Directed by Shinsuke Sato
Starring Kuzunari Nimomiya, Ken’ichi Matsuyama, Natsuna
Whaaa, Thomas is writing about some weird, obscure Japanese movie? What strange universe have we stumbled into. Yes, Captain Sarcasm, the review today is Gantz, a strange Japanese film based of a strange Japanese comic that was also made into a strange Japanese cartoon and I really should just move on from this joke shouldn’t I? In a stra….bizarre way, Gantz reminds me of the recent film Drive, in that it takes a premise that sounds like a cut-and-dry action film and approaches it with more of a quiet, subdued atmosphere than you would really expect given the setup.
While trying to save the life of a man who fell on the subway tracks, estranged friends Kato and Kurono are killed and find themselves transported to an mysterious apartment along with several other recently deceased and very confused people. The apartment is unfurnished save for a giant black sphere which (and this is where that stra…weirdness comes in) tells them to go out and kill some aliens for points and splits open to reveal a hairless man identified as Gantz connected to a life support system as well as futuristic weapons and skintight leather outfits than enhance their physical attributes. The crew is teleported out into the world and must hunt down and kill the invading aliens, because it seems like the sensible thing to do I suppose.
Now from the setup I would expect you have a good idea of what to expect: Impossibly attractive youths in fetish-y outfits gunning down gruesome monsters in spectacularly choreographed fight sequences full of explosions and slow-mo. It’s certainly what I was expecting, but then again I expected this from Sophie’s Choice and look where that got me.
But the film seems to turn this expectation on its head, which surprised me. There are no semi-pornographic pans up the actors’ bodies to emphasize their cut physiques (they’re actually all rather average, even), no dramatic camera angles, and a very sparse score. Rather than taking to all this naturally, most of the characters seem to approach their situation with nervous bewilderment or unabashedly psychotic enthusiasm.
The aliens they fight aren’t even what you’d expect, less Men in Black and more….I honestly can’t think of an analogy. There are a couple of green-haired humanoids (including a child alien that is disquietingly gunned down) but then we get what I think is a robot hockey player and finally animate statues of various gods and mythological figures.
I’m sure the image of a Japanese youth in skin tight leather gunning down a giant Buddha statue is some incredibly loaded metaphor for….God knows what. Even the weapons they use are a far cry from the phallic death machines of most sci-fi weapons. There’s no beam or bolt, they just sort of glow blue briefly and after a few seconds the target explodes messily. The movie seems to revel in defying our expectations and seems ultimately more concerned with being a character study than a shoot ’em up sci-fi action flick.
Speaking of the characters, they do seem interesting and layered but their development seems hampered by the limited running time of the film, something you almost invariably see in adaptations of longer works. Kurono is the classic reluctant hero, the quiet nerdy kid who seems to spend a lot of time with his mouth ajar. Quiet, nerdy, very confused by all this…I wonder why I identified with him the most?
He has the most detailed arc of any of the characters, something approximating the classic “Hero’s Journey” archetype. Kato is the strong silent type and much more naturally inclined to heroism than Kurono. There’s also a female character, Kishimoto, who doesn’t seem to have much to do besides make eyes at Kato and have eyes made at her by Kurono. There are a few other assorted secondary characters but Kato, Kurono and Kishimoto (hmm, lot of K’s in this movie) are the main focus.
Like the above mentioned Drive, Gantz seems to be a deconstruction of the its genre. Rather than over-sexualized fantasies, the characters are portrayed more realistically, and their violent actions are not so much cathartic as disturbing. While the enemies they’re fighting are definite threats (except for that kid) and usually attack first, there isn’t that usual rush of satisfaction when they’re dispatched, due in part to the explodo-lasers that make for a messy end for anyone who finds themselves on the receiving end.
But more than that, it’s all about tone. When portraying a hero or heroic character, a lot more than just dialogue and their actions are important. What music is used, how are they filmed, what is their body language telling us, etc. Gantz forgoes all of these factors to portray the protagonists in as straightforward a light as possible, apart from a small indulgences here and there, and especially towards the very end. This definitely puts it in the deconstruction genre, and if you’re looking for thrills and action you may be disappointed.
The movie’s primary flaws come from its nature as an adaptation, though. For one thing, are you hoping to find out what the bloody heck is actually going on? Well, good luck with that because this movie isn’t gonna help you. Who or what Gantz exactly is, where all this technology comes from, and why it’s dispatching untrained civilians to kill aliens is never even remotely addressed.
This, I’m told, comes in the sequel Gantz: Perfect Answer, and it damn well better be a perfect answer because I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit through another one of those vague, non-committal endings the Japanese are so fond of in sci-fi. The character development also seems a tad rushed at times, especially where Kurono is concerned, and many of the side characters have that sense of having more going on the film has time to explain.
Ultimately I enjoyed Gantz in spite of its flaws. It managed to surprise me with its tone and intent, which is always a good thing. It may not be the roller coaster action piece you’d expect from the premise, but that does work in its favour in the end.