"Gantz" Complete Series: Lots of Sound and Fury, But Does It Signify Anything?
Like David Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club, the anime series Gantz is a remarkably challenging, deliberately provocative, and deeply flawed work that uses lowest-common-denominator entertainment to deliver highbrow messages. Also like Fight Club, one of the things I like about Gantz is how unsure I was whether I liked it or not after I finished watching it for the first time. I have since come around about Fight Club, but I don’t expect I’ll come around quite as strongly about Gantz. Fight Club‘s flaws are ultimately forgivable because so many of them seem to be either Fincher’s stylistic choices or specifically placed bones of contention, but all of them come off as deliberate artistic decisions. In contrast, Gantz is a series whose strengths are almost completely undermined by its flaws, some of which are so severe that they make me question whether the insights and deeper meanings in the movie are truly there or if I’m just reading way too much into the proceedings.
The lead character in Gantz is Kei Kurono, a fairly typical under-achieving teenager living in Tokyo. While waiting for a subway, he reacts with the same callous apathy as everyone else when he witnesses a homeless man fall off the platform. However, he gets singled out to help by a former classmate, Masaru Kato, who leaps down to the subway tracks to assist. While they save the man, Kurono and Kato seem to be killed by the oncoming train, only to reappear in an apartment in Tokyo with no signs of the fatal injuries they sustained on the tracks. Their companions in the room are a giant, featureless black ball and a handful of equally confused people (including a legislator who last remembers dying of cancer, a typical salaryman, two members of the yakuza, a sullen teenager, and a dog). After one more person—a completely naked, unconscious girl with slash marks on her wrists—materializes in the room, the ball comes to life, singing an inane radio jingle before informing those assembled that their lives belong to it now. It supplies them with strange guns and form-fitting bodysuits before flinging them back into the city to engage in a challenging and exceptionally lethal hunt for aliens hiding among the populace. After the hunt, the surviving characters are transported back to the apartment to receive scores from the ball (called Gantz by one of the survivors), with the unspoken promise that they will get their lives back once they reach some number of points. They are then released back to their lives until Gantz summons them to the apartment again with new companions to do another alien hunt.
Like Fight Club, a plot synopsis of Gantz is going to sound bizarre, and I can’t go into much more than a few surface details without spoiling the many twists and turns of the story. At least early on, it is also clear that the show is trying to inject commentary into the events of the story, although it’s more challenging to identify exactly what that commentary is. The earliest events are a clear indictment of the kind of urban apathy epitomized by the Kitty Genovese murder, but Gantz’s challenge comes off as some kind of sick, horrific video game, sanctioning and codifying deliberate cruelty and murder with arbitrary rules and scoring systems. So, when the first alien seems to be a harmless child and is hunted down and slaughtered like an animal, it’s easy to think that the show intends to indict this kind of entertainment. However, the show flips that initial revulsion on its head immediately by introducing a second alien that rapidly turns the tables on its human hunters. The same actions are brutal and horrific on the first alien, but rousingly heroic on the second one. So is it condemning the entertainment or the people watching and enjoying it? Is it both? Or perhaps neither?
These questions are also harder to answer because Gantz itself seems to relish such violence, exploiting arterial blood sprays with a gusto that would be inappropriate if it were really intending to critique such things. One of Gantz‘s best features is its creatively staged and superbly animated battle sequences, especially one set in a Buddhist temple where the aliens are hidden as the temple’s statues and guardians. It’s bizarrely sacrilegious (probably more for the Japanese audience than an American one) to see these sci-fi heroes battling a mammoth Daibutsu and a phenomenally lethal Kannon, whose multiple arms have swapped out Buddhist symbols of mercy for lasers and blades and deadlier implements. Just for good measure, Gantz also throws in two pretty vigorous sex scenes, although only the first one is even remotely believable. It’s also tough to make heads or tails of the dog, whose only purpose seems to be to molest one of the show’s female characters. As a result, Gantz can be appreciated purely as lizard-brain entertainment, stimulating only the chunks of the mind concerned with sex and killing things, although it really seems that the show doesn’t really want you to feel stimulated.
Unfortunately, after that first story, the show becomes steadily less complex. Those thorny moral dilemmas and ambiguous messages are replaced with simpler ones, and the seemingly simple setup gives way to a far more conventional and less interesting character drama, including a lop-sided love triangle hobbled by over-familiar “I love you but I can’t say so” romantic repression. The most novel thing about the show’s character development is the way that Kurono begins the show as a shallow, self-centered jerk and ends it only slightly less shallow and self-centered. It’s an interesting choice, but also one that proves that character arcs and expectations exist for a reason. We only root for Kurono and his friends because we really don’t get any better alternatives. Several more characters are introduced as the series goes on, but almost all of them are barely cardboard cutouts and very few have much staying power. The only two really interesting ones are a thug named Tetsuo, whose nobler aspects are tempered by much uglier, nastier ones; and a woman named Sei Sakuraoka, who is both the ultimate otaku fantasy figure and a subversion of that same image. Sei reminds me of Moonlight Mile‘s Riyoko Ikeuchi: both are characters I wish had a more substantial role in a better series. By the last story arc, the show presents two ludicrously shallow caricatures as its antagonists. It’s pretty sad that the aliens, with no discernible motivations other than self-preservation, end up better characterized than these two human psychos who just can’t shut up about how unpleasant they are. The net effect is that by the end Gantz feels almost exactly like the sort of entertainment it seemed to be critiquing at first.
However, Gantz‘s biggest flaw is undoubtedly its glacial and overly repetitive sense of pacing. The initial story arc feels like it could have been at least one episode shorter, and a lot of episodes feel like they’re padding 10 minutes worth of information into a full 20-minute episode. The show’s tendency to draw things out is especially laughable when characters launch into extended speeches on attack strategy, concluding exactly what must be done to kill an alien, but then just stand around watching that alien dismember one of their comrades. There are times when those delays are used extremely effectively, communicating a character’s indecision, moral doubts, or the mental lockup brought on by the stresses of the situation. Sadly, the show’s skill at subtly communicating these mental states makes it even easier to spot when they’re entirely absent, which happens far more often and makes the characters seem like complete slack-jawed idiots. They also choose rather odd times to express themselves. The most unintentionally hilarious example comes during the temple fight, when Kato stops a hunt for an alien that has already killed several of their companions so he can fall to his knees and wail about how unjust the world is. I was really hoping that someone would puncture the moment with an appropriately sarcastic suggestion, and was sadly disappointed when nobody did.
FUNimation has compressed the original multi-disc release of Gantz into a four-disc set. It is what we’ve come to expect from FUNimation: an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer, a well-done English dub, and almost no extras. The animation itself is showing its age a bit, with some clumsy integration of CGI environments and camera movements, even compared to shows that came out only a year or two after Gantz. There are a few behind-the-scenes featurettes with the show directors that didn’t manage to hold my interest for too long. There are also the obligatory textless opening and closing sequences, but that’s it.
In the end, I think Gantz is still a show worth watching, and it’s also one that needs a few episodes to really get going. However, I also don’t think it’s the kind of show that I’ll be able to watch repeatedly. It’s a show that’s more interesting to think about than it is to actually watch, and most of that involves wondering whether it’s a smart show undone by inept pacing or a really dumb show that just looks smarter than it is. It reminds me most of The Sky Crawlers, which infuriated as much as it intrigued, and like that movie, Gantz can only garner the same ambivalent and half-hearted recommendation.