When Hollywood makes movies set in Japan, they’re usually wrought with samurai, geisha, ninjas or yakuza.
Then along comes a film like GANTZ.
Based on the super violent manga by Hiroya Oku, GANTZ is a sci-fi action flick set in modern Tokyo. It has none of the usual characters you’d expect to see in a “Japanese” film. No, it has bigger ambitions than that – GANTZ wants to wow you with eye-popping CGI, eardrum-bursting explosions, and a mind-blowing storyline packed with aliens and bloody games. But has this big-budget Japanese film beat Hollywood at its own game? Sadly, no… but not for lack of trying, and not for lack of potential.
The film begins in the usual pit of evil: the subway. While waiting for the train, Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) and his friend Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) try to help a man who fell on the tracks. They’re killed by an oncoming train – or are they? In the blink of an eye, Kei and Kato find themselves in a room with a giant black orb called GANTZ. The orb gives them weapons and a mission: they must hunt and kill aliens for “points.” Is this a hallucination, a sick reality show, or something more sinister?
It must have seemed like a can’t-miss idea. Twenty-nine volumes of the GANTZ manga have been published to date, selling well over 13 million copies throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Director Shinsuke Sato cast two of Japan’s most popular actors for the lead roles: Kenichi Matsuyama (L from Death Note, Krauser II from Detroit Metal City) and Kazunari Ninomiya (actor/J-pop megastar from the boy band Arashi). GANTZ certainly looks like producers spent a good chunk of this film’s $22 million dollar budget on CGI, stunts, and special effects to try to live up to the manga’s rep for extreme violence and fast-paced action.
Unfortunately, the Japanese production team for GANTZ made the same mistake their Hollywood counterparts have made when adapting comics for the big screen: they sanded down its sharp edges, neutered its sexy swagger, and eliminated much of its smart, irreverent attitude. Scenes of gut-wrenching gore are drenched in an indigo wash, so the buckets of blood that are shed in battle just look like ink splatters.
And the English dub? Cringe-inducingly bad. Even the most hardcore fans laughed at many of the film’s supposedly “serious” moments.
What’s left? The worst of what Hollywood already gives us: lots of senseless violence, endless explosions instead of meaningful character development, and a disjointed plot. Worst of all, they try to tie it together with an uplifting, moralistic theme. Gaagh.
Don’t get me wrong – GANTZ does have some pretty awesome action sequences. The characters wear bada$$, skin-tight battle suits. The “aliens” aren’t exactly your typical creatures from outer space. There are definitely flashes of GANTZ’s original wicked humor that survived the screenwriters’ sanitization campaign. The film unfortunately strays from the manga between the battles, where character development should go.
In the manga, Kei is a cynical, selfish high school student from a middle-class family. Kato is a brave and honorable guy from the wrong side of the tracks. This dynamic informs their adrenaline-charged, high-stakes adventures against the aliens.
In the film, Kei is just vaguely bored with life. Kato/Matsuyama spends most of the movie just looking pained, like he has a rock in his shoe. Ninomiya and Matsuyama are both award-winning, appealing actors who try to make the best of it, but there’s only so much any actor can do with a weak script. As for the rest of the cast, they’re mostly dumbstruck cannon fodder. We’re not given a reason to care why they’re there, and even less reason to care when they die.
GANTZ is only the first of two planned films in this series. I’ve read the manga, so I know where the story is going, but I suspect that the disjointed plot and the numerous unanswered questions left many viewers in the dark. Will the second part, GANTZ: Perfect Answer redeem the flaws of this first film? I hope so, but to do that, it’s got to trust its source material, and to raise its sights beyond just being a “Hollywood action flick.” It has to give us what Hollywood can’t: a uniquely Japanese experience that can truly blow movie-goers’ minds.
Directed by Shinsuke Sato
Starring: Kenichi Matsuyama, Kazunari Ninomiya, Natsuna Watanabe, Yuriko Yoshitaka
Language: Japanese, English dub (Japan), 2011 120 minutes
Top Image Credit: Hiroya Oku/Shueisha