As we’ve written before, Netflix isn’t exactly known for a robust catalogue of quality anime features to choose from. Since our roundup list last September, the streaming service’s selection has only marginally improved in some respects, rotating out a handful of forgettable titles with a few films that could charitably be called improvements. The most noteworthy of Netflix’s recent acquisitions, however, is Gantz: O, making its first appearance on the streaming service following its English language debut at the Tokyo International Film Festival late last year.
Based off of Hiroya Oku’s cult sci-fi action manga, Gantz: O follows a group of recently deceased people who have been seemingly resurrected by a mysterious black orb that charges them with the task of exterminating a host of shape-shifting aliens marauding across the island of Japan. Adapted from the series’ midpoint chapter, the film follows Masaru Katou, a selfless and well-intentioned high schooler who is brought back to life by the eponymous “Gantz” after being stabbed to death in a freak subway attack. What starts out as an inexplicable tragedy quickly transforms into what in all honesty could be described as a hyper-violent game of BDSM-themed laser tag with super powers, with Masaru soon swiftly recruited by the sphere’s meek roster of human chess pieces before being whisked away to downtown Osaka to murder a horde of Japanese demons.
The plot, and by extension its core cast of characters, is negligible, with Gantz: O’s focus firmly fixated on the dizzying if shallow spectacle of its action sequences (of which there are many) and the scrupulous fidelity of its 3D animation. The english dub is serviceable if often incongruent with the original Japanese voice acting, while the film’s stilted script at times yields a few choice lines of deliciously campy dialogue, such as in the case of the character of Hachiro Oka boasting that he was on his high school’s ping pong team before proceeding to bludgeon an alien into submission with a pair of oversized rock ’em sock ’em gauntlets, as if the former had any relationship to the latter. Oku’s creature designs thrive through the film’s aesthetic, with grotesque ghouls, goblins and oddities stampeding across the screen before being atomized into a shallow pool of blood and giblets. At one point a gigantic neon-highlighted mecha brandishing a retractable katana duels with a massive minotaur crossed with a tarantula. Gantz: O has all the sophomoric drama and improvisational complexity of a child indiscriminately smashing action figures together while watching Saturday morning cartoons. But damn if it isn’t cool to look at sometimes!
Some critics, chief among them writer Karen Jiang through her incisive review for Variety, have taken aim at Gantz: O for what can be described as the film’s sexually reductionist and socially regressive depiction of its female characters. While fans of the series have for the most part met these criticisms with expressions of disdain, such reactions do little to discredit the validity of Jiang’s arguments. Anime enthusiasts, some though not all, have a tendency to view their favorite franchises through a rose-tinted lens of selective insularity, treating films and series as though they are islands in vast sea of media separate and whole unto themselves. In Japan, manga and anime are unique in that they are categorized primarily by their intended demographic as opposed to their genre. In the case of Gantz that demographic is seinen, which translates to the Japanese equivalent of “youth.” Unlike anime such as Dragon Ball or One Piece which aimed at young boys (i.e., shonen), seinen is targeted towards adolescents, playing to the all the aesthetic gratifications and priorities implied by that unique period of hormonal chaos. Put simply: blood, breasts, and big ol’ explosions, all of which Gantz: O has in abundance, particularly in the case of a downright freudian monstrosity comprised entirely of naked flesh-fused female bodies with a habit for devouring men whole. Gantz: O knows exactly who its audience is, and as such the film’s broader appeal outside its target demographic lives and dies squarely within the stunted scope of those initial ambitions.
Further note, out of the film’s broad yet anonymous cast of characters, only two are women. That’s not to imply that the quantity of representation equates to the quality in how those are represented, but in the case of Gantz: O the quality of those depictions is particularly damning. The first, Reika Shimohira, is a quiet and demure model who exists perpetually on the peripheral edge of the action shouting screams of sideline encouragement and fear at the male protagonist’s debasement, and Anzu Yamazaki, a young woman who hovers incessantly at Masaru’s side and can be aptly described as equal parts shrill, clingy and remorselessly callous. The two do get to have their own firm yet fleeting moments in the spotlight during the climax of the final battle, but it’s always in support of another character’s fight, namely Masaru’s. Fidelity to source material aside, it would’ve been nice to see these characters fleshed out as something a little more than buxom damsels waiting to be rescued. Or perhaps, that’s in the manga?
All of which is to say that Gantz: O is a problematic movie, though not an entirely unenjoyable one. It’s about as rudimentary and action-driven as its source material, acting as a solid litmus test for whether audiences new to the franchise should branch out to explore the series’ other incarnations in search of answers to the many questions they will undoubtedly have by the film’s conclusion. It’s not the best, but respective to the rest of Netflix’s catalogue of offerings, it’s a welcome if tepid step in the right direction.
Toussaint Egan is a culturally omnivorous writer who has written for several publications such as Kill Screen, Playboy, Mental Floss, and Paste. Give him a shout on Twitter.