Gantz Vol. 1

"Too graphic for Japanese TV!" Now there's a selling point for teenage boys if I've ever heard one. It's puerile, but it moves DVDs. At least that's what ADV Films is hoping by using that tagline for its newest series, Gantz. Yes, it is the unedited version, retaining all the nudity and violence that was censored on Japanese TV. If that's all you want in your entertainment, then purchase away, because it is heavy on both. But getting past that point, Gantz has some major problems, one of which is that on this particular release, there's only 2 episodes per disc. That's right: if you want to see the entire thing, you're going to be buying or renting 13 discs. This is a bad move, in my opinion, but from watching only the first two episodes, I'd say it's a pretty bad show. That doesn't mean, sadly, that it still won't sell a lot of copies.

Kei is a teenager with issues. He doesn't much like people. He is as likely to daydream of all his classmates naked as he is to pay attention to a lecture. He is a punk without a cause, willing to give an old lady bad directions on the subway just because he doesn't want to be bothered. But because we can hear most of the thoughts of the characters in Gantz, we learn that most people in Kei's world are even bigger jerks than he is.

The catalyst for the show is a wino who drunkenly passes out and falls onto the tracks while Kei waits for the next train. He plans to do nothing, just to watch the old man get run over, but then somebody actually gets involved. Kei recognizes that it's an old acquaintance, Kato, who's hopped down to get the inebriated fellow off the tracks. Suddenly, Kato recognizes Kei and asks for his aid. Kei's peeved, but he grudgingly goes to help. They rescue the old man, but they can't get back up on the platform before the train pulls in. The engine hits them, their heads pop off (yes indeed), and they die.

Or so it seems. When they find themselves in a room with a bunch of weirdos and a large black ball, they think they've gone to heaven or limbo or someplace in the afterworld. But since when did purgatory have a view of the Tokyo Tower? Then the final arrival is beamed into the room in gory fashion: a naked girl who apparently committed suicide in a bathtub. Though a couple of the guys in the room start getting horny, the girl is saved from attack just when the black ball sends them a message. Their lives are now, in essence, in the black ball's control. The group is sent out to hunt down an alien--a literal little green man--with an affinity for green onions. The story proceeds from that stakeout.

Now my review is based on the screener that ADV Films sent me of the show, so I'm not going to argue about whether or not the show gets better in its next 24 episodes. You can feel free to write to me and tell me that I should watch more of it before I review it. That's the case of Gantz, those emails will go quickly into my trash bin. I'll say it now like I've said before: two episodes is at least two too few to get an audience interested in a show, and it's two too few for an anime release on DVD. ADV Films believes they have a hit on their hands, and they just might, but not for the good reasons. It will sell because it's got nudity and violence galore.

From an animation perspective, this is a strange show. The digital panning is right up front; not only do they not try to hide it, they use it to some motion-sickness extremes in a couple of shots. The character motion is just plain strange, much of it herky-jerky. The people in this thing often look inserted into a digitally created environment, somewhat like old video games where you can tell that your character can't actually move the barrels or touch the right button. I'm not sure what the point is. To be sure, some of the animation is done with careful attention, particularly closeup shots and, yes, the nudity. But it's not a good-looking show in the traditional sense. The music is also surprisingly awful for a hit show. After thoroughly enjoying the opening and closing songs in Fullmetal Alchemist and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex which I've been watching recently, I thought Gantz's op/ed was just...bad. I've gotten addicted to "Ready Steady Go" and "Lithium Flower"; if I never hear "Super Shooter" again, it will be too soon.

Meanwhile, the plot...well, yes, there are a few good bits, to be certain. I was unimpressed by the grotesque violence on display, and yet I was still curious to know what these dead people had gotten themselves sucked into. Where are these aliens coming from? What the heck is this black ball with weapons and costumes inside? Who is in control? I must admit that I am intrigued to know what will happen with these folks. Despite the lousy animation and wholly unnecessary gore, it does have a draw to it. If you get started, you might overlook all the problems just to uncover the mysteries Gantz has planned. My limited letter grade for this show gives it credit for at least keeping things interesting.

But what is the plot? Ultimately, this feels awfully derivative of Battle Royale, a story about a game show where a randomly chosen class of Japanese classmates has to kill each other in a hunt-or-be-hunted massacre on live television. The book, film, and manga of Battle Royale created a huge amount of controversy in Japan, and now I think we're starting to see the results. Lots of dead people killed in gruesome ways? Check. People forced into fighting or having their heads blown off? Check (unless you think fighting aliens rather than other humans is somehow a clever twist). "Social commentary" used as a cover for all the unpleasantness? Check.

Ichiro Itano is Gantz's director, and though he's worked on some impressive shows in the past, his credits as a solo director are this, Angel Cop, and Violence Jack. Yes, Violence Jack, a show with a reputation so repulsive that I won't review it. This guy is one who likes to watch heads roll (literally). He's interviewed on the first disc, and he tries to make it seem like he's fighting censorship and making a statement with Gantz. What statement? He doesn't say. But he will make a stand for creating his anime the way he wants to see it, censors be damned. How tres chic. How revolutionary. How big a load of crap.

I feel like I'm turning into an old man in some recent reviews, but I can't help it. I can appreciate disturbing violence in a meaningful context. I think A Clockwork Orange is brilliant. Taxi Driver? A landmark. Saving Private Ryan? A classic. Violence that exists to realize the issues of the human condition is worthwhile even when it upsets us. But Gantz has violence to sell itself to 15-year-old boys who are gonna think this is cool. Just look at one scene for an example. The "team of the dead" is sent to kill an alien. He's a small guy who eats green onions. As they brutalize him, he thinks that they want his onions and offers them to the group. Kids will probably think this is hysterical. As an adult, I think it's desensitizing and perhaps even evil.

For its faults, I am going to give Gantz a C-, not because I think it's good but that it does show a limited amount of potential. I wouldn't absolutely say no to watching another volume. But I don't hold out much hope. What I saw was brutality and bleakness writ large, with large brushstrokes of red paint. Gantz could have accomplished even more by letting us imagine some of the horrors it portrays. Gantz is proof positive that just because you can be graphic doesn't mean you should be...and at 13 volumes, it's going to cost any buyer a lot of money to find out just how graphic you can get.

Gantz Vol. 1 -- graphic and disturbing violence, nudity, attempted (off-screen) rape, strong profanity, disturbing subject matter -- C-