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Robo Rock
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by Jay Seaver

"Charmingly unpolished... aside from the giant robot."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2008 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: Every once in a while, when I'm looking at the Japanese offerings at the video store or a genre festival like Fantasia, I have to stop and wonder - does all this stuff really get a theatrical release over there? I don't know. By the time they cross the Pacific to fill slots at a festival or a small video distributor's release schedule, who knows which are the mainstream hits, the direct-to-video releases, or the Japanese equivalents of a Sci-Fi Channel TV movie? For all I know, "Robo Rock" is some friends with a consumer HD video camera shooting guerrilla style before handing it off to their other friends who can do wonders with a small CGI budget. It has that feel at times.

There aren't many robots at the start. The film is narrated by Masaru Higawara (Shun Shioya), a slacker-type working as a "handyman" - basically, someone who does odd jobs for a variety of clients. Those jobs are assigned to him by "mediators", in Masaru's case, shady club owner Ibuse (Kenichi Endo). He lives with his girlfriend Kiriko (Minami), a tattoo artist who only knows one design, and hangs out with Kou (Shoichi Honda), another handyman who does more dangerous work. Things are running at their usual just-short-of-disaster level when he teams with Kou to deliver a rare vinyl album that is more than it seems. And then there's Etsaru Nirasawa (Yuichiro Nakayama), a bespectacled otaku who claims to be from the Disaster Prevention Center. According to him, certain doom is headed toward earth and only Masaru's voice can activate the long-lost "Land Zeppelin" giant robot, which is the only hope of stopping it.

There's a lot to Robo Rock that feels kind of rough. The cast, for instance, often seems to be imitating something else: Shioya's Masaru is the would-be rocker with more enthusiasm than talent; Minami is the shrew that constantly belittles him. Nakayama is doing something of a sad-sack variation of the role Masi Oka plays on Heroes, and Shoichi Honda... When his Kou first appears on-screen, saying little but blessed with an impressive afro, my first thought was "Tadanobu Asano's stunt double". There's also a pair of gangsters, "Alpha Tom" and "Beta Tom", who are flamboyant and quirky in the exact way a person might expect. The actors do well enough following the templates, but can't for the most part bring them to individual life.

I suspect that this is in part because the filmmakers come from a background in gaming and animation. I don't necessarily wish to diminish those media, but their more tolerant of somewhat generic characters, and require different sorts of performances. Yuichiro Nakayama's performance as Nirasawa is a good example of this; while the specific mechanics of his acting often seem hammy or artificial, the movie ultimately gets what is important about his character across, that's he's a pretty sad case in terms of how he remains obsessed with giant robots despite how obviously ridiculous the idea is, even while we enjoy his ability to believe in things.

And, of course, we enjoy the giant robot. It's realized by Studio Gonzo, and looks pretty nice. It has a nifty retro look without being kitschy, and it's got lots of little moving parts without looking overly busy. It's an impressive enough bit of special effects work that it doesn't matter whether it's real or fantasy within the story; clearly this is what the filmmakers do best. Not that visual effects are their only skill; the screenplay has a few enjoyably whimsical bits - the drugs pressed to look like a record and the "why I don't eat fish" song, for instance.

It's got enough of those bits to make it better than the usual made-for-TV movie, at least. It's unusual in that some of its charm comes from the enthusiasm of newcomers while the effects are very polished, but what the people involved do well, they do just well enough to make up for where they're still very rough.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17629&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/04/08 10:33:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Taikan Suga

Written by
  Taikan Suga

Cast
  Shun Shioya
  Yuuichirou Nakayama
  Minami
  Kenichi Endo



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