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by Jay Seaver

"In this case, Robot IS Frank!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There are certain comedies where the viewer might realize that what's going on really make no sense even as the absurdity unfolds on screen, but will consciously forgive it because this particular joke is worth that particular bit of bad writing. "Robo-G" is one of those movies; its approach is good-natured without being saccharine, and it works much more often than not.

Japan loves robots, and Kimura Electronics, a small appliance company, is looking to get into the market. They're much further along than you might expect from a three-person project, but they suddenly find themselves without a robot. Elsewhere, Shigemitsu Suzuki (Shinjiro Isarashi) is not taking retirement well; acting in plays at the senior center just isn't cutting it. He answers an ad posted by the desperate robot designers (Gaku Hamada, Chan Kawai & Junya Kawashima) looking for an actor, and not only does his old-man shuffle match a robot's gait, but his scrawny old-man limbs mean he fits inside the shell of the smashed robot! It's originally meant to be a one-off thing, but when Suzuki saves Yoko Sasaki (Yuriko Yashitaka) from a falling support while in costume, "Robo-G" becomes famous.

Robo-G has a plot hole that you could drive a rather large vehicle through - if the robot designers we see for most of the movie are so incapable of actually building robots, how are they even able to get to the film's starting point? The proper answer, of course is "hey, look, something shiny over there!", because both the opening gag and the later contradictory jokes are too good to lose. Once writer/director Shinobu Yaguchi has decided that Kobayashi, Oota, and Nagai don't really know that much about robotics, the script is fairly predictable, although peppered with gags. It would be nice if there were a little more to this movie - while it does touch on the desire of the elderly to feel useful and needed, there's a bit of an opportunity missed later on to touch on how Suzuki-san feels when he discovers he will be replaced by a real machine and face retirement again.

What happens may be predictable, but Yaguchi can tell a joke visually with the best of them. That opening bit is executed to perfection, for instance, and whenever the joke is along the lines of "nobody knows the expressionless robot is a cranky old man who sometimes acts accordingly", Yaguchi seems to know exactly how long to hold a shot down to the frame and when to get something moving in the background. He doesn't rush through things or dig holes deeper. It's an impressive demonstration on what good timing can do.

That and a good cast. Though he's not quite as central as the audience - or the character - might think, Shinjiro Isarashi (who used to be a rock star under the name "Mickey Curtis") is pretty great. That Suzuki is often kind of a jerk is made possible because Isarashi gives him a solid foundation of battered pride and can underplay sentimental moments. And while I suspect that he's not always the one in the robot suit, he establishes personality and body language so well that the guys mimicking it have something to connect to.

He does sort of fade to the background later, but the rest of the cast picks up the slack. Yuriko Yoshitaka's Sasaki is pure enthusiasm, and she makes it work as both comedic fodder and the basis for a character worth rooting for. Hamada, Kawai, and Kawashima make a fun comedic team; they work well as a unit and never seem to be trying to upstage each other. Gaku Hamada does a nice job when his role beefs up without breaking up the group.

"Robo-G" has shortcomings, certainly, but they're the type that get noticed later. In the moment, it's funny from start to end, in no small part because it's got plenty of both codger charm and youthful enthusiasm, and makes each work without pitting them against each other.

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originally posted: 08/31/12 13:59:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Shinobu Yaguchi

Written by
  Shinobu Yaguchi

  Mickey Curtis
  Yuriko Yoshitaka
  Gaku Hamada
  Naoto Takenaka

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