A Japanese teenager waits at a train station, reading a trashy magazine featuring an idol enticing the reader with her big boobs. An elderly lady approaches the teenager, asking for directions. The teenager quickly mumbles a non-informative reply while thinking to himself what an annoyance the lady is, why should he give a shit about her? Oh look, a drunken tramp just fell onto the tracks and no one is going to help. Why should they? It’s none of their business, just look away and pretend you didn’t see it happen.
This is Gantz. Hiroya Oku's exploitative, violent and cynical depiction of the Japanese and their behaviour when confronted with moralistic situations. There's also a bunch of ever-increasingly ludicrous battle royales with aliens and vampires that destroy various parts of Tokyo and other cities, but that all comes later.
Back to that train station and that teenager: Kei Kurono. Instantly unlikeable, but oh so real. You either know kids like him, or you recognise your own traits in his character. You'll probably be lying to yourself if you don’t see yourself in some of these characters, its human nature to recoil from awkward situations. Gantz seems to gain great pleasure from thrusting its many random characters into awkward situations, sometimes involving nudity, usually violence, usually spontaneously.
Gantz is about a room somewhere with a black ball and a very infantile presence who gives out childish nicknames to unfortunately-recently-dead and usually unwilling participants in a 'game' that requires them to kill aliens in a kind of real-life recreation of a First Person Shooter. The brilliance is in the mystery and its ridiculousness.
People die and are transported to the room to pick up their suits and weapons, and if they survive the subsequent battle they're free to wander off and return to their lives...until they're transported back to the room for another battle, and so on until either they reach 100 points and are released from the game, or they die for real. Author Oku continually ups the stakes, regularly throwing bigger obstacles in characters' paths, and it becomes a case of “can he top this?” The answer is always: "yes he bloody well can!”
There is a massacre in Shinjuku, Tokyo that beggar’s belief in its astounding ambition to shock the reader with its scope, creativity and viciousness. Once I read this sequence, I knew any anime adaptation would either fail completely at bringing to motion what this manga gets away with, or it would follow it faithfully and probably be banned/censored. Obviously at the time of writing this review, the answer is the former, there aren’t many anime studios in the world that are as crazy as Oku.
This is Gantz's best asset, its secret weapon, the reason for why it's so memorable. It's outrageous. Because it's happening in such a familiar world. Oku's attention to detail, the way people behave and react, either as individuals or as a collective, or even on the internet, is spot on. Whether it's a massacre on a street or in a school, or a small squabble in an apartment or a train, the tension is reminiscent of real life, because the dialogue and body language is grounded in reality, no matter how out there the action and sci-fi ideas are.
The art of the manga is economical and precise; computer aided graphics help keep the locales detailed. The costumes, props and weapons design is a nice deviation from the typical 'dress the characters in black leather' trend that The Matrix seemingly rejuvenated in entertainment media. Kudos to Oku for using his imagination and not dragging the manga down with anything generic. It’s one of his many traits, taking existing ideas that are ripe for generic rip-off but putting his own spin on them. In this case the battle suits are humiliatingly tight, and regularly attract scorn and mockery from bystanders.
The action sequences in this manga are some of the best I've ever read. Oku has a real eye for framing the action from the right angles and positions. His action pay-offs always bring a smile to the face, the audacity and enormity of what occurs on the page, is a sight to behold. The destruction to urban property gets exponentially bigger throughout the manga, no structure or vehicle is left spared. My review is intentionally vague to save the surprises for the reader, but if you like guns, swords, urban environments chopped, sliced and blown up to bits, then you're going to have a blast with Gantz.
The ideas in Gantz are to do with the narcissistic state of 21st century living, the materialism of the masses, human relations in the face of ever disturbing circumstances. There is almost a Hitchcockian vibe in the way ordinary people are pushed into extraordinary situations and thrash around desperately trying to get out of them. The great mystery of Gantz is a sci-fi conspiracy that is always just bubbling under the surface. In the forefront of the story is the cast of lowlifes and nobodies. School kids, street punks, idols, yakuza, tourists, businessmen, random passersbys, random aliens and vampires.
Would you jump onto the tracks and drag the drunken tramp back onto the platform? Oku's humorous retort to that is a train decapitating your head for your troubles. Welcome to Gantz.