Gantz : The First Stage
I'd read a plot summary of this one ages ago, and it certainly sounded intriguing. Some interesting images too. And now I finally have the chance to sample it... although the actual experience was a little bitter-sweet. Inevitable Spoiler Warning! on the synopsis, if I'm going to say anything at all I have to give some of the opening away... feel free to skip it of course.
In one of the thousands of apartments within Tokyo a group of people are having a ball... or more correctly a ball is having a group of people. To be specific a jet black ball rests within this unfurnished apartment. At times its surface displays writing, cryptic commentary informing those around it of the mission it has selected. And disobedience is not an option, the sphere has rescued each of these people from the moment of death and it seems to consider them eminently disposable, and have access to enough super technology (including matter transfer) to enforce its whims.
And thus groups of strangers find themselves having to come to terms with the unthinkable before they are ported out to hunt strange, but definitely dangerous, aliens on the streets of Tokyo. It's a lot like a game in structure, but the risks are very real and the fatality rate high. We get to focus on three school age kids who have unwittingly been drawn into this strange world. They're going to have to adapt fast... or their death is certain. And even if they do survive, can they ever truly return to the normality they once enjoyed?
It really is a novel sort of concept. The direct introduction of the "ball" is rather cool too. It just sits there, visually passive but in practice manipulative and enigmatic. One can't be help wonder what the backstory is, but the story steadfastly refuses to reveal anything. It's just there, and you have to deal with it, which is much like what the cast is experiencing. And both of us would very much like to know what the heck is going on.
The Orb also dispenses some gear to help, strange power suits and even stranger weapons. The cast have to work out how all the stuff operates while hunting live targets on the streets of Tokyo. They are also separated from the real world somehow, as if ghosts, meaning they are entirely on their own. Given this, and indeed even the opening to the show, you might well be expecting some pretty cool and hard edge action to top it all off.
And you would be 100% absolutely wrong, just as I was. Strangely enough the action is really poor. The aliens are deadly, but idiotic... I have no idea what the plan was there. And the weapons are likewise odd, alternating between powerful and useless but not really very interesting in practice. But its not even that its bad action that is the problem, it's that there is very little action at all.
So what fills the time? Well, either the ball (which is referred to as Gantz by one of the characters) favors psychotic types or Japan is in even worse shape than I though. Its somewhat scary to see such an assemblage of people with issues. And a lot of the running time is them dealing with it, or at least inflicting them on someone else. I imagine this was meant to give the show "street cred", or a hard edge to its drama, but it ends up being a little too much.
The three we follow are the nominal good guys. This seems to primarily mean that rather than threaten others they torment themselves. Each of them can be relied upon, in a time of crisis, to freeze like a rabbit in the headlights while they have some repetitive internal monologue. It may be a really great way of showing how people can choke in situations of stress, but geeze it gets boring when they are still doing it 11 episodes in. It does add dramatic intensity but it doesn't add much satisfaction. Most people want a bit of heroism, even if it is isn't realistic.
There is one guy who is close to being a hero, but he still doesn't manage to escape the internal confusion or having a full complement of "issues". Indeed he's primarily the hero because he doesn't think things through. However we mostly follow from within the head of his "friend", and it is his thoughts we get to hear. Which is a shame, because just as I didn't want to share the mental space of Shinji Ikari I pretty much loathed this guy by the end. Sure, it's probably not entirely unbelievable, and I can even see echoes of his obsessions and weaknesses in myself, but I have to like a character before I care to know their mind. I'd mention the other character, buxom babe (with issues, naturally), but she doesn't actually do much other than stand around and totally torment the guy we're following... he's pretty desperate, which is very human, but not something I want to share.
I think I've managed to express a pretty clear image of the show here. Its hard edged and original, but it is not actually very likeable. And, unlike other shows, it doesn't know when to give it a rest, so it rather over uses many of the themes it depends on.
The production, despite some nice stills, is definitely nothing special. Character art is simple (but then a lot of the characters are disposable) and the motion animation is pretty bad for modern animation. The action is extremely static, generally firing very dull "light" guns which I don't think actually managed to do much during the show (well, at least not to the opposition!). There is one nice motion scene, heavily re-used in the opening credits, but I stress the "one" here intentionally. Not that there is much action, as I've indicated the vast majority of the running time is taken up with the characters standing around having inconclusive conversations. The voice acting is not great either, partly because everyone is pouring the "stress" into their voice. The opening song features some dodgy English, the ambient music is fairly varied and really forward.. once again trying to enhance the drama of the scene, not bad though.