The best anime—really, the best stories in any medium—capture a little bit of what it means to be human. The characters wrestle with themes like freedom, death, family, love, and corruption, whether in dialogue or action, and the audience relates, because we’re trying to figure out how and why these themes play out in our own lives. That, I think, is one reason I love Gungrave so much. There are several blog-worthy themes throughout the anime. Today, I’ve narrowed it down to freedom, an important topic to several of the characters, whether they’re ambitiously reaching to obtain some ideal freedom or wondering what it even means to “be free.”
[There will be spoilers, but a lot of this is revealed or at least guessable in the first episode anyway.]
Gungrave follows two young men, the quiet Brandon Heat and the charismatic Harry MacDowel, as they work their way to the top of a mafia organization. They start out in a small gang of teens surviving in a crime-riddled area. They don’t have much—smalltime burglary doesn’t pay well in this town—but they’re content. Harry comments, “I’m fine with the way things are. I’ll just team up with Kenny and the guys, hit on women, bamboozle money out of them, and eat whatever we like. They might call us miserable punks, and I guess we are. But even so… we’re free. I’m fine with that” (from a flashback in ep 25).
But the cost of this freedom proves too steep. They live in a dangerous area, and when they cross the wrong guy, some of them end up dead. And that point, Harry realizes that there must be more to being free than just running lose in a rundown town where death is an everyday occurrence. He starts to connect his thirst for “freedom” with improving his station. To that end, he joins the mafia organization Millennion, bringing Brandon with him.
Harry believes he can be free not only from physical limitations, but also spiritual consequences. When he gets involved in necrolyzation, a science of resurrecting (or at least reanimating) dead people as weapons, the scientist says they’re both going to down to Hell. Harry disagrees:
“Down? You’re wrong, Doctor. I’m going up. The place I’m aiming for isn’t Hell, but freedom. I’ll be able to steal whatever I want, however much I want, and give as much as I want.”
He thinks he’s above all obligations and morality—if anyone goes against him, he’s furious, but he can betray the current Organization if he wishes (this breaks Millennion’s Code of Iron, to never betray, a code Brandon firmly believes in and upholds). His ruthless, shrewd practices do gain him a lot of money and power, and for a time, no one dares stand in his way. But in his service to his own ambition, Harry loses a lot as well, including his best friend.
Meanwhile, Brandon doesn’t think about his own freedom. He knows he’s “strayed from the path of righteousness” in order to follow Harry. His job as an enforcer for Millennion weighs on him—no matter how many he kills, he has a soft heart. Yet he’s willing to take on the “unpleasant chores” for the sake of the Organization.
An older Millennion member, one who has modeled taking on the worst jobs so others don’t have to, tells him, “Don’t force yourself to willingly take on ‘unpleasant chores.’ You can relax a little more. You can be free a little more.” Brandon responds, “I don’t understand what it means to be free.”
So. Brandon doesn’t know what it means to be free. Harry thinks he knows, but that freedom is tied to his own power, which is not as reliable as he expects. When he realizes this, he wants to go back to the freedom he remembers from childhood. Sure, they lived in an orphanage under a physically abusive headmaster, but at least they were free from a lot of other things, including the corrupted ambitions that separated the two friends.
Well then. What does it mean to be free?
We live in a society that idolizes “freedom,” and the parameters of that ideal freedom vary from person to person. Often, it includes the freedom to do what you want with minimal social and legal consequences. Sometimes, freedom and personal rights are so hyped, we forget that some obligations and order can be good. Being free becomes an end in and of itself, instead of an opportunity to serve someone or something else. That doesn’t make sense logically or Biblically. You’re always obeying something, whether that’s your own urges, a Biblical commandment, or federal law. And no matter who your thoughts and actions are in obedience to, there are consequences—if you’re free from one set of consequences, you can count on a different set being in play.
I searched the Bible to get a grip on what it means to be “free,” and I was struck by a few things. First, there’s no such thing as being free from all service or limitations. In fact, there are times that freedom is sought from one obligation in order to fulfill another. Second, there are those who don’t realize that they are enslaved and restricted by something in their lives, and so they will not seek freedom in that area. In order to understand the freedom you’re longing for, it’s important to understand what’s holding you down.
There are some who bristle at moral obligations attached to religion. They don’t want to change their ways. What they don’t realize is that by being “free from rightreousness,” as Paul would say, they are “slaves to sin.”
At this point, those of you who aren’t Christians (or, in particular, those of you who aren’t religious at all), might be rolling your eyes. “Dude, I’m free. It’s not like I’m addicted to anything, except maybe anime, I wouldn’t say I’m enslaved to it. The only thing I need to be freed from is college loans.” Here’s Jesus’ response to a group of Jews who thought they were both free and religiously secure:
“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
Paul phrases it this way:
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
Speaking to Christians, Paul adds:
“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Many of us have an averse reaction to the word “slave,” but please remember that we’re not talking about the atrocities of American slavery. Paul is talking to a Roman audience, which had a different kind of slavery, and Paul himself would remember slavery of ancient Israel, where a slave, upon receiving his freedom (as required after six years), could chose to continue on in service to his master. In addition, this word can be translated as “servant” in some contexts.
Being a slave to sin means that service to sin is ongoing, and that it’s not something you can entangle yourself from just based on willpower. No matter how hard you work to maintain some set of moral rules like Millennion’s Code of Iron (or the unwritten modern code of tolerance, or basic ideas of human decency), or to gain enough power to mow down human opposition, the result is the same: death. The urges to sin continue, and you continue to be enslaved to them—if not in as many obvious ways, then in your contempt for God. The payment for this is not just physical death or punishment in Hell, but the lack of eternal life, where eternal life means not mere immortality, but a life spent in relationship with God, the Creator, glorifying him and being who you were made to be.
Paul explains that you can serve sin, racking up sin’s wages, or you can serve God, becoming more and more holy (that’s “sanctification”) and enjoying the gift of eternal life. There is no in-between; the closest would be to serve God but still be fallible (like all of us are). You can slip up and sin if you’re a servant of God without worrying about losing eternal life—he won’t rescind his gift based on your performance. That’s one reason why “slave” is an imperfect term, even taking into account the ancient versions of slavery; when you abide it Jesus’s word, you’re not a slave, whose status in the home is not secure, but an heir, a child of God, who need not fear (John 8:34-36, Rom 8:14-17).
Jesus has provided a way out from a life of sin and from bearing the weight of our transgressions. That means being free from death itself. Sure, unless Jesus comes back first, we’ll physically die. But we’ll be raised back to life, too, and we have assurance of this through Christ’s own resurrection.
Those who have chosen to believe in Jesus and serve him haven’t just been freed from slavery of sin, but died to sin altogether. Think of it this way: someone neck deep into a serious mafia organization like Milllennion might see no way out. Nothing but death can take them beyond the mafia’s reach. Or, less physically, I know that some people get to the point where they see no relief for their emotional and psychological struggles and believe the only way to be free of them is to die. Some believe they have no use or purpose, or at least not one that make it worth continuing to endure the pain. They just want to be free from the cycle of pain, sin, and self-loathing, so they choose death. My heart breaks for those of you who feel this way, and I want you to know that there is a way to true freedom, a way that conquers death, and that way is Jesus Christ.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
In Christ, we all have an opportunity to be free from condemnation—including our own. Whatever makes you think you’re not worth redeeming, whatever you think condemns you, whatever pain or repeated sin you think is impossible to escape—He has defeated it.
I have not wanted to take my life, but I have wished I could disappear from existence. I’ve felt trapped by my own mind, and I know the warping power of depression firsthand. Yet even as I felt trapped, even as I doubted myself and couldn’t see how I’d be of use to anyone when I couldn’t even get to church—a part of me was free. I desperately clung to God’s promises, and he clung to me, and even when I was at my worst, there was an echo of joy, of hope and security in the background. The pain and the obstacles to my faith here on earth were temporary—the gift of life was eternal. I was free in Christ, partially because I knew he would never be disappointed in me, no matter how much I messed up. The depression and the sin it made more difficult to conquer had no lasting power on me or my identity, because I was already dead to them and alive in Christ.
So in a way, yes, death is part of the path to freedom. But it’s death to your own way of life and to the sin that enslaves you. All you need to do is believe Jesus’s words, confess your sins, receive his teaching, and name him your Lord and Savior.
I’m not saying it’s easy. We still live on earth, in these bodies, and there are temptations. Paul himself struggled with the ways of the flesh. We have to choose continuously to present ourselves to God as “instruments of righteousness” instead of allowing “sin to reign in your mortal body,” where it no longer has a right to rule (Rom 6:12-14) . But it’s different, because there’s hope. However painful things get, however much we mess up, it’s temporary. Our spirits belong to God, and our eternal fate is secure. We are free to, with God’s help, be who we were made to be.
There’s one more important aspect of freedom in Christ: We are free from the law. In other words, we don’t have to follow a strict set of rules in order to know our relationship with God is secure. We’d inevitably fail anyway, and under the law, the punishment for sin is death—being condemned to eternity outside of Gods presence, to hell. Jesus freed us from the law by taking that punishment upon himself. Then he rose from the dead, conquering death and ensuring that those of us who believe and follow are free from death as well. Now, we live under grace. That doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want—if we did, how could we say we are God’s servants? (In addition to Romans 6, see 1 Peter 2:13-17, and 1 Corinthians 8 and/or my post about it.) Yet I’ve found that the more I learn about and obey God, the more I feel my freedom from sin and all sorts of condemnation.
So what is freedom? Technically, Harry’s not wrong when he says it’s the ability to steal and give what he wants when he wants. But this “freedom” he attains by serving his own ambition is neither as secure nor as fulfilling as he might have hoped, and in order to obtain that “freedom” he has to make unexpected sacrifices—including turning against his best friend (not to mention the freedom he takes away from thousands of others). We are always serving something or someone, and we’re always free from other things by default. Our resulting actions bear fruit, whether good or bad. The question becomes, then, “Who do I serve? What freedom is worth sacrificing everything else for?” I choose to serve God—I trust his leadership, his ability to fulfill promises, and the abundance of his provision. Most of all, I know that in him I am free from death, from condemnation, from the pressure to define myself based on physical and psychological traits.
Sometimes, I forget who I serve. I sin. I worry about things I needn’t worry about. I have to choose repeatedly to serve God instead of myself or others’ expectations of me. But God never forgets me. I’m not just his servant, but his child, and I need never fear that I’ve broken one too many rules or forgotten one too many times: his love endures, and his gift of eternal life remains secure for me. I learn more about what this means when I study God’s Word and take hold of its truth. That is the freedom, the service, the hope, the life I choose, and I hope you choose it, too.
P.S. Obviously, I strongly recommend Gungrave. I must, however, give proper warning, since American services rate it TV-MA for good reason. There is violence, but I’d say none of it is gratuitous, and there’s less gore than, say, in Baccano! or Attack on Titan. There are a few other things—a scene or two with some sensuality (nothing in bed, and no nudity—in fact, the women are realistically modest, and not just by anime standards), and probably more swearing than I noticed. I was able to watch it without mental or emotional consequence at age 17 or so, back when I thought Baccano! was shockingly bloody.
It’s currently available for free on Hulu, both subbed and dubbed, at least in the U.S. [Update 7/27/17: It’s available for free, subbed, on Crunchyroll and Yahoo View.]