The new movie from maverick director Takashi Miike is a candy-colored confection with wickedly funny twists, non-stop action and tongue planted firmly in cheek. Did I mention the tit-shaped cannons?
I'd been relatively unexposed to the original Yatterman, a late-'70s anime about two teenagers who use technology and ingenuity to fight bumbling evil-doers, with help from their giant robotic dog, Yatterwoof, and other robot friends. The series, from the same production company that made Speed Racer, is so popular in Japan that its 108 episodes have re-run for more than thirty years, and a new incarnation was drawn in 2008 for a new generation.
But I was underwhelmed at first by the opening sequence screened at Yatterman's Comic Con panel: it seemed like a lot of noise and neon and whizzes and bangs and real-life people contorting themselves into the overdramatic poses that animation can get away with, but live-action too often renders ridiculous in translation.
Director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer), looking badass in red leather and his ubiquitous sunglasses, was witty, direct and full of worldly wisdom as he discussed Yatterman as a realized dream project. But I couldn't help anticipating — after those few frenetic minutes — that the movie might play out like a cross between Power Rangers and robo-Pokemon, and that I would be sitting through hours of it that evening.
I've never been so happy to have my first impressions proven so very, very wrong. The full screening of Yatterman — a world exclusive, debuting to a small select theater in New York City a month before it will be seen in Japan – was abuzz with energy and excitement from a rabid crowd, and the film itself funny, fresh and exhilarating. Kids will love its vibrant colors and costumes, its slapstick gags and endless robotic wizardry (courtesy of Machine and Character Designer Katsuya Terrada). Anime fans will love its faithfulness to the original, stylized action scenes and occasional musical interludes. Many of its themes and wordplay are extremely adult, often in subtle, sneaky ways, and its characters are wonderfully nuanced.
Yatterman follows the adventures of Gan (J-pop sensation Sho Sakurai), a young mechanical genius who uses his father's high-tech toy shop as a front for building crime-fighting robots, and his electronics-whiz girlfriend, Ai (Saki Fukuda). Together, they can transform into Yatterman, joint superheroes who command the enormous mecha-dog Yatterwoof in their battles against evil.
Gan and Ai are "Yatterman #1 and #2," respectively, and always work as a pair; aside from dodging laser beams, performing high-kicking cartoon leaps and wielding awesome tech weapons, they are very human, and have no real special powers. There's a few supernatural elements at work in the movie, but it's worth noting how much of Yatterman's action is based in futuristic and fantastic technologies — and despite the original series' '70s origins and Miike's painstaking, often gorgeously detailed adherence to the look of his source material, it never feels dated.
Our heroes' primary foils are the Doronbow Gang, lead by the impossibly sexy and multi-layered villainess Doronjo (Kyoko Fukada, in a lot of black leather). Doronjo has two henchmen who provide constant comic relief, the lascivious, mecha-building Boyacky (Katsuhisa Namase), and muscle-bound meathead Tonzura (Kendo Kobayashi). They receive marching orders from the mysterious "God of Thieves," (Junpei Takiguchi) a really bad guy with a powerful penchant for skull imagery.
Everyone involved is looking for the scattered pieces of the legendary Skull Stone, which is said to cause miracles and grant wishes when united. Gan and Ai are helping a young woman, Shoko, whose archaeologist father vanished in his quest for the stone, while the villains are after the relic for more nefarious purposes. But the questing plot hardly matters – it's the characters, and their varied motivations, that really drive the story.
At the Comic Con panel, Takashi Miike discussed his decades-long love affair with Yatterman. When originally produced, some of the series' more risqué elements produced a backlash from parents and teachers, and a call for children not to watch; this, he said, of course inspired many more to watch it than would have otherwise. For Miike, Yatterman has become synonymous with the rebellious spirit of youth. The storyline provides the message that superpowers aren't necessary and personal heroism is enough to fight with; be yourself, encourage your creative abilities, and get back up and try again when knocked down. Anyone taking small children to the film, however, should be forewarned that we have moved very far from Pokemon.
There are quite a few scenes in Yatterman that invoke intense sexual imagery, most often to comedic effect, but sometimes to the bizarre and even grotesque – flourishes Miike has excelled at in the past. While the actors' interaction is almost chaste, metaphors are often made quite literal and given flesh. At one point, the villains are piloting from the bowls of a giant robot dubbed "Bridesmaidiot," a towering figure with breasts that launch missiles and nipples that protrude to fire off rounds. Don't even get me started on Yatterwoof's reaction to the mammaried mecha.
The movie at times would seriously flirt with the edge of a PG-13 rating if given a U.S. release, and there are other plot twists that can be quite disturbing and violent. It is both incredibly raunchy and guilelessly sexless, which is quite a feat to behold. Yatterman deserves high accolades for flaunting its self-aware campy feel to the utmost: winking and joking constantly with its audience, while at the same time packing a surprisingly emotional punch. Themes of love, jealousy, loss and partnership are explored, and the normal hero-villain dichotomy is complicated by attraction.
Director Miike and star Sho Sakurai (who has the most devoted fans I have ever encountered, who came holding homemade signs and lots of joyful shrieks) stayed after the screening for discussion and Q & A. When asked if he had any advice for aspiring filmmakers, Miike related his own start doing small, independent movies as labors of love; the choice had to be made early on, he said – did he want to be successful, or enjoy being in film? He decided to enjoy filmmaking, and his unique visions still found an audience and made him a success. Even now with huge budgets and attendant producers, he was able to cherry-pick and fully realize his dream project. None of Takashi Miike's creativity and out-of-the-box thinking is compromised in the excellent, wild world of Yatterman — a life lesson we were lucky enough to watch and enjoy, along with a fighting phallus or two and some killer tits.