Films about murder games of various sorts have become a popular Japanese-movie subgenre, beginning with the ultra-violent Kinji Fukasaku hit “Battle Royale” (2000) and continuing with the even more successful “Death Note” trio of films (2006-2008) — though the “game” in the latter was more of a battle of wits between the killer hero and the candy-addicted private detective hired to stop him.
Most of these films are thrillers with a thin overlayer of commentary about the dire state of society. Aiming for a semblance of realism, psychological or social, they usually end up looking contrived, since the “game” is rigged from the beginning to ensure the survival of the leads.
Shinsuke Sato’s “Gantz,” the first of two films based on a popular manga by Hiroya Oku, stands the “murder game” formula on its head — or rather twists it in ways provocative and strange.
First, the “players” are not desperately trying to stay alive, but rather looking for a way out of a limbo between life and death. Second, there is no pretension to realism at all — unless you consider Japanese monster movies realistic. Third — and the biggest departure from formula of all — major characters do meet their demise, though we will have to wait for Part II to see for how long.
In fact, “Gantz” is closer in form and spirit to “Symbol” (2009), comic Hitoshi Matsumoto’s playfully wacko exploration of a dreamlike (or nightmarish) alternative reality, though the jokes in “Gantz” are of the blackest shade. Another point of comparison is the Wachowski brothers’ “The Matrix,” in which unseen entities manipulate our reality (at least, our commonly accepted version of it) for their own murky purposes. But whatever its influences, beginning with the 1959 Robert Sheckley novel “Immortality, Inc.” that inspired Oku, “Gantz” stands on its own.
Its unlikely hero is Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya), a college student listlessly and mechanically enduring the job-hunting process when he sees Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), a former friend from primary school, on a subway platform. When Kato tries to rescue a man fallen on the tracks, Kurono, after hemming and hawing, tries in turn to save Kato — and both end up staring at the headlights of the on-rushing train, apparent goners.
Instead they find themselves, dazed and confused, in an apartment furnished only with a giant black sphere and populated by others who have recently died and have no idea what they are doing there, including a young woman, Kei (Natsuna), who materializes naked out of the ether, right before their eyes. Then a snarky high-school kid, Nishi (Hongo Kanata), grudgingly gives them hints of what they are there for — and up against.
The sphere, called Gantz and operated by a bald, naked man in some sort of trance, contains exotic weapons and form-fitting suits that they are to use on missions in the world they have just departed. Their goal: to kill monstrous aliens within a set time. If they succeed, they will receive points. A total of 100 will allow them to leave this limbo — or send someone else back to life. If they fail, they get nothing and may even die for good.
Here is where things get interesting — and bizarre. The first “alien” turns out to be a frightened, skittish midget, while Kurono, Kato, Kei (now properly suited) and the others have only the foggiest idea of what to do about him. They figure it out, however, on the run and in the midst of a ferocious life-or-death struggle. Then, after Gantz adds up the points, Kurono finds himself back in his old room and returns to his former life. But a pretty, manga-drawing classmate, Tae (Yuriko Yoshitaka), notices a change in him. What else does she know?
There are many mysteries in “Gantz,” including those the first film does not answer (but that the trailer for the second film, which is scheduled for an April release, irritatingly hints at). There is also a certain repetitiveness to the story: mission, aftermath, mission, aftermath. But Sato, who has made everything from 2008 seishun eiga (youth film) “Sunadokei (Sand Clock)” to 2009’s anime “Hottarake no Shima — Haruka to Maho no Kagami (Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror),” breaks this narrative lock-step with well-timed revelations about the two principals’ odd new existence, while ratcheting up the stakes, as the aliens the warriors face become ever bigger, stronger, and more classically Japanese. And no, I’m not talking about Godzilla.
Matsuyama, who is best known abroad as the detective L in the “Death Note” films, and Ninomiya, a member of the pop group Arashi who starred in Clint Eastwood’s “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006), are contrasting types: Matsuyama plays Kato as a familiar sort of outsider hero — tough, resourceful and true to his own code, but also somewhat clenched and isolated.
Ninomiya’s Kurono, on the other hand, is a thoroughly contemporary type: temperamentally cool, emotionally immature, fundamentally rudderless. As he proved in his turn as the scared but shrewd private who survives the hell of Iwo Jima, Ninomiya is more of an actor than his smirky boy-band singer/TV tarento persona suggests. In “Gantz” he may overdo certain ticks, such as squinting nearsightedly to indicate puzzlement, annoyance or some combination thereof, but he also hints that there is more to Kurono than a slackerish college boy.
The story ends, frustratingly, before we see what he is truly capable of — or what the game really means. But it also cleverly sets up what movie marketeers call “want to see.” What’s in store? Boringly, ever bigger aliens? Or surprises for even the manga’s millions of fans?