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After the heady days about a decade past, when the world looked to Japan for new and exciting thrills with films like The Ring {1998} and Ju-on {2002}(- remade in the US in 2002 and 2004 respectively), and one of LMDís top three favourite films of all time, Battle Royale {2000}, it seemed the heyday quickly peaked, then plummeted.  Indeed, the top pop culture exports from Japan had moved on (- or regressed depending on your POV) to Goth Lolita fashion, Japanese rock, and of course, anime.  In the seeming drought of Japanese cinematic creativity, films based on popular anime were made to shore up the box office.  In Japan, titles like Death Note, Casshern, Yamato, Boys Over Flowers, Honey and Clover and Nana, proved big smashes.  Here is the latest entry into the live-action anime stakes based on Hiroya Okuís 2000 manga called Gantz.

Kurono and Kato are dead, long live Kurono and Kato.  The afterlife isnít quite what either young man expected when they shuffled off this mortal coil trying to save the life of a drunken man fallen onto the subway tracks.  Is Heaven supposed to be a shabby apartment with a view of Tokyo Tower?  Is it supposed to be crowded with a group of strangers who also found themselves similarly dispatched?  Who ordered this giant black ball in the middle of the room?  All valid questions, to which there are no answers, only an eerie, cheerful postwar morning exercise song, then instructions on the ballís surface directing those gathered to eliminate some interesting characters.  Because Gantz is a real sweetie, he/she/it doesnít expect its would-be mercenaries to slaughter those on its hit list with their bare hands, so out from Gantzís sides pop an entire armoury of unusual weapons and a very cool, shiny bit of head-to-toe fetish gear to complete the effect.  The bunch are disapparated (Thank you, J.K. Rowling), into town where they have to hunt their prey with the winner gaining fabulous prizes, or so they think.  Caught up in the surrealness of the moment, it dawns on the group that their targets are living, breathing (?!) outer-space-type aliens and extremely hard to kill.  Add to this that the extraterrestrials are pretty adept at self-defense.  The dwindling crew discovers that once their goal has been met, they are free to return to their real lives, uninterrupted since before their untimely demises -- with one small catch -- each of the survivors of the previous game must take part in a new contest at Gantzís whim.

I think it mightíve been a mistake to indulge in Funimationís new box set of the 2004 Gantz anime before watching this film.  That series is one of the goriest, most brutal, oversexed, over the top things Iíve seen in a while.  I canít help but wonder at what time of day it played in Japan?  It is nearly impossible not to compare this cinematic version to the shocking anime, but weíll give it a go.  The live-action Gantz is an ill-paced array of stops and starts with some okay special effects that never quite reaches any potential it may have.  The good: The cast, which is lead by a pair of heartthrob idols, the excellent Keníichi Matsuyama (- ďLĒ of Death Note fame) as Kato and Kazunari Ninomiya (- from the pop group Arashi) as Kurono.  Both hit their marks and play off each well as the two childhood friends, with Ninomiya delivering the funny all too infrequently, but well.  Though nearly thirty years old, the actor wonderfully captures the sulkiness, unbridled lust and cockiness of Kurono (- whoís a teenager in the anime, but seems college-aged here).  It also helps that the pocket-sized Ninomiya looks like heís never met shaving cream or a razor yet.  Matsuyama mostly has to look angst-ridden and sad as the tall boy with a criminal past.  Or maybe heís just upset because the producers told him if he wasnít wearing his skintight Trontastic suit, heíd be stuck in his old ďLĒ drag from Death Note -- a long-sleeved white t-shirt and blue jeans -- through the whole movie.  The sweet and sultry-looking Natsuna Watanabe plays Kei Kishimoto, the girl of Kuronoís dreams who literally materialises buck nekkid in his arms.  This Kei is the one marked improvement over the Gantz anime, where Kishimoto is hands-down the worst female character Iíve ever seen in any series; an eternal victim, a tease and a user.  Here, Kei is the first one to learn the secret of the light-up, skintight PVC suit, sliding across concrete to save Katoís life.  

Another neat cast member is Kanata Hongo as Joichiro Nishi, the youngest of the bunch, but much older in terms of his experience with Gantz.  Hongo portrays the slyness, selfishness and occasional warpedness of the fascinating Nishi.  All the actors give great energy to the film, doing more for it than its director, Shinsuke Sato.

Hereís the flip side of the good news; that terrible pacing I mentioned earlier.  Anytime weíre in the real world, Gantz is a pretty glum affair.  Itís as if Sato tried to convey the scathing social commentary that Oku wrote into his creation without actually mentioning any of it; so mostly you just have the main trio walking around with sad faces for way too long amounts of time.  There are so many unanswered questions about what exactly Gantz is and how come nobody knows about these aliens living amongst us, that the attempts at character development seem superfluous and irritating.  Itís like, ĎLetís ignore the five hundred ton big black ball in the middle of the room.í  To that end, the missions are cut down to fit the filmís timeframe, so thereís less special effects, which is a huge part of what the audience came to see.  These effects range from pretty sharp-looking, like the beam that causes the meatless/bloodless reintegration in and out of Gantzís room (- think LeeLooís creation from 1997ís The Fifth Element), to lacking attempts at Ray Harryhausen greatness, to just plain campy -- which suits just fine in one sequence involving a helmet-wearing E.T. who canít live without his radio. 

That said, none of the set pieces are particularly memorable, but after the dragged-out tempo of the non-Gantzworld scenes, seeing a giant Agyō Nio guardian come to life and try to stomp the Gantz team out of existence is like chocolate after Lent.  More humour would have lightened up those drab stretches, as well, and after the first few minutes you reckon there might be some gallows-humour laughs, but those pretty much stop after the first game.

Hereís the other thing that cries out for reprimand; the dubbing.  Holy cow, itís bad.  I wasnít sure if I was watching Gantz in 2011 or some kung fu flick from 1973.  The utter carelessness with which the American voice cast was set to this film is criminal.  This was lazy and totally sloppy; oftentimes, the words didnít remotely fit the lip movements of the speaker.  This is even more discreditable in this day and age when English dubbing is taken very seriously and many different companies do it for anime and foreign films.  Thereís no excuse for the slapdash work done here and whoeverís responsible should be ashamed.

At the tail end of Gantz, with battle done and cliffhangers firmly in place, Iím sorry to say we know nothing more of the whys of things than when we first came in and one canít help feeling a bit suckered as the clips from the upcoming Gantz 2 ( Electric Boogaloo) wend their way across the screen.  Itís unfortunate that the powers that be behind this film are so sure of big box office receipts back home, based on its star power and inevitable following, that they would imagine itís okay to pass off this patchy, uneven, mediocre movie to the paying public.  Thatís cynical, that is.


Gantz the Experience

As part of the special Gantz premiere across America, co-hosted by New People/Viz and NCM Fathom, hundreds of moviegoers got to share the film all together, including a live interview with stars Keníichi Matsuyama and Kazunari Ninomiya from LA.  First, the screening:  Knowing Gantz has a strong following, I expected the normally eager otaku to be into it from the word go, and so they were, greeting the credits with enthusiastic applause, loud laughs and gasps of shock at the opening scene.  Then, somehow, maybe it was the power of Gantz, but the packed venue in Union Square in Manhattan suddenly transformed into the seediest Times Square theatre one can imagine from sometime in the late 70ís.  People talking amongst themselves constantly and not necessarily about the film.  People talking to the film.  Other people getting mad at those talking and starting fights.  Those people being out-shouted by the first noisy folks one of whom actually gave us all his unfavourable review of the movie, then used the lines from the film to shut down his foe from three rows back. 

I felt gratified to know my old movie-riot survival instincts were well in place after lying dormant for so long as I plotted my quick escape.  Glad it wasnít necessary.

The interview:  Hosted by an American Japanese sci-fi aficionado, the live Q&A from LA was awkward, way too long and terribly dry.  At a few points Matsuyamaís put-upon translator, who had to remember the essays that bloomed from the actorís lips (- Who knew Keníichi was such a Chatty Cathy?), decided to be cute and take more of an active role in the proceedings, making goofy poses during the interview.  Less concentration on being funny, buddy and more on getting a pad and pen to write things down like real interpreters do. 

My favourite moment came right at the end when Ninomiya, the more crowd/fan-savvy of the pair made what would be the closest thing to a criticism about the event with Matsuyama agreeing.  Even though this screening was clearly advertised as the world premiere, the movie actually had its debut hours before in Tokyo with both stars in attendance.  However, it was indeed the filmís US premiere and a first at least for Matsuyama.  How appropriate is it then, to hold such an event, inviting these big stars to fly from Japan to be part of the experience, then screening the (extremely badly-) dubbed version of their film?  It was just tacky and I hope that New People/Viz (- who should really know far better than this) will give us the actorís real voices and not be afraid to have otaku (- who usually prefer the original language, anyway) read some subtitles for the inevitable Gantz 2 (Not Quite) world premiere.


~ The Lady Miz Diva

January 21st, 2011



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