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Friday, March 6, 2009
Playing it for laughs, and laughs only
Hollywood superhero movies are often not only thrill rides with flights and fights designed to elicit a collective "wow" but comments on the rotten state of society, metaphors for the fallen nature of humankind, and so on. Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker as a psychotic in "The Dark Knight" won him the sort of posthumous accolades, including an Oscar for best supporting actor, usually reserved for actors in serious dramas, not crowd-pleasing entertainments.
Takashi Miike's "Yattaman" (titled "Yatterman" for overseas distribution, for some reason) goes in precisely the opposite direction: the film is a wild, goofy, unapologetically entertaining romp with no darkly ironic messages delivered or tortured souls on display.
The anime on which "Yattaman" is based, broadcast in Japan for two years from 1977 for a total of 108 episodes, was a big hit with children, both here and abroad. The film targets the under-12 demographic as well, but Miike has larded it with pop-culture references from the '70s and earlier — from store signs to soundtrack tunes — that will raise smiles from over-30s but probably fly right over the heads of their offspring.
Also, once notorious for his on-screen outrages (see the shockers "Audition"  and 2001's "Koroshiya Ichi" ["Ichi the Killer"] for stomach-turning examples), Miike still enjoys giving guardians of public morals (or the more protective sort of parent) conniption fits, packing the film with gags that range from from the crudely gross to the racy and the outright raunchy.
Most revolve around the voluptuous form of Kyoko Fukada as Doronjo, the film's archvillainess and leader of the Dorobo gang. Encased in a revealing leather outfit reminiscent of Halle Berry's Catwoman get-up (though Fukada's headgear has bigger ears), she exudes sweetness and sex in equal, Marilyn-Monroe-ish proportions. Her va-va-voom presence helps make "Yattaman" a brilliantly naughty return to form for Miike, the former king of cult, after several disappointing outings.
The closest Hollywood comparison is Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005), another questionable kiddie film with adult-oriented subtexts cleverly woven into its fabric, though "Yattaman" is not as mannered or coy — and is far sexier.
Its heroes are Gan Takada, aka Yattaman 1 (Sho Sakurai), the mechanically-inclined teenage son of a deceased toymaker, and his spunky girlfriend, Ai Kaminari, aka Yattaman 2 (Saki Fukuda). As the film begins, they are in the middle of Shibuya in their Yattaman superhero guises, battling Doronjo (Fukada) and her two costumed minions, the rattish Boyacky (Katsuhisa Namase) and the porky Tonzra (Kendo Kobayashi). Their main mechanical ally is Yatta-wan, a giant dog-robot that Dad designed but Gan completed.
The battle is inconclusive, despite atomizing blows and explosions (all the characters have the regenerative capabilities of Wile E. Coyote). The struggle, however, continues, centering on the mystic Skull Stone (called the Dokuro Stone in Japanese), which has been split into four pieces and scattered to the far corners of the Earth. Once reassembled, it will give its owner unlimited power, including the power to obliterate the planet.
Then Shoko Kaieda (Anri Okamoto), the daughter of famous explorer Dr. Kaieda (Sadao Abe), asks Gan and Ai to help her find her Indiana-Jones-like father, who was on the track of the Skull Stone when he vanished in the deserts of Ogypt (sic). The trio sets off across the ocean on Yatta-wan, which serves as their superpowered ship, but has no cabins, forcing them to hang onto its sides for dear life as it zips across the waves.
The three members of the Doronbo gang also leave for Ogypt at the command of their supreme leader, Skullobey (Junpei Takiguchi), who appears to them as a skull-headed robot. Soon an absurd battle will be joined for the possession of the Skull Stone and the fate of the world.
The film includes many of the robots and gadgets familiar from the original series, including Omochama, Gan and Ai's cute robot companion, and the Mecha no Moto — a dog-bone-shaped energy charger that revives Yatta-wan when he is ready for the scrap heap.
The CG effects that bring them to life are on the crude and corny side, as if designed by a 12-year-old kid with an overactive imagination. This is a deliberate — and clever — comic strategy, not a failure of technique.
"Yattaman" also departs from the original series when Gan and Doronjo exchange hot glances, accidently brush lips and fall in love. This, I believe, is a new development for the superhero genre that is not only awkwardly funny, but also romantic in a sweetly (if ironically) nostalgic vein. Doronjo dreams of herself as a happy, pregnant housewife in a 1970s home drama, buying tofu from a folksy old street vendor and greeting Gan, now a blue-suited salaryman, as he walks home from work in the sunset.
This is not a scene you'll see in a Hollywood superhero pic, so busy with its plot points and so afraid of looking uncool, but Miike, who enjoys "Yattaman" for the retro laugh that it is, is less restrained. And did I mention that Ms. Fukada, in either a housedress or leathers, is a knockout?