Friday, October 16, 2009
FANTASTIC FEST '09 REVIEW: Yatterman
Running time: 119 min.
Reviewed by Eric Evans
If you're one of those fans who longs for Takashi Miike to go back to his raw "Ichi the Killer"/"Audition" style, I have some bad news for you. After a stumbling attempt at a kiddie audience with the uneven "Great Yokai War", he's cracked the code with "Yatterman".
"Yatterman" is about two nice young people (Sho Sakurai and Saki Fukada) who work at a toy shop and also ride around on a giant red robot dog fighting crime. But not all crimes, just those committed by the "evil" Doronjo (Kyoko Fukada, never better--though that's not saying much) and her pig- and rat-faced goons. Since they always lose these battles, Doronjo's gang has a different robot each time, which the movie makes good use of. Through a mostly nonsensical plot contrivance both groups are searching for the 4 pieces of the magical skull stone which may be behind the "time slips" that are causing items like bridges, blimps and Mt. Fuji to simply vanish. Or something. But that doesn't really matter at all once the film starts whizzing by--there are too many robots and explosions, too much laughter and puppy love, to care about the hows and whys.
I had the misfortune to not grow up in 1970s Japan, so my familiarity with the original Yatterman anime is limited to YouTubey bits here and there. But I recognized the care and attention paid to the costumes, mecha designs and overall tone that carry over from 'toon to Miike's live-action film. There's none of the updating or modernizing that goes on with most Hollywood remakes; "Yatterman" is for nostalgic fans first and foremost, including every hokey song and silly dance from the source. These little interludes are played completely straight by the actors, to the extent that supporting characters visibly recoil from them, disturbed by their huge smiles and ridiculous maneuvers. Several of the poses are play for laughs anyway, but not mockingly; I don't want to spoil any of the movie's many visual gags, but suffice it to say that Miike makes the most of the material. There's plenty of action but little violence, and the romance (such as it is) is mostly innocent glances and "happy marriage" dream sequences. It's a surprisingly knowing kids movie, crafted in such a way that it's winking at mom and dad while it keeps the little ones engaged.
That's not to say that Miike, one of the cinema's most gleeful perverts, doesn't indulge himself. A mecha battle in a cartoonized Egypt pits Doronjo's gang against the Yatterman crew. The bad guys are operating a feminized robot complete with Anjelina Jolie lips and machine guns in the shape of huge bare breasts, and it moans with pleasure as they fire. The fight culminates with the ladybot kissing and writhing against the Yatterman dog-mecha as it pants and humps her, with "her" shouting (in English, yet) "I'm coming, I'm coming!" as it rattles itself to bits. Both the good guys and bad guys watch in horror and confusion right along with the audience. Miike also plays Doronjo's sexiness to the hilt, making constant visual reference to her henchmen leering at and lusting after her, and giving her a bathtub scene that starts with the camera slowly scanning every visible inch of her flesh and ends with her standing in a bubble bikini. By the time we're done with Miike's lingering, loving shot of her custom-painted toes, it's clear that he understands his audience will be made up of otaku as well as families. "Yatterman" spent a month at the top of the Japanese box office, so clearly none of this put people off, but he certainly didn't play it safe!
You could call Takashi Miike's "Yatterman" the anti-"Dark Knight": it never for a minute takes itself too seriously, embracing every silly quirk and cliché of its source material while remaining approachable to neophytes. There are crazy costumes and giant robots and puke jokes and lots of sitcom-style public almost-nudity and a cameo by Sadao Abe as an Indiana Jones rip-off; It's the candy colored cartoon fantasy world brought to life that we were led to expect (and only sorta half-got) from the Wachowski's "Speed Racer". Satisfying as a fantasy film or comedy, it's great fun.
Note: I saw the film at Fantastic Fest, where it screened with a special low-tech video introduction by Miike himself. He apologized for not making the trip to Austin, and said that he understood if we wanted to get up and leave halfway through, because the middle of the film "might get too silly".