Reviewby Mike Crandol,
DVD (remastered edition)
The elderly Mr. Takazawa has unknowingly been recruited by the Ministry of Public Health to take part in an experiment that will revolutionize care for aged. No more retirement houses, no more home nurses....the Z-001 will take care of it all. A mechanical bed outfitted with the latest government super-computer, the Z-001 is wired directly into Mr. Takazawa's brain and designed to facilitate his every need. Everyone seems to think it's a great idea except the old man's young nurse, Haruko. Her misgivings prove to be valid when the Z-001 assumes the personality of Takazawa's dead wife and runs amuck. It turns out the bed is actually an experimental weapons robot, and it's up to Haruko to save Mr. Takazawa before the company that built the Z-001 takes it out with the military model!
A satire on modern Japan's attitude towards the elderly as well as an outrageous mecha farce, it may come as a surprise that the lighthearted Roujin Z (literally "Old Man Z") was written by Akira scribe Katsuhiro Otomo. At first glance the two films appear as opposite as night and day. But in fact they share many thematic elements: political conspiracy, technology run rampant, empowerment of the weak, and bizarre metamorphosis are prevalent themes in both. But in stark contrast to the dark, gritty vision of Akira, Roujin Z looks at these same ideas in a humorous, playful light. Roujin Z's pacing is also brisker than the sometimes sluggish Akira, and the ending is a tongue-in-cheek nod to the earlier work while avoiding it's cryptic, unclear finale. In short, Roujin Z is more fun than Akira, and despite it's relative obscurity many consider it the superior work.
The movie's premise may sound deceptively unappealing to the average anime viewer; one would think a film whose protagonist is a senile invalid would not be very entertaining. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though the opening sequence (in which Mr. Takazawa wets his bed and nurse Haruko shows up to take care of him) may be awkward viewing Roujin Z quickly establishes it's rollicking sense of fun as Takazawa is wired into the ludicrous Z-001, which contains about as many off-the-wall gizmos as Inspector Gadget. Haruko's college friends are a well-developed and comedic bunch, and the elderly group of computer hackers that help Haruko crack into the Z-001's mainframe are especially hilarious. The super-computer at the heart of the bed assumes the persona of Takazawa's dead wife, and the bulk of the movie is a wild rampage through the city streets as Takazawa and the Z-001 fuse with bulldozers and a wide assortment of machines to create a bizarre makeshift robot, all so "Mrs. Takazawa" can take her "snugglepot" to the beach one last time. The farce is laid on thick as the military, the Ministry of Public Health, and Haruko all scramble to stop the old man and his giant mechanical monstrosity. Eventually the Z-001 morphs into a sprawling mass of living machinery that threatens to engulf everyone and everything around it, not unlike Tetsuo's final transformation in Akira.
What makes Roujin Z a truly remarkable work is that underneath all the ridiculous comedy is a serious message about humanity and compassion. Though designed to take care of his every need, the Z-001 robs Mr. Takazawa of what little dignity he had left. Destined to spend his few remaining days wired into a machine, he turns the tables on his "caretakers" when the bed comes alive and resolves to take him where he longs to go, the beach. Takazawa's quest for "the beach" is symbolic for regaining his lost dignity and independence, for though he loves the beach it has undoubtedly been many long years since he was able to go. By the film's climax not only Haruko but Mr. Terada, the man who put Takazawa in the Z-001 in the first place, are determined to help get the old man to the sea at any cost. Haruko's climatic battle cry "We're going to the beach!" is at the same time touching and hilarious. Roujin Z's message is clear, but it never preaches nor allows it's moral to get in the way of the fun of seeing the Z-001 on it's comedic spree of destruction.
It must be said the movie suffers from one utterly unbelievable plot point. We are supposed to believe that somehow, using only a photograph, an aged hacker could make the Z-001 approximate the voice of a dead woman he has never met. Even in a movie as out-there as Roujin Z this notion comes across as impossibly ridiculous. It would be much easier to accept that Takazawa himself imbued the bed with the voice of his wife, as his brain is supposedly directly wired into the system. In any event it's a minor quibble, but it does temporarily detract from the enjoyment of the film as the audience invariably scratches their heads and rolls their eyes.
The animation quality is about average for an anime feature, which is to say it is more accomplished than a TV series or OVA but not at the level of Otomo's previous anime effort Akira. It has been argued that had Roujin Z matched Akira's opulent animation it would have usurped that films' place in the annals of anime history. This is unlikely; the movie's unusual subject matter simply does not have Akira's more mainstream appeal....and anyway Roujin Z's animation is quite good in places. The battle between the Z-001 and it's military counterpart is an impressive piece of action, and there is some splendid animation of Haruko at the film's climax that expertly captures the desperation of the girl to catch up with Takazawa and destroy the mechanical monster the Z-001 has become.
Otomo himself provided Roujin Z's mechanical designs, and it shows. His talent for rendering detailed machinery with imaginative, haphazard designs suits the project well. Fortunately the character designs were handled by Hisashi Eguchi....Otomo freely admits he cannot draw women very well, and as the character of Haruko is so central to the story it was important to make her visually appealing. The characters have a look that is very "anime" and at the same time unique from any other project. Otomo and Eguchi make for a very successful combination, and their individual strengths fuse to make Roujin Z a fine-looking piece of work.
Both the Japanese and the English vocal tracks are also a success. While the actors in the original version provide a more sincere delivery the English script is more enjoyable for Western audiences. Without changing the meaning of the script screenwriter Jay Parks makes the lines even more comedic than the original, and scenes watched subtitled that may not make you crack a smile will have you laughing out loud when dubbed.
Roujin Z was originally released on DVD by Central Park Media in conjunction with Image Entertainment, a company with an unfortunate reputation for producing DVDs of inferior quality. Roujin Z is the first of many remasters by CPM of material previously released under the Image deal, and it looks great. The picture is crisp and clear, and the colors are bright and vibrant. No traces of distortion or even the usual signs of age common in older films are to be found; you'd never guess this picture dates from 1991....it looks like it was made yesterday. However, the touted "extras" on the disc are kinda lame, consisting of a "trivia game" in which you must answer multiple choice questions about minutiae from select scenes in the movie, and a slightly disturbing look at underbelly of fandom at the Big Apple Anime Fest. Still, I can't wait to see CPM's upcoming remasters of Record of Lodoss War and Project A-ko; if this is any indication they will be well worth picking up.
Due to it's unusual material, Roujin Z will probably never get the widespread recognition it deserves. But if one can get past the first 5 minutes of the film they will find a uniquely rewarding viewing experience. Few films so successfully balance comedy, satire, action, and emotion. Roujin Z is a worthy addition to anyone's anime collection.
+ great blend of outrageous farce, social satire and mecha mayhem...with a point
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