Irene ‘Rally’ Vincent sells guns. Minnie May loves explosions. They fight crime. In Chicago. With lots of guns and explosions.
The reverence Sonoda shows towards firearms seems native to a country with strict gun laws1. He loves guns like a steam engine enthusiast loves trains. A hobbyist’s fascination drives him to understand these exotic objects. While American gun nuts possess as much knowledge, the Western worship of guns depends on its violent ends. They care how a gun works only so far as it tells them how big a load it could blow through someone’s head. And while Sonoda does blow a few holes through heads, he also treats guns as artisan objects, refreshing one wearied by the Freudian, frat boy gun love of Western popular culture.
But he’s not a pacifist. Tarantino sprays more blood, but Sonoda’ll blast off a mook’s arm with even more flippancy. Every shot and sequence impacts the reader through the tautness of his layouts. Pages never degenerate to a pandemonium of overlapping panels and unnecessary speed-lines2. He has a skill for moment-to-moment panel transitions, including only the moments needed to convey information and pacing, capturing the flow of a moving image.
Individual panels receive the same attention. He doesn’t overuse white backgrounds, preferring detailed environments. Characters, too, stay on model, with the pleasing style of the nineties’ moe-like mould. In his illustrations of women we’ve evidence the writer is male. He mines Rally and May, our Girls-with-Guns/Grenade, for their fetishistic potential. Knives miraculously miss flesh, yet still slice shirts and skirts. Compared to other fan-service artists, Sonoda’s art leers less. Ranging from cute to sexy.
Sonoda refrains from sleaze, except where sleaze is inherent. Minnie May is, in depiction and in story, underage, appealing to a loli-con (read: paedofillic) audience. Given its prominence, the reader cannot brush over this fetishisation of a child3. An apologist may rebut that May’s backstory justifies her sexualisation, that her past as a child prostitute forced her to adopt a sexual approach to life. But from the poses and angles Sonoda illustrates her from, it’s clear the images intend to titillate the reader. Her sexualisation, even if the product of in story injustice, is exploited by Sonoda.
In a lesser work this problematic aspect would signal time to put the book down. But lesser works, in general, would let the tits and arses substitute character. Sonoda, while no keen portraitist of the human condition, is not a manufacturer of sex dolls, varying only in height and shape. Rally and May’s personalities may not run deep, but they’ve believability. Their actions come from a consistent inner-life and history. This applies to the villains as much to the heroes. The world doesn’t hit the reset switch at the end of each chapter. Episode to episode, the characters have memory of what’s come before. Villains return, not because a stock plot requires them, but because they’ve something to revenge from last time.
The plotting feels like a TV show’s more than a manga’s. In serial manga no chapter is complete in-and-of-itself, it picked up from last week and will continue next week. TV, of the 1990s at least, let single episodes exist on their own, regardless of their place in the larger whole. Where manga runs forward and back like a never-ending tapestry, TV consists of a series of panoramas, one connecting to another via thread. Even as Sonoda builds a story arc he ensures each chapter, or group of a few chapters, has a three-act structure.
Sonoda showcases his skill at creating the machinery of a thriller, and at wrapping it up in pleasing package. He knows how to pace a scene and map a plot, while lending the action and adventure the context needed for impact. The aesthetic adornments, though sometimes skeevy, achieve his intentions, creating something sexy, but not lustful. Gunsmith Cats may not enrich your life, but at being the action romp it intends to be, it more than succeeds.
1 That Sonoda sets the story in Chicago, rather than a Japanese city, seems mainly an explanation of Rally’s profession, and the abundance of heavy artillery.
2 He uses speed-lines, but only to enhance the dynamism of the image, not as a shoddy substitute for it.
3 But, for better or worse, I suspect those versed in mainstream anime/manga have long since been desensitised to such problematic depictions.
[All images taken, for review purposes, from Dark Horse's 2015 digital release of the 2007 volume. Translation therein by Dana Lewis and Toren Smith.]