It is being called the Japanese Harry Potter, and it is based on a best-selling sci-fi manga comic and a subsequent long anime TV show. But here we have the story in glorious live action. Weird aliens, black latex, wild action, interpersonal drama, fighting for dear life; Matrix-inspired spectacle and mysterious monsters and men in black: This is GANTZ. And it was everything I hoped it would be: Well-produced live action sci-fi from a country where most of the pop culture is in the form of comics and animation.
The titular Gantz is hardly even a character; he has neither a personality nor any dialogue. He is the human battery that powers a black alien orb which brings recently-deceased people back to life and enrolls them in a computer game-like battle with aliens in various form. The revived folks are equipped with weapons and a black skintight harness that gives them enhanced speed, resilience, strength and jumping abilities, and sent out into a nightly cityscape to spend 15 or 20 minutes taking down a (presumably evil) alien. They may die in the process, but those who survive are given score points. When somebody reaches a hundred points, he or she can choose to either have their memory wiped and be returned to their old life, or bring back one of the previously killed contestants in the game, and continue playing.
The setting is current-day Japan, where two contingents of covert alien races are apparently battling each other, using humans as pawns; as tools. Kei and Kato are two boyhood friends who are hit by a train and find themselves waking up in a possibly other-dimenional room with a small group of other recently deceased people and a black sphere that soon starts issuing orders. As it turns out, some of the people present have already gone through several rounds of the “game”, earning some hard-won experience. The game is about killing aliens, but no reason is ever given. Part of what the movie is about is why people might still choose to fight even though they have been given no reasons. Kato is killed quickly because he refuses to fight. Kei, on the other hand, embraces the enigmatic fighting and killing, mainly in order to bring Kato back to life once he has earned a hundred points. Relationships form between the various participants in the game, and it is these relationships that make up most of the story.
Whenever a game round has been successfully completed, the participants are returned to their former lives for a few days, to recuperate until the next round. Of course, this creates some confusion as they have already died in the real world (although their bodies were never recovered), but now return…
The nightscape that the game rounds take place in turns out to be real locations, as we see the news report on the mysterious destruction taking place in the various Tokyo neighborhoods. The first alien they fight is a creepy green-haired kid, the next is a robot guy who looks a lot like a LEGO man, and finally they fight a kind of Hindu god with a hundred sword arms. The contestants take a beating, and some of them die, but others become dyed-in-the-wool fighters.
The various characters are fairly interesting and well fleshed-out, even if the story itself is somewhat lacking in terms of coherent plot (many plot elements are never explained), but the whole thing looks really good and is hellishly entertaining. This is the kind of sci-fi I have always wanted from Japanese cinema; a good live action version of the high-concept animated stuff, complete with blindingly brilliant production values. Damn, I hope they do more like this!
Director: Shinsuke Sato
Cast: Kazunari Ninomiya, Kin’ichi Matsuyama, Natsuna, Kensuke Chisaka, Tomorowo Taguchi, Yuriko Yoshitaka and others
Runtime: 130 min.