If there is one thing that America can rightly pat itself on the back for, it is its continued domination of global pop culture. Its sphere of influence over every aspect of media has defined it as a country for decades, ever since Hollywood first grabbed film-making by the scruff of the neck and jazz took over the radio. You couldn’t even count on ten fingers the number of contributions that the ol’ U.S have given to the world since - rock n’ roll, hip-hop and literally every genre of music in between, comic books, science fiction and even the ubiquitous nonsense that is reality TV are just a few of the products of American creativity. Their triumph is down to their pervasiveness as well - thanks to a little concept known as the free market, there is not a single country on this planet that doesn’t have a small vein of American culture coursing through it, be it via the broadcast of American shows and movies, or as inspiration for their own homegrown works. So good job, America - no matter what the Putins and the Kims of this world say about you, your power over the world’s artistic output isn’t showing any signs of dying soon. Be proud of that - after all, even national pride is an export of yours.
But for this review, the point of all this inventorizing (and perhaps, hyperbolizing) of America’s cultural victory over the world is that, oddly enough, it’s had a bit of an influence on the world of Japanese animation as well. You can see hints of it throughout the history of the medium’s development - vintage sci-fi perhaps contributing to both the mecha and space opera genres, or the feats of Marvel and D.C superheroes leading to the creation of Astro Boy, Japan’s original manga-defining variant on the superhero trope. With 1995’s Gunsmith Cats however, the Western influence is far more modern and transparent. Simply put, Gunsmith Cats is a no-nonsense, trigger-happy pulp crime mini-series with a sense of spirit, style and delivery lifted straight out of the gun-action thrillers of the 1970s - complete with fast cars, smoking pistols and a big brassy soundtrack. While it certainly retains some distinctly Japanese idiosyncrasies (and some slightly pervy anime ones), it is about as faithful a rendition of the all-American cop dramas of old that you’re likely to find from across the Pacific - and fortunately, that also means that it translates to being a very fun ride indeed.
Gunsmith Cats sets itself in the Chicago of its time, to the tune of a remarkably short three-episode serial that seems measly in comparison to the length of its parent manga franchise - in particular, the print version itself enjoyed publication initially between ‘91 and ‘97, and then onward with a follow-up between 2004 and 2008. Luckily, its main female protagonists are certainly memorable despite their on-screen escapades being fleeting - those protagonists being bounty hunter Rally Vincent and her crime-busting partner May Hopkins (who also goes by the nickname “Minnie-May”, perhaps due to her dimunitive size), who together run the “Gunsmith Cats” gun shop to help support their criminal hunting professions. They’re also about as typical a justice-serving duo as you’d expect - at least in the sense that they’re polar opposites of one another. Rally is unquestionably the leader of the two - cool, sharp and a dab hand with practically any gun that the arms industry has to offer, while May brings the ever-critical chaos element. An expert with explosives, May is more than keen to be granted the opportunity to wreak havoc upon wrong-doers with the stockpile of grenades and smoke-bombs she has hiding beneath her jacket. It’s a penchant not completely without its consequential issues - May’s love for unleashing a barrage of incendiaries without warning often subjects Rally to their blast range just as much as the criminals - but on the whole, it’s a working partnership with considerable success - so much so, that even the ATF are willing to enlist their services for larger, more perilous operations.
The main arc of Gunsmith Cats covers one of these ‘cooperative’ engagements, as Rally, May and their trusty informant Becky are blackmailed into teaming up with ATF agent Bill Collins (who happens to be very aware of the Cats’ lack of licenses to sell certain parts of their armoury) to help investigate and shut down an illicit gun-running operation plaguing the city.
This particular smuggling ring has quite the number of involved parties in it, too - its main figurehead, a man by the name of Jonathan Washington, may look like the head honcho for the op, but he’s really just the start of a trail that leads all the way up to corrupt U.S Congressmen - as well as the sadistic Russian assassins they hire to keep their tracks covered. Neither Rally nor May have any idea that such a trail even exists at the beginning of this tale, but with the help of Becky, Bill and a few good cops on the Chicago P.D, they’re soon on their way to blowing the case - and its connection to campaigning politican Edward Haints (who bares a strangely prophetic resemblance to Donald Trump) - wide open, with all the mad gunfights and blistering car chases that come with such revelatory mystery solving.
As you might also be able to tell from the ridiculously cool intro above (with music courtesy of The Weather Report’s Peter Erskine), they achieve all of this under a certain tone and atmosphere that is absolutely perfect when compared with the classic 70s and 80s shows it’s trying to emulate. Simply put, Gunsmith Cats is the anime equivalent of any product of that era - think Starsky and Hutch or The French Connection and you won’t be too far from the lines of how this mini-series runs and feels. It’s a pretty stellar rendition, and one that works only due to the sheer amount of research that its creators put in - series director Takeshi Mori even organized trips for fellow staff to visit actual Chicago gun shops and police academies to get better knowledge on both the guns for the show, and to figure out how to hit the essential American vibe that it thrives under. The result is an action thriller that knows its weaponry, and most certainly its setting - even if the end product is ultimately condensed into a fairly rudimentary anime short story.
But for as standard as the plot is, it is most definitely one hell of a ride - and funny, to boot. Rally and May’s dysfunctional pairing is standard sitcom practice (and fans of this medium may liken it to that of a certain Kei and Yuri from Dirty Pair), but they’re a fun team to watch delivering justice to the arms dealers of the Windy City. Part of this is down to the fact that their otherwise adept crime-fighting skills often come packaged with that previously mentioned comedy of errors - any time Rally is holding down the fort during gunfights with criminals, May is always on hand to unleash those random grenades to undermine all of her partner’s gun-toting poise, and take care of the job in a more direct, humourous fashion. But the action sequences they both partake in really do deserve a mention as well - there’s some clever flow in a few of the animated set pieces on offer here, particularly with Rally and Bill’s teamwork during a warehouse shootout, and a fantastic car chase which marks the climax of the second episode. But the biggest contributor to Gunsmith Cats’ success - besides its aesthetic and smart jazz-blues soundtrack - is surprisingly, the English dub.
Most of the actors hired for the translation work here have really put in a shift - Amanda Winn nails lead character Rally’s streetwise yet occasionally temperamental nature, while Kimberly Yates’ vocal depiction of Rally’s partner May pretty much captures her character’s essence - cute, and slightly unhinged. This perfect matching goes all the way down to the support characters too - Rob Mungle gives Bill Collins’ one-liners the corny smarm they demand (“I’m a real Eliot Ness, pussycat”), and even the Cats’ chief informant Becky - and her long-running despair for being made to do work for them without the pay - is made to stand out thanks to Tiffany Grant’s efforts. For the baddies, Haights’ hired assassin Radinov is most definitely the focal villain of the show, and the faux-Russian accent provided for her by actress Marcy Rae is both suitably cheesy and effective for a series that prizes both goofiness and dramatics in equal measure. Collectively, the entire cast also have a great understanding of this seemingly contradictory balance - and know exactly what is required of them for each and every scene they’re put through. Ultimately, it all adds up to a localization that feels confident and American - so much so, that you could even end up forgetting that this was a Japanese-made animation, if not for certain inevitabilities that the medium of anime itself throw into the mix.
You see, Gunsmith Cats is still very much an anime - specifically one with two female leads in an action show that, traditionally, has always been a genre aimed at guys. Essentially what this means is that, occasionally, it’s also going to give said demographic a modicum of ‘fan service’ now and then. This boils down to the odd scene where either one of the girls could be shown in a state of undress - usually their undies - as they hang around their own apartment figuring how to dig up more leads for their case, or a fast-moving action sequence that naturally results in a shirt being torn to reveal a bra. There is literally only one shot of actual nudity to speak of - a shot of a softcore porn site on a computer screen - but there is definitely an element of mild ecchi at play throughout the show, which may switch off those of a more conservative nature. The rest of us - especially those who know of the awful depths of perviness that anime can sink to - should find nothing to raise an eyebrow about, but it is still worth bringing up nonetheless, if only to those new to anime in general.
Same goes for the violence too - given that Gunsmith Cats is essentially an anime interpretation of the classic American cop thriller, there is a noticeable amount of blood to go with all the bullets. Again, it’s comparable to watching a regular TV show or film of the same ilk - but those who still believe cartoons are just for kids will probably find a reason to be outraged by it. If you’re not the type to be offended by such things though, and especially if you’re new to Japanese animation, Gunsmith Cats may just be your ticket to a great time, even despite its age. It’s a great pastiche of pulp-crime Americana, filtered via a definitively Japanese medium of art, that somehow manages to bridge the divide between the two without any sign of awkwardness. In fact, it’s one major weakness is that it is just too bloody short - a mere three episodes is nowhere near enough to satisfy one’s appetite for the kind of laughs and lead-spraying action that these two girls and the cops of Chicago provide. One can only hope for a new series somewhere down the line - but for now, fans of both manga and Magnum P.I alike will find that Gunsmith Cats still packs a real punch, and delivers for their niche in explosive, highly amusing fashion.
Unfortunately, the original licensor of Gunsmith Cats in the West, ADV Films, went bust in 2009, making this series quite the rare item to find. You can still find it on DVD being sold by independent sellers on Amazon and eBay, but the prices are extortionate for a single disc holding just three episodes. Unless you're a serious collector, your best bet is to look for a stream online. Google is your friend :)
Media utilized in article is property of: Kenichi Sonoda / ADV Films