Movie premieres happen every week in Hollywood, but it's rare that a big budget film from Japan gets shown in the U.S. before its Japanese theatrical release, and even rarer still that the stars of the film appear in person at these events. But somehow, thanks to New People / VIZ Pictures and Fathom Entertainment, manga movie GANTZ was screened at over 300 theaters across the U.S. including Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, with stars Kenichi Matsuyama and Kazunari Ninomiya in attendance.
GANTZ is the first of two films created based on the first nine volumes of Hiroya Oku's best-selling sci-fi action manga series. Now up to 29 volumes in Japan that have sold 15 million volumes worldwide, GANTZ is currently featured in the pages of Young Jump in Japan, and published in North America by Dark Horse.
TRANSFORMING GANTZ FROM MANGA TO MOVIE
If you haven't picked up the manga yet, GANTZ is a sci-fi action story about two high school students who get killed when they get hit by a subway train. But instead of dying, they end up in a barren room with a group of strangers and a huge black orb that gives them weapons, high-tech battle suits, and a mission: they must kill aliens within a set time period. If they succeed, they get "points." If they lose, they die, and this time, for good. Is it a dream, a sick reality show game, or something much more twisted than anyone can imagine?
The feature film adaptation of GANTZ was directed by Shinsuke Sato, whose prior directorial credits include the live-action film adaptation of Hinako Ashihara's Sand Chronicles and another sci-fi action flick, Princess Blade.
At the top of the GANTZ marquee are two of Japan's most high profile talents: Kenichi Matsuyama (manga movie fans will recognize him as L from the three Death Note films and Krauser II from Detroit Metal City) and Kazunari Ninomiya (a.k.a. "Nino," from the mega-popular boy band Arashi. He also played a supporting role in Letters from Iwo Jima). So besides being a big deal with manga fans, this movie is definitely buzz-worthy in Japanese pop culture circles too.
'NINO' FANS COME OUT IN FORCE FOR PREMIERE
So with all that in mind, I hopped on a plane to Southern California to check out the scene. By the time I got to Mann's Chinese Theater at 4:00 pm, the plaza in front of the theater (where all the cement handprints/footprints of Hollywood celebs are) had a good-sized crowd of (mostly female) fans waiting to get a glimpse of the stars' arrival. Upstairs in the Mann's Chinese 6 complex, there was a long line of fans waiting to be let into the movie showing. Many came with homemade signs and fans with Ninomiya's face on them. Several had been waiting in line since 9 am that morning.
Their patience was rewarded when Matsuyama and Ninomiya rolled up to the theater in a white stretch SUV. Fans screamed and cell phones were whipped out to try to catch a shot of the two stars. A few burly bodyguards kept fans from getting too close to the stars, so things never got too out of hand, but it was something short of pandemonium as a huge wave of fans followed the pair as they went up the escalators to the third floor Cineplex. One bodyguard held up a sign saying "No photos allowed," but that didn't seem to stop the mob armed with cell phones, Flip cameras and digital cameras from madly clicking away to capture the moment.
The "no photos" sign was the rule of the day, thanks to an edict passed down from Ninomiya's management company, Johnny and Associates. I, and every other person with a press pass, was required to sign a legal form stating that we would not post any photos of Ninomiya online. So if you're wondering why I don't have any shots of Ninomiya from that day... well, now you know.
After Ninomiya and Matsuyama were whisked into the theater, I spoke with a few of the folks waiting in line. Several explained how they've been fans of Arashi and Ninomiya in particular for ten years or more. "I go to Japan every year to see Arashi in concert," said Akina. Some fans like Mariela and Maritza were practically in tears after seeing Ninomiya pass by on his way to the theater. "We're not used to seeing Japanese stars in person like this - it's unbelievable!" they gushed.
SHOWTIME AT MANN'S CHINESE THEATER
Once inside the theater, fans settled into their seats quickly. The 400-seat theater was completely sold out, thanks to an online lottery that offered fans a chance to buy tickets for this special showing. Fans squealed every time the word "Arashi" popped up on screen and cheered every time a film clip showed Matsuyama in Death Note or other VIZ Pictures films such as Honey and Clover (starring Sho Sakurai, another member of Arashi).
Then Patrick Macias, Editor-in-Chief of Otaku USA magazine took the stage and introduced Matsuyama and Ninomiya to the crowd for some quick hellos, and then GANTZ rolled.
Now, I'll say that I had high hopes for this movie. I'm a fan of the manga and its particular brand of over-the-top violence, dark humor, sarcastic pop culture references and surreal twists. Like the manga, the GANTZ movie dove right into the action with the train scene. Kei Kurono and Kato are killed and get transported to the room where they meet a group of strangers who have also been plucked from their imminent deaths, and first encounter the black orb they only know as "GANTZ."
I'll post my review of the film soon, but for now I'll just say that this first GANTZ movie had moments where you could see hints of the wicked humor and jaw-dropping violence that makes the manga such a blast to read. I wanted to like this film very badly, but there were too many things that made it difficult to leave the theater raving about what I had just seen.
For starters, this screening of GANTZ had an atrocious English dub that had even Ninomiya and Matsuyama's most devoted fans in the audience laughing at some of the supposedly "serious" scenes. Add to that some muddy cinematography and a disjointed screenplay that eliminated much of the dark, sarcastic streak in Oku's original story... well, it just went downhill from there.
Don't get me wrong -- it wasn't a horrible film. It had moments of exciting action and some terrific special effects. It's basically a decent action flick. It was just disappointing because based on the source material, GANTZ had the potential to be an insane, mind-blowing movie. I'm hoping that the second part, GANTZ: Perfect Answer will redeem some of the first film's flaws, since I think that the two movies are meant to be seen together. But we'll just have to wait and see when it gets released sometime in 2011.
POST-SHOW Q & A WITH NINOMIYA AND MATSUYAMA
To their credit, Ninomiya and Matsuyama were very entertaining and likeable in their post-show Q&A session. Their friendly banter and self-deprecating jokes made me wish that more of their easy-going chemistry was on display in the actual film.
They even seemed to realize that their movie wasn't exactly going to set the world on fire. When asked how they'd feel if they were nominated for an Academy Award for their performances in GANTZ, both Ninomiya and Matsuyama burst out in laughter. "If I were nominated, I would be incredibly lucky," chuckled Ninomiya. "After seeing your reactions, I'm sure we'll get an award," added Matsuyama with a laugh.
Another fan asked, "If you had to perform a mission from GANTZ, how many points would you receive and would you survive?" Ninomiya demonstrated his technique for surviving a battle with an alien: he'd hide behind Matsuyama his translator! He then said, "I've been in a lot of different movies. If you think about it, I've died a lot (in my movies)! So I don't think I'd survive a GANTZ mission," he laughed.
A fan in the audience asked, "Have you thought of being in more Hollywood movies?"
Ninomiya: "I would love to. If possible, It would be great to do a role where I don't die!" (laughs) "It's been so much fun being out here with you guys. We never get this kind of opportunity in Japan to hang out with fans. So if (being in a Hollywood film) would mean more opportunities to do things like this, then yes, definitely!"
Matsuyama: "Yes, if I was given the opportunity (to be in a Hollywood film). And it would be okay if I was killed in the film!" (laughs)
Another fan in the audience asked how they felt about hearing the dubbed English track while watching their performances.
Ninomiya: "Ah. It was a very strange feeling. It wasn't my voice, but the quality was pretty high, so I felt it matched mine and I could still get into the story. Still, I would love to see a screening with our voices!"
To close things off, both Ninomiya and Matsuyama were asked about their thoughts on this first encounter with their fans in Hollywood.
Q: Did you know you had this many fans in America?
Ninomiya: "I had no idea! From the moment we arrived at the airport from Osaka, there were so many people there to meet us. That made me extremely happy."
Matsuyama: "I was very happy to see a full house here tonight. If we could get another welcome like this, we would love to come back again."
Overall, the evening was a fun affair that went pretty smoothly. Everyone, including the stars, seemed to have a great time. The fans I spoke with after the showing mentioned that they enjoyed the movie and were thrilled to have this opportunity to see their idols up close.
HOW DID IT PLAY IN PEORIA, AND THE OTHER 300+ THEATERS SHOWING GANTZ?
I had heard via Twitter that several fans reported problems with the picture and sound quality at the theaters where they saw GANTZ screened in their hometowns, but mostly I noticed complaints about the English dub. I hope New People / VIZ Pictures will take this into consideration if they premiere the second GANTZ film with the same kind of theatrical release event.
If you want to find out more about the GANTZ movies, visit http://www.gantzmovies.com to see the trailer and read more about the story, or visit Dark Horse to read an interview with GANTZ director Shinsuke Sato, and to check out online previews of pages from the 15 volumes of GANTZ that are already out in the stores.
Did you check out the GANTZ premiere event in your town? What did you think? Add your comments below!
Image credits: © Hiroya Oku / Shueisha © "GANTZ" Film Partners, © Deb Aoki