One of the biggest and most eagerly awaited Japanese blockbusters for some time arrives in the form of the explosive science fiction thriller “Gantz”, adapted from Oku Hiroya’s ongoing manga. Having already made it to the small screen as a cult hit anime, which controversially had to be censored during its original airing due to graphic content, the live action version sees director Sato Shinsuke (“Sands’ Chronicle”) taking the reins, with a script from Watanabe Yusuke, who previously worked on the sprawling “20th Century Boys” adaptation. Split into two parts, with this first instalment being followed by “Gantz: Perfect Answer”, the films are slick, big budget affairs with an impressive youth-friendly cast headed by Arashi boy band member Ninomiya Kazunari (also in “The Lady Shogun and her Men”) and popular actor Matsuyama Kenichi (known for the “Death Note” series, and who recently starred in “Norwegian wood”), with female eye candy in Natsuna (“Kimi ni Todoke”) and Yoshitaka Yuriko (“Kaiji: the Ultimate Gambler”).
“Gantz” revolves around a premise that is at once brutally simple and weirdly ambiguous. One day while waiting in a subway station, Kurono Kei (Ninomiya Kazunari) spots a drunken man staggering around on the track, clearly in danger of being hit by the coming train. Although he has no desire to help, he is shamed into getting involved by former childhood friend Kato Masaru (Matsuyama Kenichi), resulting in them both apparently being killed. They wake up in a strange apartment with a band of strangers and a large black orb in the centre of the room. To their surprise, the orb opens, presents them with suits and weapons, and instructs them to go out onto the streets and fight bizarre alien creatures, working towards the 100 point score which will either set them free or allow them to resurrect a dead teammate. In addition to staying alive, the boys come up against romantic complications, as Kurono finds himself attracted to a troubled young female player called Kishimoto Kei (Natsuna), who sadly only has eyes for Kato.
Unsurprisingly, in being adapted for the big screen and mass appeal, “Gantz” has been changed quite significantly from the manga and anime. In terms of graphic content, this was always going to be the case, and so it’s arguably something that shouldn’t really be counted against the film. For the most part, this involves pretty much all of the nudity and sex being excised, along with the more perverse elements of the material. Kurono has been significantly toned down from the sleazy, sex-obsessed character of the anime, with Kishimoto managing to keep her clothes on for the entire running time, though the orb Gantz does still make amusing references to certain parts of her anatomy. The violence is mostly retrained, and the film is vicious and bloody in places, with a “Battle Royale” feel as the cast are ruthlessly whittled down by the various aliens. Though things never get too over the top or particularly nasty, there are a number of gruesome money shots scattered throughout, enough so to satisfy fans.
Perhaps more importantly, the film has several thematic differences, as well as an overall shift in mood. Whilst the source material was to an extent characterised by an odd air of camp nihilism, Kurono, Kato and Kishimoto being the centre of a weird maelstrom of madness and dark social commentary, the film attempts more of an emotional connection with the audience and an exploration of fate and of taking one’s place in the world. This actually works quite well, and certainly helps the film to get over the obstacle of being based on something episodic, providing more of a sense of character development and continuity. Although it does have a few unnecessarily ponderous stretches, Watanabe Yusuke’s script is solid, and does a good job of combining the feel of the manga and anime with something a little more substantial, successfully holding the interest throughout what is actually a far longer film than it feels. Things do get quite grim in places, though both Ninomiya Kazunari and Matsuyama Kenichi are fine in the lead roles, adding depth and a few touches of charisma.
Similarly, there have been a few key plot changes, with the film basically covering the first series of the anime, though with some events shifted around. Of course, given that the film is only half the story, whilst it does build the tension and works towards a big and momentous finale, it leaves things hanging for the sequel – though perhaps not in a way which might have been expected, with there being a few welcome surprises along the way. Another interesting addition is that of Yuriko Yoshitaka’s Tae, Kurono’s manga-drawing former classmate, who appears both as a potential romantic interest, and as a source of thematic or narrative exposition to come.
Sato Shinsuke handles the material well, and avoids the pitfalls of many comic adaptations by playing the drama straight, giving the film a big budget blockbuster feel rather than being hell-bent on pleasing fans of some of the material’s more geeky aspects. The film is for the most part nicely paced, gradually notching up the intensity of the alien encounters and matching this with character and plot revelations. The action scenes themselves are awesome, infused with a vicious energy that makes them amongst the best from Japanese cinema from the last couple of years. The money spent on the film is clearly up on screen, from the surprisingly not too ridiculous looking costumes through the neat guns and gadgets that the players are provided with by the sinister Gantz. Most impressive though are the aliens themselves, which have a marvellously old school feel, and though brought to life through CGI look almost like Ray Harryhausen style stop animation, particularly during the jaw-dropping final battle.
All of this combines to make “Gantz” a great deal of fun, and a film which is both one of the more successful comic adaptations of late and an exciting piece of commercial science fiction cinema in its own right. Whilst toned down from the manga and anime, it remains faithful to their oddball feel and packs in plenty of highly imaginative action, certainly whetting the appetite for “Gantz: Perfect Answer”.
Shinsuke Sato (director) / Hiroya Oku (manga), Yûsuke Watanabe (screenplay)
CAST: Kenichi Matsuyama … Masaru Kato
Kazunari Ninomiya … Kei Kurono
Natsuna … Kei Kishimoto
Kanata Hongô … Joichiro Nishi
Yuriko Yoshitaka … Tae Kojima
Tomorowo Taguchi … Yoshikazu Suzuki