From director Shinsuke Sato comes Gantz, the first of two live-action film adaptations of Hiroya Oku’s popular manga, which takes a familiar sci-fi premise and mixes it with gory ultra-violence, sexually-explicit situations, and alien villains straight out of a classic Japanese monster movie. While this 2011 cinematic re-imagining tones down some of the sex, Gantz ramps up the blood, guts, and Godzilla-like mayhem with decidedly mixed, but no less entertaining results.
While waiting on a subway platform, college student Kei Kurono (Arashi’s Kazunari Ninomiya) notices a former childhood friend, Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), standing nearby. The duo’s unexpected reunion, however, occurs under fatal circumstances, as a drunken commuter falls onto the train tracks, causing Kato to courageously rush to the man’s rescue. Kei reluctantly provides assistance, but while the drunkard is ultimately saved, the two Good Samaritans aren’t. Instead, they have a date with a speeding train and certain death.
And yet Kei and Kato survive, waking up in a sparsely furnished apartment that houses a giant black orb. The two men aren’t alone, as several other people who “died” that very same night also find themselves trapped in this strange, new purgatory. Unsure of their surroundings, the captives debate whether they’re in Heaven, Hell, or some mass hallucination. As can be expected, most everyone seems on the verge of hysterics – that is, except for Nishi (Kanata Hongo), a teenager who seems a little too blasé about this strange turn of events.
After a young woman named Kishimoto (Natsuna Watanabe) materializes out of thin air, the black orb introduces itself as Gantz. But unlike the monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gantz isn’t a solid, inanimate object, as it contains a bald, nude Japanese guy hooked up to an intricate breathing apparatus. With little explanation, Gantz provides the “abductees” with an arsenal of futuristic weaponry and some form-fitting leather fetish outfits.
Claiming ownership of their lives, Gantz commands his captives to hunt down and kill specific targets within a certain time limit. If they successfully complete their mission, they will be rewarded via a points system. If any of them accrues 100 points then that person can choose to either leave the “game” or resurrect a fallen comrade. Can the film’s heroes escape from this fatal competition or will they die trying? While the film provides some closure, any definitive answers have been saved for the inevitable sequel.
One barrier to enjoying Gantz as anything but a guilty pleasure might be the embarrassing fact that this movie, like its source material, is constructed as every teenage male otaku’s wet dream. Consider the film’s heroes: Kei seems to be an out-and-out dork (albeit a good-looking one), while Kato is a sensitive soul with a troubled, tragic past. In drastically different ways, these young men are portrayed – like otakus, to some degree – as societal outcasts. Both work through their respective personal issues by fighting aliens, all the while dressed in skin-tight outfits and wielding some badass firepower. If Gantz isn’t meant to appeal to the power fantasies of specific male adolescents, I don’t know what is.
Similarly, the film’s depiction of women feeds directly into this male power fantasy. Kishimoto serves as little more than eye candy: a pretty girl with a hot body meant to be ogled by Kei as well as the viewing audience, an aspect repeatedly emphasized by the camera’s often lingering gaze on Natsuna Watanabe’s supple figure. The fact that we are introduced to Kishimoto dripping wet and naked – a moment directly lifted from the comics – unabashedly suggests that Gantz is meant to be little more than glorified fan service.
The film’s other major female character, a pretty manga artist-in-training named Tae (Yuriko Yoshitaka), isn’t much of an improvement either. Little more than a stock character, Tae comes across as your typical lovestruck teen whose comic book aspirations exist only as a flimsy device for meta-commentary. The women of Gantz are ornamental at best, required by the plot either to desire the heroes or be desired by them. Combine this largely unflattering view of women with the film’s incredulously silly premise, and some audience members may begin to wonder whether they, too, will survive the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time.
While its gender politics may be problematic, the film really shines in its action sequences, as each successive alien encounter tops the previous one, culminating in a finale that is appropriately epic in scale. The ensuing fight plays out like a mix of a multi-tiered, final boss battle in a video game and an old school Ray Harryhausen monster movie. Although previously featured in the original manga, the involvement of a certain Asian religious icon in this blood-soaked melee is both surprising and daring. And, unlike some of the cheesier special effects work plaguing Japanese films, the CGI here is topnotch, as the movements of some of these larger-than-life characters actually have a stop-motion animation feel to them. It may sound strange to compliment a film’s computer graphics for looking “primitive,” but this incredibly polished attempt at a nostalgic flourish works, giving the alien monsters a real weight and heft, a quality that is sorely missing in many CGI-animated creatures today.
As impressive as the special effects work may be, the film hinges on the performance of its two leads. As Masaru Kato, Death Note’s Kenichi Matsuyama emerges as the more sympathetic of the two characters – a working class hero with a personal code, a heartbreaking past and a tough road ahead of him even if he escapes the world of Gantz. To his credit, Matsuyama is able to bring a sense of reality to his scenes, even when the other actors don’t quite seem to be reacting to what’s happening in a remotely credible way. Kato emerges as the moral center of the film, and his interactions with Kishimoto do much to assuage the glorified “pin-up model” function her character serves.
As the film’s supposed protagonist, Kei is dramatically less likeable, largely because he comes across as an aimless child of privilege. But unlike his manga counterpart, Kei isn’t a creep from the get-go. Instead, he’s merely a sympathetic dweeb trying to discover his inner-hero. But just when it seems he’ll become a Japanese version of Peter Parker (look for a funny sequence referencing the first Spider-Man film), Kei suddenly turns reckless and arrogant. These personality shifts already seem a bit drastic, but considering that this transformation occurs over the course of only three days in “movie time,” one can’t help but feel that Kei’s arc was rushed to conform to the dictates of the script.
The first installment of the Gantz duology doesn’t quite transcend the status of guilty pleasure, even though this fun, if imperfect adaptation loses some of the more embarrassing aspects of the original manga. One hopes that the innovation that the filmmakers dedicated to the film’s aliens will extend to the story and characters in the sequel, Gantz: Perfect Answer. (Calvin McMillin, 2011)