A movie review article by: Brandon Billups

Director: Shinsuke Sato
Writer: Yusuke Watanabe
Starring: Kazunari Ninomiya, Kenichi Matsuyama, Yuriko Yoshitaka, Kanata Hongo, Watanabe Natsuna

GANTZ is the first film in a two-part series directed by Shinsuke Sato and based on the manga by Hiroya Oku. The story revolves primarily around two characters, Kurono Kei and Masaru Kato, two childhood friends who are reunited on a subway platform, only to be killed moments later in an effort to help a drunkard who has fallen into the path of an oncoming train. They wake up in a small apartment in Tokyo, empty except for a few equally freaked out, newly-dead compatriots and a giant black sphere. The sphere sarcastically tells them that their lives belong to it now, gives them some weapons, and teleports them to a suburb with the instructions to hunt down and kill something called an "onion alien." A battle ensues, some die, and the remainder are released back to their old lives, but can be summoned back by GANTZ at any time for another battle.

As fans of comics, we all know by now how bad it feels to be burnt by a movie based on one of your favorite pieces of sequential art. When I first encountered GANTZ on bookstore shelves a few years ago, it was the second manga I had ever seen shrink-wrapped so as to avoid the prying eyes of curious underage kids. The first was Battle Royale, and in terms of tone, the two are remarkably similar. Battle Royale was a hyperbolic and wonderfully implausible Lord of the Flies, asking what a bunch of high schoolers might do if given weapons and forced to kill one another. GANTZ asks a similar question: what if a group of people who ought to be dead were given a second chance on the condition that they fight for their lives against terrifying creatures for reasons they will never have any hope of understanding?

Both stories are unrelentingly violent, and GANTZ has the added bonus of being extremely sexual at times. Both of them are also pretty bleak. The film version of Battle Royale, however, had the benefit of being a complete story, based primarily on the original novel by Koshun Takami, while GANTZ has to get by on the first hundred-ish chapters of the manga. For this reason, omissions obviously have to be made, but unfortunately it's the film's omissions that end up ruining the very thing that make the GANTZ manga so compelling.

In the manga, each of the characters, even the tertiary ones who show up in the room after their deaths and are promptly re-killed within the first few pages of their mission, get detailed back-stories. Kurono was a childhood hero who stood up to bullies for his classmates who were too weak or scared to do it for themselves, but grew into a lazy, cynical adolescent who looks down on everyone around him with breasts smaller than a D-cup. Kato, a former bullied youth who Kurono protected, lives with his extended family, gets treated like a slave, and has to take care of his younger brother. Kishimoto loses it after her first battle when she gets home to find that, somehow, her 'original' version survived the suicide attempt she had supposed killed her.

To contrast with the film, Kurono is a totally normal guy who develops backwards into an asshole over the course of the movie, Kato is given a few bland scenes with his brother, and Kishimoto's suicide gets the same amount of attention as a Facebook post about what you had for lunch. Kurono also has a pointless love interest who is so disconnected from the rest of the plot that I can only assume she was shoehorned in due to poor focus group testing or something. There's still plenty of blood, guts, and super-powered action, but the complexities of the characters is neutered, and so is the consequent emotional impact.

Within the manga's first three battles (which comprise the scope of the film) there are also rapist yakuza, violence-happy motorcycle gangsters, a Japanese male model of questionable sexuality, his creepy stalker and a karate master -- all with interesting back-stories and who all add drama to the action. None are present in the film, which retains the manga's touching grandmother-grandson duo and Buddhist monk who is, appropriately, sent to fight against Buddhist monsters, but uses them to no effect whatsoever. There's also a dog that does absolutely nothing but provide comic relief in the manga. It's hard to really complain about his absence, but I loved that dog. Fingers crossed for the panda in the sequel.

The movie isn't all bad, though. It really nails the fights as well as the presentation. The skin-tight suits the characters receive, as well as their futuristic weapons, manage to look sleek and cool instead of campy. The aliens (especially the Tanaka alien from the second battle, who resembles a psychotic toy robot) all look incredible. There's a great mix of composite CGI work, taking some physical objects and blending the computer generated stuff over the top, that makes even a 30-foot-tall rampaging Buddhist statue look perfectly realistic, and I actually cheered out loud the first time someone used the strength-enhancing aspect of the suit as their muscles rippled and inflated. That's one effect that might even look cooler on film than in the manga.

The theatrical presentation of the film, to my understanding, used the dub featured on the DVD, which is one of the worst dubs I've heard in a long time. It's so easy to clown on bad dubs that it's hardly worth mentioning, but the level of effort presented here is insultingly low. Excessive attention seems to have been given to matching "lip flaps," which mostly causes dialog to be stilted and awkward. The best couple of voices are passably monotone and bland, but a majority of them would be ridiculous even if the feature had been animated. Thankfully once you've made the common sense choice of selecting the Japanese language version with English subtitles, the Japanese actors do a pretty good job of conveying the film's sparse drama. Sure, they go a little over the top, but this is GANTZ we're talking about.

Finally, since this is a review of New People's DVD release of the film, I'd be remiss not to mention the bonus disc. There are three "features" on the bonus disc; a Japanese trailer for the film, an interview with director Shinsuke Sato, and a montage-style trailer for New People's other releases. The only one worth anything is the 30-minute director interview, and unfortunately even that is filled with fluff questions like "What was your favorite scene to shoot?" It does go into a little bit of interesting detail with regard to the CGI used in the film, but a movie so visually interesting, a longer, "making-of" style featurette would've been a pleasure to watch. Personally I'd love to have seen how they made the suits and the guns.

Ultimately, if you're a fan of the GANTZ manga it's tough to recommend the movie. You'd be better served by the 26-episode anime series, and even that pales in comparison to the sheer frenetic awesomeness of the source material. If you've never read the manga and want a taste of what it's about, try the movie, but realize that the manga is a whole lot more complex in terms of character development and emotional resonance. If you just want a decent popcorn sci-fi action movie though, the kind you might settle on late at night while flicking through the channels, GANTZ may be right up your alley.

Brandon Billups wrote a few comic reviews for Comics Bulletin a while ago, but then he was bitten by a radioactive sloth and didn't for a long time. He has recently overcome his super-hurdles and is diving headfirst back into the world of comics to bring you the very best, and with a little luck poke fun at the very worst along the way. He has a bunch of blogs all over the internet that he can't remember the login info for anymore. He tweets as @linguish, mostly about things that make him sound insane, but occasionally about comics too.

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