The best part about chasing after obscure movies is that every once in a while you find something you were not at all prepared to find, the kind of film which leaves you wondering why no one has grabbed the film and released it here in the US.
But maybe this is one of those films which is just too strange and too culty: after all, it’s a punk rock crime thriller giant robot comedy made by a gang of adrenalin crazed videogame junkies with the help of a legendary animation studio.
Masaru is a loser.
He’s failed at every job he’s tried. But now he’s got a new job and thinks he’s doing really well at it (he isn’t). He is a “handyman,” doing whatever odd jobs he can pick up from a local nightclub owner and Yakuza boss. His jobs range from stealing women’s underwear, getting girls to audition for porn films, acting as a courier for drug deals, or even something as mundane as finding a contact lens.
He’s worried about his best friend, Ko, however. Ko is taking on the most dangerous — if best paying — jobs and doesn’t seem to care what happens to him.
But then, everything changes.
A low level bureaucrat named Nirasawa contacts Masaru and begs him for his help.
After all, Masaru is the only one who can awaken the long lost secret Japanese military project, the giant robot known as the Land Zeppelin, which was designed to take on the evil aliens from Saturn when they try to take over our world.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about ROBO☆ROCK was that the two films this one reminded me of the most — Fish Story and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — were both made years later.
Now I’ll admit that two films in which a punk song about fish plays a major part in the story is an interesting coincidence, but it really needn’t be anything more, particularly as ROBO☆ROCK does not have a complex non-linear story.
However, it is harder to ignore the parallels to Scott Pilgrim. After all, the film is loaded with flashy and gimmicky visuals which could easily have come from a game — pop ups, title cards, diagrams and, at the very beginning of the film — an apparently solid 3-D ROBO☆ROCK logo, which Masaru then smashes to pieces.
In fact, like Scott Pilgrim, the film takes place in an amped-up version of reality, stuffed full of eccentric people and strange situations, with the same sort of frenetic pace and videogame-style quests (like earning enough money to move on to the next level). I’ll admit that I doubt if Edgar Wright ever heard of this film, let alone saw it (particularly as it hasn’t been seen much outside of Japan), but it is true he’s one of those directors with a love of cinema in all its strangest forms so you never know.
Perhaps my favorite moment in the film comes when an elderly bike repairman reveals that he is really Dr. Tatarajima, the creator of the Land Zeppelin, by donning a pair of glasses and pulling on his white lab coat with a flourish, a dramatic cabalistic gesture, and flashes of lightning.
I also love the Land Zeppelin: this is a plausible and impressive creation which is distinctive, massive and somewhat crude looking. It is appropriately battered and contains plenty of moving parts (but not too many as in a certain franchise featuring transforming robots) and a used feel. This is a robot which has been lost for almost fifty years, and you can be sure it is dirty, massive and clunky. Perhaps the best touch is the collection of vintage photographs of the beast, showing it casually tossing tanks around.
Studio Gonzo provided the robot effects, and they are surprisingly good for an independent production. I suppose some of you will complain that we don’t see enough of it, but then, ROBO☆ROCK isn’t in any hurry to let us know whether the Land Zeppelin is real or not.
But real or not, the robot action is definitely worth waiting for.
Just don’t get the idea that it is the only thing worth seeing in this film.
ROBO☆ROCK is fast paced, absurd (and remember that’s Japanese movie absurd!) and consistently funny. Whether it is illegal drugs disguised as a rare Janis Joplin LP, a strange surreal opening sequence set in “The Heaven,” a tattoo artist who can only do a single design (in a wide variety of sizes and colors), Nirasawa’s collection of favorite quotes, or his enthusiastic embrace of the new job he takes on to earn enough to pay off Masaru, the film is always wild, inventive and punk rock anarchic.
Just remember, though, if you want to be a rock singer, don’t eat fish.
After all, they can’t make a sound…
(for English Subtitles, see here)
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