt was made to reduce the bloodletting (anime still had a very violent and sexual reputation at this point). Or if they were aiming for a younger audience. It’s especially odd when you read the manga and see that Minnie May’s explosions often kill and disfigure people. It becomes a plot point several times, creating vendettas against “that little blonde bomb freak”.

Obviously I think Gunsmith Cats is wonderfully entertaining. I always enjoy the hell out of it each time I see it. But I’ve run into folks who don’t enjoy it as much as I do. They find it average at best. Usually this comes from the fact that they don’t like English dubs and only watched it in Japanese. The Japanese dialogue is functional, but lacks the spark of the English dub script. In Japanese the series is just a simple action romp with two pretty heroines. But the English script turns it into an homage to the action films of the 1970s and 80s. This is much closer to what Sonoda does in his manga series. Which winks at its audience as often as it gets serious. I’ve also run into folks who don’t have the same fond memories of the movies and television shows that Gunsmith Cats is inspired by. I’ll point out the little nods to those shows and they remain unimpressed. For folks like that, the show just isn’t going to click.

The girls are in catgirl mode during the opening credits

With that said, Gunsmith Cats isn’t artistic or groundbreaking. It’s a lot of fun, like a good 90-minute action movie. And that is all it really aspires to be. But placed along other shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion or Revolutionary Girl Utena, it looks conventional and a little shallow. No one is going to say, “Wow, Gunsmith Cats really makes you think.” But when it comes to a show that wears it’s love of the action flick on it’s sleeve, and wants to show you a good time in Chicago – well I recommend Rally and Minnie May as your perfect guides.


  1. Replies
    1. It's a good time. The series is a bit hard to find these days. Most DVD versions are out of print in Region 1. I haven't seen it show up on Netflix or Hulu yet. But I did run into a few scenes on You Tube (with just about everything else).