Karate-Robo ZaborgarReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/13/11 13:20:46
(Worth A Look)
SCREENED AT THE 2011 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Western otaku likely would have to be deeply committed to an obsession to Japanese pop culture to be familiar with the original "Denjin Zaborgar", a long-forgotten sentai television series most notable for featuring one of the first robots that also had a vehicle mode, years before the toys that became Transformers when imported to the United States - after all, it's not exactly well-known on the other side of the Pacific, either. This is, perhaps, all to the good - since it's not beloved, Noboru Iguchi can take this bit of J-pop ephemera and make it his own (a simultaneously exciting and frightening prospect, depending on one's tastes).As in the original, Yutaka Daimon (Yasuhisa Furuhara) is a young police special agent, barely out of his teens, with an unusual partner - Zaborgar, a robot that can transform into a motorcycle. Most of their missions are against the Sigma organization, a group of cyborgs led by Dr. Akunomiya (Akira Emoto) looking to wipe humans off the face of the Earth! In the meantime, though, they need human DNA to construct their mega-cyborg, and have Akunomiya's top agent, Miss Borg (Mami Yamasaki) collecting it. Others in Sigma disdain Miss Borg, so they turn on her, leading to her and Daimon briefly on the same side. Things get weird, then intimate, Zaborgar feels betrayed, and-- Well, cut to twenty-five years later. Daimon (now played by Itsuji Itao) is an unemployed, newly homeless loser who still wears the helmet once used to interface with Zaborgar, and Akunomiya is finally ready to unleash his giant robot on the world. Small problem - new-model schoolgirl cyborg Akiko (Aimi Satsukawa) doesn't particularly want to be the CPU for an engine of destruction, and escapes to find Daimon, with Sigma's new top agent, Gen Akizuki (Yuya Miyashita) hot on her trail.
That is a lot of plot for a goofy exploitation comedy, and it doesn't include all of the really bizarre tangents Iguchi goes off on. Indeed, the need to cram in so much exposition makes the movie feel lopsided: Though the promotion on the festival circuit emphasizes the "25 years later" angle and Itao gets first billing (with Furuhara credited as "The Younger Daimon"), the two periods are actually rather evenly split, to the point that more time seemed to be spent in the past than the present. That's not necessarily a weakness, but it does make the second half feel kind of rushed at points, as it introduces Akiko and Akizuki quickly and pushes the plot forward at high speed, with little time for the sort of free-form oddness that would occasionally turn up toward the start. It's more than a little strange to say this about a Noboru Iguchi/Sushi Typhoon production, but between the exposition-filled opening and revelation-filled second half, Karate-Robo Zaborgar might be too focused on having a coherent story, causing the high-concept insanity to suffer.
Let's not get too carried away with that thought, though. This is still a movie that has Miss Borg's head flying around on rockets independent of her body early on, soon followed by a flashback to Daimon's father (Naoto Takenaka), distraught over the death of his wife... well, everybody deserves to experience that themselves. And, of course, certain things are just inevitable - you can't hand Iguchi material filled with cyborgs and not have the director of The Machine Girl, Robogeisha, and Mutant Girls Squad and not have him give you a bunch of mechanical prostheses on pretty girls, including the obligatory missile breasts.
Those missiles are one of a number of elements that recall Takashi Miike's recent big-budget version of Yatterman, another updating of a somewhat formulaic 1970s TV show that straddles the line between affection and mockery. And while Iguchi doesn't have nearly the budget to work with that the makers of Yatterman did, this is easily the nicest-looking movie that production company Sushi Typhoon and Iguchi have put together - it's shot on film, in a wide aspect ratio, with special effects that can handle being seen on the big screen. The production design is pretty impressive, too - outtakes during the end credits show what a good job the filmmakers do of mimicking the old series, but the movie doesn't look tacky or cheap very often. It feels like a movie, rather than something made in the director's backyard.
The cast is pretty decent, as well. Both Itao and Furuhara are surprisingly funny as Daimon, with Furuhara in particular diving into the nutty parts of the role with gusto; both do well playing off the automatons. Aimi Satsukawa is quickly likable as Akiko, which is good, because she has to bank goodwill before spending much of the finale as droning eye candy. Workhorse Akira Emoto is a more commanding villain than Sushi Typhoon movies often get. And while the actor(s) playing Zaborgar in humanoid form has no lines, the robot at least seeming to have good chemistry with Itao and Furuhara."Karate-Robo Zaborgar" is pretty good for an update/spoof of a forgotten TV show made by an exploitation specialist. It's a low-pressure good time, though not one that will necessarily stick in the memory any more than the original series did. And, let's face it, that's probably what the likes of "Denjin Zaborga" merits.
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