Movie: As one of the handful of regular anime reviewers at DVD Talk, sometimes we miss out on a series due to a quirk in fate (that's a fancy way of saying that someone beat us to a particular title) and all we have to go on is how our buddy reacted to it by reading his review. By reviewing a lot of titles, we each build up our own areas of expertise and often blow off series that seem inconsistent to our trusted friends (we all like to save money, yes?) Well, such was the case with an obscure series that started to hit the street about a year ago called Gantz as reviewed by DVD Talk's own John Sinnott. I saw the trailers to the show and knew it came from one of my favorite production companies in Japan, Gonzo, whose other shows include some of the best titles on the market these days like Samurai 7 and Last Exile. My hesitation at picking up the value priced show was due to a marketing campaign that lowered the price per disc to a nice level but also reduced the number of episodes per disc to two; a major problem in my book. When you take out the opening and closing credits for a half hour show, that limits the amount of decent content to under 20 minutes per episode so wasting a whole DVD on 2 per disc seemed a bad idea that I decided to pass on. Well thankfully, the nice folks at ADV Films decided to continue releasing their boxed sets with this one, allowing me to pick up Gantz: Season 1 Collection in their usual value added offering.
Gantz: Season 1 Collection is a story about a near future Earth that has a number of powerful alien invaders roaming about at will. They generally don't interact with humans except when threatened, though the story had many plot elements that were still unclear even after watching the entire 13 episodes that comprised the first season. The protagonist for the story is a teenager named Kei Kurono, a slacker that ogles women and has about as much success with them as your typical Otaku does when approaching the varsity cheerleading squad. He's grown jaded at the dismal world he lives in and looks out for number one even though he knows what the right thing to do is most of the time. One afternoon, he waits for his train in the subway and sees a homeless man fall down on the tracks. Knowing it would mean instant death when the approaching train runs the guy over, he screams in his mind for the drunk to wake up and move. Needless to say, the rest of the crowd does the same thing to the point where this diffusion of responsibility has everyone acting helpless, unwilling to risk their lives for what appears to be a worthless wretch of a man. That is, all save one young man, named Masaru Kato; a childhood friend of Kei's that slipped into a rougher crowd.
Kato pleads with the rest of the crowd to assist him in moving the hobo off the tracks, settling on Kei to the point where our young protagonist feels pressured into jumping down to assist in saving the man (instead of doing if because it was the right thing to do). Needless to say, when the train comes along, a calculated risk turns sour and while the bum is saved, the bodies of the two would be heroes are torn into bloody pieces that fly everywhere. Throughout the entire show, the audience is treated to hearing the random thoughts of those in the vicinity, most thinking something similar to what a "real" group would come up with. Just after impact, the two guys awaken in a small room with other people standing around and a big black sphere in the middle. They aren't sure what happened to them but it's obvious that they're alive since they can think, breathe, and interact with the others.
Well, sadly for them, they find that they are just copies of the now deceased dynamic duo, perfect in every way except their scars are gone and all healed up. They have a lot of questions but no one has the answers for them. Kei starts to fall for a hotty (Kei Kishimoto) that appears into his arms without any clothes on and soon enough the sphere opens up to reveal weapons and boxes with everyone's name on them. After some melodrama between the decent people in the room and some thugs, Kei puts on a weird jumpsuit from his case and the sphere starts listing orders in broken English. They are to kill an alien child but precious little else is revealed. The group slowly disappears out of the otherwise locked room, only to reintegrate on the darkened streets of the city where an undetermined amount of time has passed. The brutal thugs kill the alien child after a lengthy chase but apparently, as the clock on the sphere counts down from one hour, there is another alien to contend with; a much more powerful one that isn't overly happy that his relative, child, friend or buddy has been tortured and killed by the group. This sets in motion the specifics of the jumpsuit, the rules of engagement, and the consequences of the situation they are in as they are killed off one by one.
The sphere is called Gantz and somehow controls various aspects of the physical world in which the recently deceased occupy. They are being given a second chance to live as long as they follow the orders provided. Unfortunately for them, there is no rule book and the only guy that appears to know what's going on isn't willing to discuss it. The basic premise is that the individuals get points for the aliens they kill with a need to acquire 100 points. How the points redeem and what happens at the magic number is pure speculation since every time a mission comes up, a mostly new group of people appear in the room (apparently, if you die on a mission, you aren't resurrected again). In the world of OTJ (on the job training), this plan has some serious flaws although the survivors get to leave the room after obtaining their mission score, only to be pulled back in when the next mission is ready. There were lots of quirks and surprises along with the above but they are best experienced rather than read about.
Okay, seeing as how the dub is being handled by Matt Greenfield himself (one of the original principals at ADV Films); I knew right off that it must be special. He rarely finds the time to take full control of a show these days unless it becomes a pet project and the buzz around the shill websites was quite favorable so after seeing that John had upped his rating on a few volumes of the show, I was ready to get this one. The boxed set was the clincher and having watched all 13 episodes in a single sitting, I have to admit that I was impressed overall. The series starts off incredibly slowly so releasing it as ADV Films did took huge nads in that if left to the first two episodes, I'd have dropped this one like a bad habit. Keeping with it though allowed me to see the flow of the story far better. What could've been a slightly updated version of and number of shows that emulate the mainstream hit The Dirty Dozen such as Gunslinger Girl, La Femme Nikita, or Noir to name a few, the premise is altered in large part by the unstated realities of the concept. Rather than have it handed to you on a silver platter with some lengthy speeches made by the heroes, the audience is left just as much in the dark as to how things work (including the weapons and limits allowed under the rules of conduct) so until it's all over, you can never be certain about anything going on.
This elevates the level of expectation more than a little bit and I can see how that might draw in one of the most powerful executives at ADV Films into taking charge of the project. Essentially, he can recreate the entire premise if he so chooses but with this much wiggle room, it leaves the show open to a lot of interpretational matters too. Thankfully, the Gantz: Season 1 Collection seems to fit far better together as a single box set than it does with limited episodes released on a schedule (I'll wait for the second boxed set to check out the events that transpire in the second season). Some series, particularly slow paced ones, are like that and I think that fans of ultra violent, sexually explicit anime will appreciate this series more than the silly "fight per episode" shows or the fan service shows that all too often insult our intelligence.
Whether the show is a metaphor for bigger issues or simply a morality tale that has a far darker edge than we're used to over here, the simple fact that the series was censored in Japan (this release is uncut and restored thankfully) tells me that it even pushed the limits of conventional taste for the usually permissive Japanese so it will come across as more than the simplistic shows that have arrived in a similar vein in recent years. I don't want to outline any more than I have done (spoilers suck but the above material is the bare minimum to sustain a conversation about the show) but I intend to rewatch it when I'm able to since I already have figured a few things out that weren't readily apparent on first glance. For me, the pricing, quality of content, and manner in which it was handled (along with some good extras typically missing on value oriented boxed sets) warranted a rating of Highly Recommended. If you're seriously into anime, forget the glossed over versions of the tale, forget the shills, and forget what you've heard about the show; make up your own mind about it and I believe most thinking people will be repulsed and attracted at the same time.
Picture: Gantz: Season 1 Collection was presented in a 16:9 anamorphic widescreen color presentation, with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 that maintains the original look of the show as it aired in Japan. It was clean, dark and had a few minor flaws that were almost certainly done on purpose to project a mood for the series as a whole. This included a slightly washed out look when the crew were on missions, a number of special effects that appeared at specific times, and some light moiré here and there. I saw no compression artifacts and it looked very well done overall.
Sound: The audio was presented with the choice of the original 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo in Japanese with English subtitles or the 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English language dub handled by ADV Films. Due to the way so much of the audio content was handled by the characters thinking (rather then speaking things aloud), I think I would have appreciated thoughts to be in a different color than spoken words but otherwise the tracks both had their pluses and minuses. The Japanese track almost always "felt" right in conveying the horrific situations that the cast were thrown into but the dub had a better range of separation for the special effects and music. Neither was perfect but both had something to add for the anime fans, leaving aside the usual arguments about dubs versus subs in favor of quality employed on both.
Extras: While most of the recent boxed sets have been stripped of extras, this was not the case here. There were clean openings and closings, trailers, and a wealth of interviews that were tremendously spoiler ridden (watch them last folks, trust me on that). The first disc of the cardboard box enclosed six disc set had an interview with the Japanese director, Ichiro Itano. It wasn't long but it provided some oversight to the series that was helpful to my understanding of the show. The second disc had a non-spoiler interview with the Japanese voice actor for Kei Kurone (Daisuke Namikawa), the third had a round table discussion with Kei Kurone (Daisuke Namikawa), Masashi Osato (Kato), and Hitomi Nabatame (Kishimoto); the fourth had Rakkyo Ide (Suzuki Alien) joining Masashi Osato (Kato), and Hitomi Nabatame (Kishimoto); the fifth and sixth had some Japanese television spots. In all, they rounded out the package nicely and added some value to the boxed set for me.
Final Thoughts: Gantz: Season 1 Collection had some great stories to tell, fine technical aspects, and a plethora of extras that I didn't expect given the lower MSRP of the boxed set. Both the dub and the original language tracks offered some solid replay value and a quick glance online shows me that a lot of others have found this series to be worth a lot more than it appears to be on the surface. If you want to keep up with the second series exploits of the characters, by all means read John's continuing reviews of the show but I know I'll be waiting for the follow up boxed set released some time after the last disc comes out. One thing worth noting though is that ADV Films has listened to consumers and started offering more episodes per disc; I just hope Matt Greenfield continues to do as solid a job on the English language dub as he did here. Good work guys!
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.