Warning: This piece contains mentions of suicide, execution and violent sexuality throughout.
The fundamental flaw in our species lies not in our arrogance, but in our existential need to take the reins of destiny into our own hands. We’re not content to live in the image of our maker, but mould ourselves into independent, idealised versions of the self. Speed Grapher, an original anime series from studio Gonzo, argues that we all have a latent desire within us, an inner truth essential to our being but always out of reach.
The obsessive pursuit of a dream is a staple trope in anime, with the personality of a protagonist often wrapped up in a single vision. In Speed Grapher this idea is defined by the dark side of the human soul that lingers in the shadows of ‘civilised’ society. It’s a primal self, at odds with but also serving to highlight that which makes us human. By denying our darker impulses, we prove that we are above such base urges. Speed Grapher, however, offers a means of unlocking that latent desire and the truth of the human soul.
The instrument of this achievement already exists inside us, as something cannot be created from nothing. It is instead a residual potential unlocked by divine intervention. In this case, it’s a “goddess” that exists in the unconsciousness of school girl Kagura Tennozu. These inner selves are expressed as inherently nonhuman, perverting the idea of humanity through the altering of flesh and its physical limitations. Early on we meet dancer Katsuya Shirogane as he angrily denounces the crowd that came to cheer and applaud him. This is not, he screams, his true self. Backstage a mother brings her daughter to audition, and through breaking her arm we learn the unhinged Katsuya is a stranger in his own skin. We later meet what he identifies as his “true self”, encased in a latex suit with the ability to contort his form into any configuration – a kind of fetish club Luffy.
Tatsumi Saiga, the protagonist of the series in name if not in nature, is equally as conflicted with his outward persona. He’s introduced in flashback as a plucky war photographer putting his life on the line for the sake of a photograph. But Tatsumi is no paparazzo; his camera lets him see into the conflicting dark and beauty of the human soul and glimpse the face of God. He stands opposite an enemy soldier, gun drawn and ready to fire. Tatsumi focuses his camera, standing his ground as if he held a weapon. A friendly soldier jumps over the wall behind him, firing a swell of bullets into the enemy and Tatsumi captures the moment of death, frame by frame.
Kevin Carter, famed photojournalist of ‘The Vulture and the Little Girl’, was the first to ever photograph a public execution by necklacing in South Africa in the mid-1980s – an abominable practice which involves putting a petrol-filled tyre around a victim’s neck and setting it ablaze. He later said of the images:
“I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”
Carter committed suicide at 33, “haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain”. The Tatsumi of the present day is a representation of a similar phenomenon. He’s weather beaten and cynical, trapped in Japan without a passport to escape. Though he works with the police, his methodology is best described as gonzo, desperately searching for something forever on the periphery and blurring the line between self and subject. He’s currently investigating the Roppongi, a secret fetish club in the red light district aimed at the city’s elite: socialists, business owners and political influencers. Having infiltrated the club, he attempts to photograph its goddess, Kagura, but in doing so reveals himself as an intruder.
Sentenced to death, Kagura kisses Tatsumi instead, instilling within him the ability to destroy anything by taking its photograph. At first, it seems a cruel irony that his desire to create and capture becomes a destructive force, but as we know, the truest beauty of the universe is revealed in moments of death and hidden in destruction. It evokes Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, a film in which a high-schooler obsessively films and documents the world around him. He says there is a hidden beauty in the world that sometimes reveals itself, in a plastic bag caught in the wind, the body of a dead bird, or the last moments of a dying person.
When photographing the dying soldier, Tasumi becomes sexually aroused, something that may strike us as macabre or necrophilic given the context. Sexuality and perversion are the lynchpins of the series, with character relationships, motivations and interactions all conveyed through sexual stimuli, preference and fetish. An erection has more connotations attached to it than a simple biological response. Excitement is experienced in varying degrees and often felt with the whole physical form. Anxiety, likewise, encompasses the entire body. In each instance, sexual arousal can occur. In the present day, Tatsumi’s sexuality is defined by his responses to taking photographs, to glimpsing the inner truth of his subjects. Hibari Ginza, the scantily clad policewoman he sometimes sleeps with, remarks he needs a camera to get hard while she needs a gun to get wet.
The members of the Roppongi Club all clamber for the honour of becoming equally as gifted through the use of Kagura’s power, something which can unlock and personify inner desires, obsession and fetishes. This is a clear social statement, as those in the upper echelons of society are closer to the divine, closer to transcending the limitations of humanity, than those of us at the bottom. Given sexuality is at the root of Speed Grapher, the conclusion we’re left with is that sexual fetish and desire is a kind of social system. It’s amazing what those at the top can get away with.