It's time to lock and load folks, because once again it's another installment in:
GUNSMITH CATS (Gansumisu Kyattsu), by Kenichi Sonoda. First published in 1991, and first published in North America in 1996.
PLOT: Rally Vincent is a Chicago based bounty hunter, car enthusiast, and gun nut who runs a gun shop/shooting gallery along with her roommate, a former teen prostitute and explosive expert by the name of Minnie May Hopkins. The story begins with Rally taking the case of a cocaine dealer who has skipped bail, but the situation soon snowballs after the leaders of the drug ring, a sadistic brother and sister who go by "Bonnie" and "Clyde", go after our heroines after their fast driving, marksmanship, and creative use of explosives ruin their plans and leave Bonnie missing a few limbs. What will happen Rally and Minnie May are forced to walk into a trap to try and save a friend from Bonnie's thirst for revenge?
STORY: Gunsmith Cats is one of the best action manga you can find on the North American market (as well as one of my personal favorites). It's a rousing, intricate story that is always building to a climax, and it's centered around a wonderful pair of complex, capable heroines.
The story's pacing is sure and steady, starting with what seems like a simple bounty hunt and escalating into undercover work, car chases, and plenty of shootouts leading up to the final one between Rally and Bonnie. The story is full of twists and turns, but it never veers away from the greater plot until the conclusion. After that, we get a chapter which is essentially filler, where Rally and her police contact talk about a particular and obscure variety of revolver. It's not completely pointless or indulgent, though, because the end of it is a cliffhanger for the next story arc. Sonoda is clearly both a car nut and a gun nut, and his dialogue (not to mention the notes in the margins) is loaded with terminology, jargon, and specific brands, mostly thanks to Rally.
Now, as good as the plot is, what makes Gunsmith Cats truly shine are its two leads. It is so refreshing to read an action story where the women are not there solely to be objects to be taken and retrieved by others. They're not there just to be sexy pieces of scenery, but neither are they hardened, soulless killing machines. They are very human, with their own complex personalities, morality, and skills. Rally is an expert shooter, a walking wikipedia on all things gun related, and a fearless driver with an appreciation for slick, powerful cars. These are very unstereotypically interests for a woman to have, and I do like that it is never once insinuated that having these interests makes Rally in any way unfeminine or even unusual (even if Minnie May might suggest that Rally is venting sexual frustration through her shooting gallery). She is quick to think on her feet (even if it sometimes comes at the price of her dignity), and she actively avoids shooting to kill, preferring to disarm her opponents by shooting their thumbs off.
Minnie May is no slouch in the character department, either. True, she has the more dramatic and controversial past (being both a former runaway and a former underaged prostitute). Still, she is an expert on all things explosive, and her homemade grenades and bombs save Rally on more than one occasion. She may be tiny and something of a loli (something I'll discuss further in the Art section), but she is no moe-moe schoolgirl: she is impulsive, somewhat bratty, and very openly, unabashedly sexual.
The rest of the cast is great fun too, be they just incidental characters or the villians. They may not get a lot of screen time compared to our leads, but they all leave distinct impressions, and Sonoda clearly loves creating sadistic, twisted villains to pit against the girls. It also helps that everyone, hero and villain alike, is physically vulnerable. There are plenty of shootouts and car chases, but just like real life there are consequences from them too. Cars get wrecked and need time to be repaired. People who are nonfatally shot are shown bandaged and healing for some time afterwards. People who get their limbs blown off don't get them back (although Bonnie makes the best of her disability by installing a shotgun in one of her fake legs). There are actual consequences for our heroes if they get shot or wreck a car, so there is some real tension behind all that flashy action. It's one thing to have your heroes charge into a situation guns-a-blazing; it's quite another when there is no guarantee that they will emerge alive and whole.
Gunsmith Cats is a rare specimen indeed: a feminist action story. It has great leads, a thrilling story, and as far as the story is concerned, it doesn't care that its heroes or villains are women. They just are who they are, and that's part of what makes it great.
ART: Sonoda's world is an interesting mix of cartoony-looking characters in a damn near photorealistic world. His character designs are varied, even if that cartooniness somewhat limits their expressiveness, and Sonoda will give you plenty of chances to take a gander at their realistic proportions (particularly those of Rally and Minnie May). Sonoda clearly loves drawing three things: guns, muscle cars, and sexy ladies and their undergarments, and he takes every opportunity he can to add them all to the story. Now, normally I might be bothered by the fanservice, because there's more than quite a bit of it and sometimes Sonoda is really stretching to incorporate the fanservice. The big difference between the fanservice you see here and the kind you see in, say, Battle Vixens, is that the fanservice never derails the plot. It happens, but then the scene moves on. It also helps that these characters aren't just there for fanservice - as I've discussed, they have complex personalities of their own, and the fanservice doesn't take away or distract from those character-building moments, so I'm more willing to forgive its presence, and thus I will continue to stand by my statement that this can be considered a feminist-friendly work. It certainly helps that it's never done at the voyeuristic low angles you see in ecchi works - you could almost call it tasteful.
I have to say almost because there is the awkward issue of Minnie May. I have to be blunt - she's kind of a loli. She certainly looks like one, being much shorter and underdeveloped than your average 17 year old. She is not only shown mostly naked at one point, but also performing a (censored) blowjob. Now, there are plot reasons for those two points (she's working undercover at a brothel to get information, and she must perform as a brothel worker would), but it's still awkward to witness. Thankfully, these instances are brief.
Now mind you, Sonoda's forms of fanservice are not just limited to pretty ladies: the cars and guns he has the characters using are practically photorealistic in detail - another facet of his fascination with them. He also did his research when it came to the setting - he incorporates a lot of details and landmarks from Chicago, even those from the more mundane or broken down parts of the city. It's rare to find a manga that is set in America, and rarer still to find one where the mangaka puts so much research, time, and love into making all the details look right. It's that attention to detail which helps me overlook or forgive the more salacious elements of the artwork, and it really enhances the story and setting.
PRESENTATION: Dark Horse originally released this in flipped, slightly edited single volumes, but I read this from the more recent, unflipped, unedited omnibus. The size is slightly smaller than your average volume of manga - Dark Horse seems to favor making them small versus making them large and flashy. As far as extras go, there are a few 4 koma comics, as well as an informative interview with the mangaka and a few character sketches.
This is a fun little action romp. It can be a bit of a fanservice-fest at times, but his skill for character building and for drawing non-sexy details more than makes up for it.
This series is published in the USA by Dark Horse. The 9 single volume releases are out of print, but the 4 revised omnibuses are currently in print.
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