Some time ago I found myself unable to see a premiere of Takashi Miike’s recent live-action remake of the 70s Yatterman cartoon on account of fangirl overload. In that article, I said that if I didn’t catch it then, that it would be at least a year before I got another chance. And as it turns out, Yatterman ran at this year’s New York Asian Film Fest. So now, a year later, we can finally get down to business.
It’s inevitable that we compare this movie to the Wachowskis’ adaptation of Speed Racer, which adapted its target so faithfully that everybody hated it. The approach is similar, but Yatterman doesn’t have the tremendous effects budget that the Speed Racer movie used to transform itself into some kind of new age over-cartoon. Rather than being more cartoon than cartoon, Yatterman sticks to the spirit and the letter of the original: it’s a silly kid’s cartoon with a little toilet humor. Just replace “toilet” with “Miike”.
You can’t fault Miike for dedication to replicating the bright, shiny and slightly dirty world of the original Tatsunoko cartoon: the sets, the costumes and the robots are dead on, no matter how silly they might look on film.
I often wonder why, when adapting beloved children’s properties, filmmakers so often feel the need to make everything “look cool” when the material was so stupid, and usually loved for that reason. Miike doesn’t make that mistake. He doesn’t cut the villains’ theme song after thirty seconds or leave it out entirely, like most folks would. He lets the song and dance go on for the full three minutes. Miike embraces stupid.
The villains are particular standouts. I suspect that the actors portraying the Doronbo gang went through some kind of insane method training for becoming a 70’s cartoon character: perhaps they were locked in a room with only Yatterman DVDs for two years. They steal this film and put the heroes— Gan-chan is played by Sho Sakurai, whose legion of prospective wives kept everybody else out of the premiere last year— utterly to shame.
The movie isn’t afraid to pause for a quick, self-conscious gag, like the kids passing out from exhaustion as they hold the same pose— hanging from the side of the dog robot, arm straight out, smile, smile!— while traveling across the world, or ordinary folks looking at Yatterman and Doronbo like they’re crazy. The movie touches on these kinds of details for just the right amount of time: very briefly. Nobody wants a navel-gazing version of Yatterman.
There’s also an “ordinary girl” character, who purpose I suppose was to ground the anime spectacle to the focus-grouped average viewer. Sho Sakurai can make his superhero girlfriend jealous by making googly eyes at a normal chick (I think I prefer the supervillainess in this love rhombus), and the film can descend into forced, shitty family melodrama at the end. It’s, uh, all thanks to her!
Yatterman was always just a little bit unclean, so Miike was a fine choice there, too. Of course, Takashi “Ichi the Killer” Miike is not a “just a little” kind of guy, and he nearly goes overboard. The film nearly collapses under the weight of its most Miike moment, a bizarre robot S&M scene which I’m just going to have to describe in full. Up against the “Virgin Roader”, a robot caricature of a woman whose body mostly consists of a gigantic pair of machine gun-equipped breasts, the heroes’ dog robot Yatterwan is forced to use its secret weapon.
Just like in the TV show, Yatterwan creates and spits out an army of tiny animal robots which then lay waste to the enemy. In this scene, the robots are bugs which immediately swarm to the enemy robot, covering her body almost completely as they gnaw her apart one little bit of metal skin at a time as she moans like a porn star in English. The dog goes into heat (there’s a nosebleed and everything) and the two robots enter a sadomasochistic death embrace as the Virgin Roader explodes mid-orgasm. I’ve never heard a more awkward silence at a kids’ movie: not that very many kids were present.
From this scene on the action continues, but the movie’s obviously peaked. At the final confrontation between Yatterman and the Doronbo gang, the mood shifts abruptly and Yatterman is suddenly trying hard to pull off a completely unearned touching Hollywood climax. It doesn’t work out.
Before the finale, though, the movie’s just like it should be. Stupid, childish, slightly vulgar, stupid again, stupid some more: it’s the cartoon on film. Make sure you’re in that kind of mood before you watch— make sure you’re still capable, you may not be able to feel this dumb anymore— and you’ll have a pretty good time.