Warning from Space (1956) by Koji Shima

A group of scientists work to avert a world-ending catastrophe in this atomic age science-fiction drama. When an observatory sees a peculiar light out in space, followed by electrical outages and sightings of strange star-shaped cyclopean beings, scientists Kamura (Bontaro Miake), Isobe (Keizo Kawasaki), and Matsuda (Isao Yamagata), begin investigating. These aliens, known as Pairans, have come to warn the earth of impending disaster in the shape of a large asteroid on collision course. Realising their appearance is discomfitting to the humans, they take on human forms, including that of a popular singer Hikari Aozora (Toyomi Karita).

Directed by Koji Shima, with a screenplay by Hideo Oguni, from the novel by Gentaro Nakajima, “Warning from Space” is an entertaining film, with a simple plot that nevertheless provides its share of great moments. The appearance of the aliens is slightly ridiculous (though of course there’s no way of knowing what alien visitors would look like). The ability to transmutate into humans means that there is relatively little screen time in their natural state. Most of the narrative revolves around the scientists and their attempts to first understand what is happening and second to come up with a solution. The film builds it’s sense of impending doom, coming to a thrilling conclusion with panicked citizens fleeing disaster. There is also a lot of comedy, perhaps recognizant of the film’s slightly far-fetched story, mostly revolving around the alien disguised as Hikari Aozora and her incredible, inhuman, feats of dexterity, speed and strength.

While the premise is fantastical, the story of “Warning from Space” is deeply human and speaks to widespread societal fears. The film evokes the fear of nuclear catastrophe and the memory of the recent atomic bombings. Characters using geiger counters to detect the aliens, and the initial plan to use the remaining stock of nuclear warheads on earth to destroy the oncoming catastrophe. The detonation of the first atomic bombs began a new age, putting humanity beyond a point of no return, with the capability of eradicating all life on earth now clearly demonstrated. It is this fear that the film speaks to, with the scientists stating their concerns about nuclear warheads, and the development of an even more terrifying weapon by Matsuda. The film balances these fears with a hope that such technology can be used for good, with discussions of nuclear power being a potential boon for humanity. The film’s science-positive message is also evident in the internationalism that it promotes. While the 20th century produced it’s share of horrors it also led to greater globalisation and an understanding amongst many nations that co-operation was preferable to conflict. We see this in the scientists contact with fellow observatories, hinting at the unifying power of science in the wake of a devastating global catastrophe. An enjoyable early science-fiction film that plays on many familiar themes, with a positive pro-peace message of internationalism and scientific co-operation.

Gantz (2004)

Based on the hit Hiroya Oku manga, the “Gantz” anime follows the story of Kei Kurono (Daisuke Namikawa), Kato Masaharu (Masashi Osato) and Kei Kishimoto (Hitomi Nabatame) as they battle aliens and attempt to survive a deadly world. Kei and Kato are struck by a subway train and killed, after Kato jumped on the tracks to save a homeless man who had fallen. They are then transported to a mysterious apartment room where they find a large black sphere which hands them guns, high-powered suits and a mission to kill aliens that are living on earth. The missions see them again transported to the Tokyo city streets, where they are invisible to regular people, and they are thrust into do or die combat against vicious opponents.

For those familiar with the manga, the anime follows the plot closely early on, diverging from the source material later. The episodes vary between high-octane sci-fi action as the team fight against these weird monsters, that take various forms, and more reflective moments as we see them in their everyday lives (between missions the team is allowed to return to the world of the living). The show does a good job of balancing these two tones, with great characters that have just enough to their personalities to keep you invested in their survival. The animation uses a mix of CG and traditional hand drawn techniques to create an interesting look to the show, allowing for shots to zoom in or swoop around the digital environments. This also enables the animators to produce incredible action sequences. The anime, much like the manga, pushes the boundaries in terms of sexual and violent content, with many scenes cut in the original television broadcast. The extreme nature of the deaths along with a adolescent fascination with female anatomy is something that will appeal to certain viewers, but it is not without thematic importance. The show heightens awareness of the human condition by distancing itself from the sanitized version of reality often served to people. The gore and nudity are justified in what they are trying to say about the key drivers of human interaction.

At the heart of the “Gantz” story are several mysteries that are never fully resolved, but allow the writers to explore various facets of the human experience. Gantz offers the people who are drawn to the room a second chance at life, although the motivations of the sphere and the figure inside are never revealed. We see people put in a high-pressure environment where they are forced to reveal their true nature. Kato’s philosophy of non-violent altruism is put to the test by the violent struggles he is forced into. Kei’s petulance and lack of authority are also exposed as he takes on the missions. Kishimoto is almost a laughable airhead in the early episodes, but as the series progresses she is shown to have great depth. With all its ambiguity, political and social satire, and themes of suicide, societal violence, death, and religion, “Gantz” is amenable to any number of interpretations. In the end, questions of what Gantz is, what it wants, or why any of this is happening, are largely unimportant. What is more fascinating is the examination of society. “Gantz” poses difficult moral questions about violence and killing and the value of human life.

Gantz (2010) by Shinsuke Sato

On his way to a job interview university student Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) sees an old school friend, Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama), attempting to rescue a man who has fallen onto the subway tracks. After attempting to pull his friend back up onto the platform the two of them are hit by a train and killed, but instead of everything going dark, they wake up in a bright apartment room with a view of Tokyo Tower. There are several other people in the room, as well as a mysterious black orb. The orb, known as Gantz, tells them that they are dead, and their lives are now his to command. He orders them on various missions to kill aliens, handing out weapons and suits that give them super-human strength and speed. Kurono and Kato, alongside a girl named Kishimoto (Natsuna), and the others who have found themselves in the room are sent to various locations to destroy the aliens, and awarded points for their performances. Prizes are awarded for certain amounts of points, the most sought after being the chance to return to life.

Based on the popular manga by Hiroya Oku, “Gantz” is a great example of a beautifully simple mystery. Everything that is happening is made explicit, but without ever really explaining why it is happening. The central conceit, that the protagonists are dead already, leads to a surprising amount of tension, as you root for them to be returned to their lives, or discover what is going on with Gantz and the room. Excellent costume design and special effects make this an enjoyable watch and the action scenes are highly entertaining spectacles. The main criticisms I would have of the film is that it leaves a lot for the audience to piece together on very little information. Either you will learn to accept that what is going on is intended to be a fun, enjoyable action film, with an inexplicable plot; or it will seem as though the writer didn’t know how to tie up this fantastic mystery he had set up. There are huge amounts of gore and violence in the film, with bodies exploding, and deaths aplenty. The film is the first of two-parts, so you could see this more as a set-up explaining the basics of the world, and get you hooked into the bizarre world of Gantz.

There are some interesting ideas at play here. The first time you see the players transported to the Gantz room, it is intriguing enough to carry almost the entire film, as you keep watching to find out how they explain such an odd occurrence. The notion that there are hidden aliens, and the constant niggling suspicions around who or what the aliens are, whether the players are really alive or dead, are engaging. One of the most interesting ideas presented, though not particularly dwelt upon, is the notion that perhaps the aliens are not the bad guys after all, and the players are being tricked into killing innocent beings. Overall an enjoyable watch, though it spends more time on the action scenes and less on the philosophy or morality of what’s happening.