The Lady Shogun and her Men (2010) by Fuminori Kaneko

In an alternate history of Japan’s feudal period, a disease known as the red-faced pox has killed three quarters of the male population. This matriarchal society is ruled over by a seven-year old female Shogun. Yunoshin Mizuno (Kazunari Ninomiya) leaves his poor family, and childhood friend Onobu (Maki Horikita), to become a member of the Shogun’s Inner Chamber, a harem of men who see to the ruler’s every need. As Mizuno becomes accustomed to this strange new world, guided by the higher ranked Matsushima (Hiroshi Tamaki) and Fujinami (Kuranosuke Sasaki), he also faces a rival in the shape of Tsuruoka (Tadayoshi Okura). When the child Shogun dies and is replaced by the older Yoshimune Ko Shibasaki), Mizuno also sees a chance to become her bedfellow, unaware of the danger that this entails.

With a screenplay by Natsuko Takahashi, based on Fumi Yoshinaga’s manga, and directed by Fuminori Kaneko,”The Lady Shogun and her Men” is a fun, ahistorical, drama that turns on its head the patriarchal structures of the period. Unfortunately, the film seems little interested in the satirical potential of this set-up, or examining the socio-political repercussions of the red-faced pox that has killed off a large percentage of men. Ironically for a film whose set-up suggests a role-reversal, with women being Shoguns, advisors, and filling all the major professions, the story remains remarkably andro-centric. Perhaps this is the point, with the casting of Ninomiya perhaps targetting a young female audience who might be interested in the mild homoerotic overtones of these male concubines. However, it seems that the premise really doesn’t change anything about the world. Where we might have expeceted a female led Shogunate to be very different, it appears identical with only the sexes switched. One of the major failings is the lack of a story, or at least one with any sense of development or achievement for the characters. The rivalry between Mizuno and Tsuruoka appears around the half way point and is resolved almost immediately. There are several story ideas here, none of which are fully developed: the death of the child Shogun and her replacement; the sudden reveal of the fate of the Shogun’s first sexual partner; all of these things are introduced with little foreshadowing. The pop-orchestral score makes an admirable attempt to prop up the lacklustre drama, but often seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting for scenes in which the script has not really established any sense of threat. On the plus side, there are some good action sequences, and the sets, costumes, and large cast, do a good job with the period setting.

The premise has a lot of potential, with the idea of what a matriarchal society might have looked like, and the change in roles of men and women in this period. However, some of the story choices, and the mix of comedy, drama, and romance, make this female-dominated society merely window-dressing with little effect on what happens to the protagonists. The decision to focus the story on the male characters, seems strange, confining us to the Inner Chambers and thereby almost completley removing the women from the narrative. Perhaps this is the point, that Mizuno’s story is exactly the same as if he had been female and the Shogun male, but again it makes little sense to not contrast it with the real history. An interesting concept that is sadly wasted in this film.

Gantz: Perfect Answer (2011) by Shinsuke Sato

Following on from the first Gantz film, we pick up the story of Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) as he continues fighting aliens, trying to collect enough points to resurrect his friend Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama. This film adds more mystery to the central plot, with a girl carrying a small Gantz-like orb that tells her to kill various people (referring to them as keys), a group of black-suited men attempting to track down Gantz, and a detective also attempting to unravel the secrets of the various incidents occurring around the city.

If you enjoyed the first Gantz movie, this one offers more of the same. The new additions to the story are good for the most part, further pulling the rug from under your feet if you thought you had a handle on what was happening in the first movie. There are some fantastic action sequences here too, with long fight scenes on a train and in the city streets taking up a large chunk of the run-time. I felt that these suffered from being a little over-long, and not having the same sense of fun or originality as the first film (an onion alien is a much funnier and unique concept than men in black suits). We see a little more of Kurono and his girlfriend Tae Kojima here, and also learn more about Kato. I didn’t feel entirely satisfied with the ending to this film. It brings things to a conclusion, but in a way that still leaves many things unanswered.

This film plays more on the interpersonal relationships of the protagonists, there are some great moments of sacrifice, team-work, and the ending is a nice way to round off the series with the idea that even ordinary people can achieve extra-ordinary things if they try. A fun “part two” to the first film, and I would definitely recommend it as an action packed science fiction film with a great sense of style.

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.