Childhood friends Kei (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) are killed whilst trying to rescue a man on the subway tracks. They awaken, not in the afterlife, but in a strange apartment room alongside a handful of similarly befuddled people. Each person either died in an accident or attempted suicide, like Kishimoto (Natsuna), a voluptuous girl who appears dripping wet from the bath until Kato chivalrously hides her naked body from leering eyes. At the centre of the room rests an ominous black sphere the group come to know as Gantz. This sarcastic and seemingly sadistic machine equips the group with sleek powered suits and cool sci-fi weaponry then sends them back home on a mission to search and destroy various bizarre alien beings living secretly among mankind.
Most of the crew get splattered by an angry alien after which Gantz awards points to the returning survivors, with low scores for Kato on account of his compassion for a frightened alien child and Kishimoto because she has “big tits.” If a player can earn a hundred points, he or she has the option of either claiming their freedom or resurrecting a dead player. Confused and traumatised, the players are returned to their normal, everyday lives. Until the next night, when this twisted real-life video game starts all over again...
Back in the Nineties, alienation and despair seemed to be the overriding themes in Japanese cinema, as evidenced from such key titles as Sonatine (1993), Tokyo Fist (1995) and the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). Now, well into the new millennium, the chief message seems to be “seize the day”, “live life to its fullest.” In Gantz, young hero Kei’s oft-repeated mantra (“I believe each of us has a role in life. Each of us has something unique to offer”) gradually morphs from a shallow speech he trots out at failed job interviews to a statement of growing self-confidence as he embraces his role as a superhero.
The idea that a seemingly ordinary person harbours a special destiny is one major reason why fantasy films appeal to so many people from different cultures around the world. However, Gantz subverts all thoughts of wish-fulfilment. The protagonists aren’t drawn into a battle to save the world. We learn next to nothing about the eccentric alien beings - which range from pin-headed punk mutants to a homicidal mannequin styled like an American football player, and a giant Ray Harryhausen style multi-armed Buddha statue whose kill-crazy rampage provides the spectacular climax - neither what they are doing on Earth nor why they have been targeted by Gantz. Equally the bald, seemingly comatose mastermind inside the black sphere remains a closed mystery. Beyond a basic goal to survive, the game seems pointless, its rules arbitrary and the players dupes. What Kei - who grows reckless and arrogant until reoccurring tragedies draw out his better qualities - ultimately takes away from the game seems like an attempt to make the best out of a horrific situation. Like Evangelion, this science fiction adventure taps into Japan’s anxieties over World War Two, with young people roped into a hopeless conflict against an alien enemy, acting on the orders of a malign and callous authority figure.
Based on the hit manga series created by Hiroya Oku - known for his saucy sex comedies as much as sci-fi fare - Gantz first reached the screen via an acclaimed anime in 2004. This live action adaptation wasn’t quite as well received, though evidently proved popular enough to sire a sequel. Fans complained about the toning down of Oku’s original manga, which deliberately set out to be crass, nasty and misogynistic with a profoundly cynical view of human behaviour, a Kei who only gradually morphs from self-centred asshole to heroic leader, and characters that refer to Kishimoto simply as “tits.” Whilst some maintain the film streamlines the plot, Shinsuke Sato - who made the shallow Princess Blade (2001) - arguably adheres to closely to its serial-like structure, meandering before he gets to the point. Luckily the principal characters prove engaging enough to offset shortcomings in the storytelling. The imagery - sexy black rubber suits, big sci-fi guns - inevitably evokes comparison with The Matrix (1999) whilst a comic action scene where Kei tests his superpowers is rather reminiscent of Spider-Man (2002), but the film plays its premise for quirky comedy-drama and gives viewers a greater sense of the characters’ more mundane lives away from the game. Kei struggles to find a firm willing to hire him as he approaches his last days at college and remains as oblivious of pretty, aspiring manga artist Tae Kojima (Yuriko Yoshitaka) and her growing love as he thinks others are of him. Kato cares for a kid brother (Kensuke Chisaka) but is haunted by having killed his drunken, abusive father. Kishimoto attempted suicide after being abandoned by her boyfriend, but now latches onto Kato and grows more confident in wielding her superpowers till the plot throws a rather sadistic curveball.
As a science fiction adventure, Gantz is slick, often inventive but curiously heartless. There is something disturbingly Nietzschean about its “fight or die” ethos despite Sato’s attempts to steer this in a more positive direction. Any player that proves meek or frightened, notably an elderly woman and her sobbing little grandson, is casually killed off and the attitude seems to be good riddance to them. Equally, the killing of the alien child that weeps and pleads before its head is blown apart is genuinely distressing. The cliffhanger ending implies Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011) may clarify some of this films more unsettling ambiguities.
Writer, director and games developer. Sato won the Grand Prix at Japan's Pia Film Festival in 1994 for his short film Tsukishima Kyoso, and went on to direct Seimon Mae Yuki, Love Song, the sci-fi actioner Princess Blade and manga adaptation Gantz. Also worked on the PlayStation 2 version of Namco's Tekken 4.