After the success of the Death Note series, an inevitable wave of similar films followed, most of them epic-scale, multi-part adaptations of acclaimed - and equally lengthy - manga or animé series. Many of these films centre on competition and gameplay, frequently involving two or more opposing groups, a series of complex rules and a great deal of strategy.
In Death Note the contest is between the intellects of suave psychopath Light and the misfit genius L, each restricted by the rules of the notebooks and relying upon increasingly brilliant strategies and moves to defeat the other. In Tôya Satô’s Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler (2009) 30-something gambling addict Tatsuya Fujiwara - the star of Battle Royale (2000) and Death Note - is pitted against several other no-hopers in a series of unpleasant challenges, observed by rich gamblers who make bets on their lives. Fujiwara returns in Hideo Nakata’s reality TV-influenced The Incite Mill (2010), in which 10 lucky contestants are locked in an underground complex for 10 days and told to kill each other while TV audiences watch. Less deadly but more popular is Liar Game (2007), a series that started on television and moved to the big screen with Hiroaki Matsuyama’s Liar Game: The Final Stage (2010), in which the players constantly try to outwit each other for large sums of cash. At the cheaper, nastier end of the spectrum we have Tokyo Gore School (2009) and the two Death Tube films, all of them directed by Chanbara Beauty director Yôhei Fukuda. As well as Death Note, this concept of individuals or teams pitted against each other for sport, punishment, personal gain or the entertainment of others is immediately reminiscent of Battle Royale - and, to a lesser extent, the Saw franchise - although few of them feature similar levels of brutality and violence.
Among the most interesting of the post-Death Note films are Shinsuke Satô’s Gantz (2010) and Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011), the two-part adaptation of Hiroya Oku’s hit manga and the subsequent animé series. In Gantz players are transported at the moment of their demise to an empty apartment, occupied by a large black globe. The globe - known somewhat mysteriously as ‘Gantz’ - provides the nonplussed players with futuristic weapons and equipment, and outlines their new ‘mission’: killing aliens. The aliens themselves are a strange bunch, some appearing to be entirely human, with others looking like enormous Buddhist statues or life-size toy robots. For each kill the players are awarded points, and accumulating more than 100 points allows the player to either come back from the dead and continue their life - with a convenient dose of amnesia, of course - or to resurrect another player and bring them back into the game. One-time school friends Kei (Kazunari Ninomiya) and Katô (Kenichi Matsuyama, who played L in the Death Note films) find themselves drafted when they are accidentally killed by a passing train. Their new weapons and equipment give them great strength and protect them from major injuries, but they’re not born fighters or violent by nature, and it isn’t until several of the other players have been killed or injured that Kei and Katô come to terms with what is expected of them.
Predictably enough, Gantz gives both its players and the audience precious little in the way of explanations and background information. If these creatures are aliens, where are they from and why are they here? Why do they need to be killed? Aside from accusing the players of murdering their friends, the aliens aren’t much help either. And what exactly is Gantz? An early scene in the first film shows us that the black globe contains what seems to be a comatose man on life-support machines, but no further information is provided. Trapped in their Kafka-esque nightmare, the players can only continue to fight, with no real sense of who they’re fighting for or why.
However, Gantz gives them little time to ponder their fate by pitting them against a quick succession of increasingly powerful enemies. It is these well-choreographed and bloody fight sequences that form the core of the first film, introducing the main characters and the central concepts. The sequel, Gantz: Perfect Answer, brings in several plot twists and devices that push the tension up a few notches, as well as providing the requisite number of jaw-dropping fights. Not content with simply recruiting from the recently dead, Gantz now seems to be employing an assistant to ensure that certain people are selected - by killing them. It’s not entirely clear why Gantz needs those individuals or what his long-term goals are, but things take a turn for the decidedly sinister when the name of one of Kei’s closest friends appears on their target list, even though she is obviously not an alien.
These fights are more than just visual treats, however, allowing the audience to fully understand the rules surrounding the ‘game’. They also underline the relationships and emotional connections between the various characters. Kei might spend a great deal of time trying to attract the attention of the pretty Kishimoto (played by actress-model Natsuna), but when he gets the chance to resurrect another player, he doesn’t choose her. Even though Kei pretended not to recognise his former schoolmate Katô when they saw each other at the station and later in the apartment, it’s immediately apparent that he’s going to bring him back. Eventually it’s another player - cult veteran Tomorowo Taguchi, star of the first two Tetsuo films - who resurrects Katô, but later on Kei still picks someone other than Kishimoto. Unlike many similar films, Gantz makes an effort to build and define its central characters, something that gives the physical combat an extra level of impact; they’re not just pins to be knocked down in their droves, and their deaths in the Gantz ‘arena’ have very real effects.
Although the Gantz movies have earned critical acclaim and performed well at the box office, they are less likely to be greeted favourably by fans of the original manga and the animé adaptation. For a start, the material has been toned down, with the nudity and sexual content removed. Certain characters have been altered too - most obviously Kei, who is considerably more arrogant and less friendly in his earlier incarnations. However, both films capture the adrenaline-fuelled thrills of the original manga, and they’re also two of the best sci-fi/action movies you’re likely to see in the near future, from anywhere.