Saturday, March 24, 2012

[HKIFF 2012 Review] Robo-G (ロボジー / Robo Ji) (International Premiere)

Part Man, Part Machine, All Heart

When it comes to robotics, Japan remains at the forefront of technology in creating bots to do just about anything from the useful to the quirky, and if waves of interest in making robot-related films in Asia such as India's twin offerings in Endhiran and RA.One would signal a lot more countries making their own robot themed films, I'm glad it was Shinobu Yaguchi in Japan who wrote and directed Robo-G, fusing his knack of comedies with heart, and once again having a hand at showcasing yet another zero-to-hero story, albeit a little bit more subtle this time, but dig deeper, and it's there and worked wonders in this remarkable film.

Kimura Elctrical Company is a consumer electronics firm that developed an interest in autonomous robotics, and gave its three man research department - Oata (Chan Kawai), Kobayashi (Gaku Hamada) and Nagai (Junya Kawashima) - some 3 months to create something miraculous. It's about 1 week to go live and demonstrate their newest robot product at the robotics expo, but within the first five minutes of the story, all their hard work went up in smoke and out the window, literally. To salvage the company and their careers, the trio hatch a desperate plot, and that's to get a human person dress up as their New Shiokaze creation, so that they can get through what was thought to be a one-time demo, to buy time while they create another prototype. Think of it like Iron Man, but without the bells and whistles weaponry.

In a departure from the usual Shinobu Yaguchi film, the central protagonist is not a young adult, but a senior citizen. Suzuki (Mickey Curtis) is a retiree and finds it extremely boring to be doing precisely nothing, in a routine he would like to break out of. Coupled with the desire to be the centre of attraction amongst his peers and family, he responds to a classifieds looking for anyone willing to get into a mascot suit, with a handsome paycheck for effort provided they turn up for auditions and fit precisely into the physical measurements provided. A hilarious Yaguchi-ish comedic sequence ensues, and it's not before long our elderly gentleman, hard of hearing, would be selected through a comedy of errors.

The story moves at breakneck speed with Suzuki breathing life into New Shiokaze, and to the horror of its creators, decided to take things into his own hand to give New Shiokaze unbelievable qualities very much like a human, which the expo crowd and media herald as Kimura Electrical's breakthrough in the field of robotics. Fame and popularity soon follow, much to the headache of Oata, Kobayashi and Nagai, when their robot/Suzuki saves Sasaki Yoko (Yuriko Yoshitaka) at the expo from a falling beam, propelling the robot into overnight stardom with multiple requests for more appearances country wide, that Kimura Electric's CEO (Takehiko Ono) is adamant that they follow through. So Suzuki gets on the payroll on the sly, known only to its 3 creators, as the deceit becomes bigger, with more cover up and the spinning of bigger and more lies to cover up the previous, especially when Suzuki begins to make demands, and finds a new career of sorts.

An expanded role goes to Yuriko Yoshitaka's Sasaki, as the girl who coincidentally is a robotic freak, being one of the brightest prospects in her school, and given her new found fame, made it sure that New Shiokaze makes it to her school for a presentation. Here's where Shinobu Yaguchi's theme of youth shines, especially when it's that inevitable pointed message that the young almost always have that spark of creativity and innovation that stuffy corporations should choose to listen to, rather than to shut them out entirely, with the three engineers finding enlightenment amongst the discussion to shore up their own shortcomings and to help accelerate a replacement, with Suzuki behaving more and more erratic, though lending good humour for any audience with his zany antics when in costume.

And Shinobu Yaguchi found a perfect balance in keeping the focus on both the young with the 3 engineers being cast in the classical, perfect mold of zero to hero, and that about the elderly and retirement, where there are always some who are not yet ready to lead an inactive life, feeling bored being cooped up all the time doing nothing and with no aim, and are constantly seeking anything to prove their usefulness and obtain at least some form of attention. This constant tussle between the two groups, with comedy thrown in, made Robo-G a lot more than just another robot film and provides for plenty of humanity, and even philosophical leanings about man and machine if you so decide to dig deeper.

With a premise built on deceit, it opens up tense moments where a nosey parker reporter (Tomoko Tabata) is always on the brink of exposing the entire plot, and bring down everyone involved in the game with some serious repercussions. The last act centered around a press conference brings everything together one full circle, and again the writer-director shows his knack for creating feel good films that are never saccharine sweet, but just treated just right to provide that satisfying feel of an entertaining film that's planned to perfection. It's like a jigsaw, with everything tightly fitting, and falling into place without a hitch, although during the post screening Q&A he had categorically stated that there will be no follow up film to this.

Stay tuned during the end credits roll, because the theme song Mr Roboto whose music and lyrics are by Dennis De Young, is extremely catchy and will grow into a earworm. In fact I like this film so much I just had to re-watch it again at the HKIFF media centre, because I'm not sure when the next opportunity will be, at least for months before the DVD will be out. So wherever you are, if Robo-G comes visiting, be sure you make a beeline and head out to get tickets for this Shinobu Yaguchi crowd pleaser, and be prepared to laugh and be touched by the excellent filmmaking and storytelling. Definitely highly recommended, and one of my favourites of the year thus far! Domo Arigato, Mr Roboto!

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