Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Gantz - 2011

Directed by Shinsuke Sato


A surprisingly successful and accessible adaptation of the popular sci-fi thriller manga Gantz.

Toning down some of the more extreme elements of the manga source material Gantz manages to keep the inventiveness of the comic book and turn it into a far more accessible and mature film than expected. The result is part sci-fi, part thriller, with a little dash of superhero movies and social commentary thrown in for good measure. Well directed and well acted it is an enigmatic blockbuster that uses its central concept not simply as an excuse for CGI, though there is plenty of that, but also as a means to look closer at its effects on the characters wrapped up in it.

The story hits the ground running and whilst sounding a little far-fetched on paper comes through far more coherently on screen. Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya), an ordinary job-hunting college student, is waiting for his train on a busy Tokyo Metro station when he spots Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), a long-lost elementary school friend. Helping in an accident with another passenger the pair find themselves on the tracks and with the glare of train lights fast approaching. When they come to moments later, they are in a non-descript apartment room at the top of a tower block with several other disorientated people who seem to have had similar experiences. A big black steel orb in the centre of the room, referred to as Gantz, is the only clue to why they are there. Gantz communicates to them via a muddled screen on the front of the sphere. It displays an alien target to them, provides them with the means to dispose of it, sets a timer, beams them into an alternate deserted Tokyo, and awards them points for their efforts. Is this some kind of bizarre, futuristic reality TV show or something a whole lot more sinister?

Despite probably being able to answer that question already, the film overall keeps you in the dark. This is one of the beauties of Gantz that things are never over explained. As the audience we learn things in real-time with the characters, which really propels this surreal story onwards. In these types of movies there is normally a kind of “expert” character who breaks down everything to the protagonists, and thus us the audience. That role’s absence here creates this refreshing uncertainty. Quite as to what it all means is never clear, are we in some sort of purgatory, is it some sort of malevolent game? The film looks at humans and how they function in a group, unable to put aside their individual drive to survive, and how ordinary people can in the right circumstances behave completely out of character.

Kenichi Matsuyama, best known outside Japan for his recent role in Norwegian Wood, is really good as Kato, and furthers the argument that he is one of the best young actors working in Japanese cinema. He and Ninomiya bring a human element to a story that could have descended into a simple special effects bonanza. The pairing works well together, with Matsuyama the more conventionally heroic, contrasting with Ninomiya the average Joe whose new-found abilities begin to unleash something inside of him. They have been transposed from high-schoolers to university students for this film version, and it leads it into far more interesting and relatable territory, eschewing some of the childishness. Before everything kicks off properly Kurono is hurriedly repeating his stock interview answers, about to undergo the rigorous stressful Japanese job interview process, but by the time he finally gets to use them, his world and their meaning have changed unalterably. It is a nicely thought out section that helps to bring the characters’ two worlds together.

Effects wise everything is spot-on, and the odd uninhabited suburban Tokyo battlegrounds that the characters are deposited into are well realized, instantly recognizable, and unnervingly quiet. It is undeniably the aliens that to kill that are the stars of the show though. Starting with a child and father that seem to be a mixture of the Incredible Hulk, a zombie, and a leek (yeah, the vegetable), by the two-hour mark assorted Buddhist deities, including the big guy himself, have joined the fray. These segments are gripping, swerving in unexpected directions, and the general confusion of the characters removes that sense of inevitability that blockbuster action sequences tend to have. The black cat-suits that gives the combatants the power to fight these combatants are intriguing, but perhaps just a touch under-done. Kurono in one scene, in a way reminiscent of Spiderman, begins to work out how to utilize the superhuman abilities he has at his fingertips, highly enjoyable it would have been nice to have seen a bit more.

Visually the film's print origins are evident throughout. The framing of the actors in shots has the distinct feel of comic books about it. Director Shinsuke Sato seems to have used the original at times as a straight storyboard for the film. Recent trends for live-action adaptations of graphic novels have tended to be more overt in displaying their roots, see Sin City or any host of others, striving to show their authenticity. The approach taken here is great and its subtlety allows the film to stay true, whilst forming its own identity. A prior knowledge of the Gantz series is not essential at all as this film really makes the material its own.

Yet, an illustration of the challenges of adapting material like this comes in the character of Kei Kishimoto (Natsuna Watanabe). She arrives on screen naked, having been beamed into the apartment room by the black orb Gantz. It is a well shot scene, a group of bewildered men deliberating whether they are alive or not suddenly stop dead seeing a naked woman materializing from the feet up in front of them. Compared to the print version, which features some of the less appealing aspects of Japanese manga culture, this is handled far more sensitively. However, as a character whose fundamental purpose in the comics seems to have been for little more than titillation, her body suit in the original was more of a body-bikini, there is nothing added only subtracted. This leaves her character a bit of a non-entity and it seems strange that they didn’t make a bit more of an effort to balance her out. Perhaps due to the constraints of time Kimono’s character development too, is not entirely convincing and feels a bit rushed as it veers suddenly.

It can be a bit frustrating when films end abruptly with the words, “to be continued” popping up on screen and the ending is rounded off in a Matrix-sequel manner that jars a little with the pacing up to that point. It would be a shame if this was a sign of what is to come in the two part series. Most frustratingly of all the spoiler-laden trailer to the sequel was shown straight after the credits, so I advise not sticking around until the lights come up. These qualms aside, Gantz is a slick and entertaining infusion of genres that comes together expertly. Sato has managed to reign in the more fan-boy elements of the series making the film a genuinely successful and entertaining adaptation. Here’s hoping that the second film doesn’t make me eat my words.

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