Gantz: 0 (2016)

The hugely successful franchise, with manga, anime and live action versions, continues with this computer animated film. When Kato is killed in a subway stabbing he appears in a mysterious apartment room with a giant black ball in the centre. The set-up will be familiar to those who have seen previous instalments in the series, and this film cuts straight to the action. The Gantz ball sends Kato and his team, model Reika, Suzuki, young boy, to Osaka to take on the terrifying aliens that have invaded. These take the form of various creatures of Japanese mythology. There the team meet with their Osaka counterparts, led by a cocky trio of men, and a young woman Ayumu.

“Gantz: 0” is directed by Yasushi Kawamura, from a screenplay by Tsutomo Kuroiwa, and this latest episode essentially retreads familiar ground, while attempting to go one better on the action and excitement of previous installments. Hiroya Oku’s manga has been adapted a number of times, most of which follow the same story, or at least the first part of the manga series. This film takes the action to Osaka, an idea developed in a spin-off manga series. The decision not to spend to much time on explanations, which would be meaningless exposition for most fans, plays to the film’s advantage. Instead we are given a new set of characters and get straight to the battle. The animation is spectacular and allows for the sequences to get as crazy as both manga and anime versions, with incredible creations for the aliens, and the use of various technologies seen later in the series’ such as the bikes and upgraded weapons, even a gigantic mechanized suit. It is great to see Osaka recreated affectionately here, and places such as Dotonbori feel realistic. The film takes place almost entirely in this location and it is clear the animators put a lot of effort in to the sets, with plenty of background detail. The characters are as interesting, though understandably given little time to develop.

The Gantz franchise has always delighted in giving its audience, primarily young men, exactly what it wants, fully embracing the low-brow exploitation angle, while at the same time being excellent at telling a story full of intrigue. This film has all the usual elements, exciting fight sequences, monsters, beautiful female heroines, and a dark tone enlivened by its more peculiar comedic elements. The central concept of the story, of people battling impossible odds is there. There is certainly meaning behind the madness and it could be argued that this is the ultimate exploration of a trend towards extremes. It involves so much of Japanese culture and mythology you can feel it bulging at the seams with interpretations, though it rarely stoops to explaining itself. It’s heroes are archetypical and the struggle against villains as a timeless story that has been expertly updated by this series. This film is sure to please fans of the franchise. It adds little in terms of developing the series, but fits perfectly in the cycle and gives exactly what fans might hope for.

Versus (2000)

Two recently escaped convicts meet up with a group of gangsters who are taking them to safety. After a disagreement regarding a female hostage of the group, one of the men decides to make a run for it, through the woods to freedom. However, these are no ordinary woods. The “Forest of Resurrection”  has the power to bring the dead back to life. What follows is a fight for survival between the convict and his female companion and the men chasing them. In a later twist the man realises that there is a reason why he has been brought back to this particular forest as an ancient adversary returns.

Written by Ryuhei Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi the script is a ridiculous blend of Yakuza and Zombie film tropes. The majority of the runtime is dedicated to the action sequences that are the film’s major strength. Essentially a series of fights that are loosely contrived through various characters happening upon one another, there is enough variety to keep them fresh, especially with the zombie element thrown in. The film doesn’t shy away from violence and fans of gore will not be disappointed with the bucket loads of blood, and practical effects for gunshots and other injuries. Decapitation, dismemberment, punching a hole straight through a zombie: all of these are commonplace in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There are moments of intentional slapstick and black humour that lighten the tone. The main issue with the film is that it never quite manages to draw you in on an emotional level, for the most part being surface action and violence. Kitamura’s direction does keep things entertaining, with stylish 360-degree shots, lively editing and some fantastic framing that elevates the film above its basic story. The actors are all well cast and bring their eccentric characters to life, doing a great job with the fight choreography as well as the comedic beats.

“Versus” will appeal to fans of zombie films and the more bizarre yakuza movies, complete with jokes about missing hands, liberal use of violence, increasingly ridiculous guns employed to blast characters out of situations. The film’s own self-awareness of the silliness of its premise along with skilful and stylish direction make this worth a watch for fans of the genre. While there is very little to appeal on a dramatic or story level, the action scenes, with great choreography and practical effects, make for a fun distraction.

Battle Vixens (2003)

When a new female transfer student Sonsaku Hakufu arrives at Nanyo Academy and begins challenging everyone in the yard to fight, her cousin rushes in to help her before she causes serious damage. This is no ordinary school, and no ordinary world, as various individuals have an earring that contains the spirit of a legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. The ditzy, upbeat protagonist is the spirit of a legendary warrior who loved fighting for its own sake and was a champion of the period. As the story progresses the characters find themselves involved in numerous fights with other students, replaying historic battles and attempting to avoid their fates.

Based on the manga by Yuji Shiozaki, and directed by Takashi Watanabe, the series contains many tropes from similar sexploitation series, going to almost any length to include upskirt shots of the girls, jiggling breasts, or sexually charged sequences. Each of the characters is given a unique personality though they remain largely surface level clichés. The conceit of the reincarnated spirits makes for an interesting story as the characters attempt to escape from their predestined paths, or relish following them. Those with knowledge or interest in this period of history may get more out of the series than the casual viewer, as each episode ends with a brief historical note on who the characters are meant to represent and what happened to them. The fight scenes are good and the humour, though broad, is entertaining. The major weakness is in the story that never really grabs your attention in the way it should. With the characters established it too often feels like a sequence of battles without a meaningful purpose. We see the rise and fall of several of the characters, but despite engaging fights you never feel a sense of danger. This is partly down to the outlandish premise that significantly impacts the ability to relate with anyone.

The central theme of the film is the idea of fate and escaping from it. Being reincarnated the characters are essentially living out another life in the modern era. This also conjures up the notion of a cyclical history where humanity is doomed to repeat its former errors and violence is an ineradicable human trait. By the end the characters do manage to change their course, but this raises the question of why they couldn’t have done this earlier. Despite a weak story the series moves quickly and does feature some exciting sequences and humour. Its main flaw is that, much like the characters, it feels as though it is going through the motions with few surprises.

Azumi 2: Death or Love (2006)

Azumi 2 picks up following the events of the first film, with our assassin attempting to kill the final person on her hit-list: Sanada Masakuki. Azumi and her companion from the first film, Nagara, are joined by a group of ninjas. One of the ninjas, Kozue, turns out to be a spy who is intent on preventing Azumi carrying out her mission.

Azumi 2 begins with no exposition about events of the first film, assuming that the audience is aware of Azumi’s mission from that film. It also introduces a character who looks identical to the friend she killed in that movie. Although continuing the story, this film feels very different. The direction here is clearer, with less hazy, poorly lit night scenes, and more sensible camerawork. There are occasional  zoom-ins or comic-book style action scenes (such as speeding up footage), which still don’t work here as they didn’t in the first film, however overall the film has a much more consistent tone and style, with less of the ridiculous humour of the first in favour of more serious character development. The costumes and sets are good again and there are some really stand out action sequences.

This film deals more with Azumi coming to terms with the fact that she is a killer, and attempting to forgive herself for what she has done and is doing. The plot is a little thinner than the first, basically wrapping up the unfinished portion of that story, but this is definitely a worthy sequel, better in many ways than the original.

Dead or Alive: Final (2002)

Set in a future dystopia, “Dead or Alive: Final” is a speculative science-fiction involving replicants, totalitarian government and a nascent rebellion. Show Aikawa plays a replicant, imbued with powers of super-speed, able to catch bullets, and indestructible. He is taken in by a family who are fighting against the oppressive regime of a flamboyant dictator. The population are kept under control by being forced to take a pill that makes them infertile. It is suggested that procreation is no longer required in a world where replicants are prevalent. Riki Takeuchi plays a police officer who is attempting to root out and destroy the resistance fighters that threaten the dominance of the leader.

The third part of this trilogy is quite a departure from what has gone before. Being a future science-fiction it allows Takashi Miike to explore themes from a new perspective, by examining what a future Japan might look like. There is an international feel to the film, with Chinese and English spoken frequently alongside Japanese, in common with his previous work on the “Black Society Trilogy”. The idea of a population being kept in a state of oppression and forced to consume the birth control drug is a clear satire of Japan’s problems with population decline, subservience to government, and perhaps even the conservative values that typify modern society. A few of the elements may seem derivative, such as the idea of replicants, but there are definitely unique flourishes. The film is a little uneven in terms of the balance of comedy and drama. Usually, Miike is good at this, but here it is unclear what is parody and what is serious. This is partly due to the lack of money and resources to create an effective future world. The special effects are stretched to breaking point, especially towards the  end of the film. The ending is somewhat incomprehensible for another reason. It draws in scenes from the previous two “Dead or Alive” films that really have no place being here. While there are parallels between the films, sex, violence, crime, themes of childhood and fate, woven through each, and the main actors are the same, there is really little connecting them. It comes across as though the leads here are remembering past lives, but doesn’t provide the audience with enough to make any coherent point about the three films as a whole

There are some interesting ideas here, but a lot have been done before and better. The concept of replicants is raised though never fully addressed. This is exemplified in the scene where Riki Takeuchi discovers that his family are replicants. It should be a dramatic moment, but since the concept is only vaguely established in the world this revelation has little impact. The idea of a society struggling with a lack of reproduction, or the diminishment of the importance of sex and reproduction is likewise a fascinating avenue, but it seems the film always shies away from exploring anything in depth. Worth watching for a couple of standout scenes, and again capped with a bizarre, unforgettable ending, but doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier films.