Ken AyugaiHideaki ItoKazuhiro MashikoMasumi Sanada
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Director: Taikan Suga
Writer: Shinichi Inozume
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese, English [quite often]
Keywords: SF
Actor: Ken Ayugai, Hideaki Ito, Kazuhiro Mashiko, Munehisa Sakurada, Masumi Sanada, Nobuyuki Takahashi, Yuta Yamazaki
Format: 108 minutes
Website category: Japanese SF
Review date: 1 June 2011
I don't think it works. It's okay. I didn't hate it. However I wasn't in any particular hurry to keep watching and I think I'd have been much more interested by a documentary on the same subject matter.
It's a film about otaku. The word's been adopted as almost a badge of pride by Western anime fans, but in Japan its connotations are negative. Imagine someone who's devoted their life to action figures, dolls or manga. They probably smell. They're bad at social interaction and will avoid it. They get emotional about the trivia of their chosen obsession and are blind to almost everything else. They'll tend to be virgins. However they also have a darker side, since every so often one will turn out to have travelled a little too far from reality and hence you get people like Tsutomu Miyazaki, the Otaku Murderer who mutilated, killed and sexually molested the corpses of little girls, usually four or five years old.
Anime creators like Anno Hideaki and Oshii Mamoru have shone a spotlight on the otaku phenomenon in their work, often critically. Suga Taikan has apparently talked of this film in the same way, although I thought it was comparatively easy-going on its otaku heroes.
The title refers to blister packs, in which action figures are sold. Hideaki Ito collects them and he's sufficiently hardcore that he'll start punching you in the face if you take one out of its packaging. They're all from American comic books. Then there's Akio Otsuka, who loves science fiction and even tries to make an SF movie, although we don't see very much of him doing so. There are more. You get the idea. They're often startling artists, incidentally. However what seemed weird to me is that none of our otaku seems to have sought out anyone else who shares their obsession, so everyone spends the film staring in slight bewilderment at everyone else instead of, say, having autistic conversations about trivia until three in the morning. They have the internet, but they don't use it except for shopping searches. Maybe the difference is that I'm used to Doctor Who fans, who'll often have a collecting mania but won't tend to set their priorities this strongly on buying and storing physical objects. I presume Ito does read American comics, but he's mainly a fan of the action figures, with the original stories being secondary.
The film's simply watching these people. Now this could have been great. You could tell a hilarious story about geeks moving heaven and earth to achieve something pointless... but this isn't it. Ito is looking for a Hellbanker figure, true, but one doesn't sense that this is driving the movie. Instead Suga is simply making his otaku look kind of random and pointless. This is true to life, but it's not particularly interesting to watch.
However at the same time, Suga cheats. Ito is pop-star handsome and has a girlfriend. Admittedly their relationship is a big part of the movie and integral to what story it has, but even so you can't say the film couldn't have gone further.
That's the regular bit of the film. The weird bit involves a Mad Max-like dystopia in which the Earth's been almost uninhabitable for the last 200 years and only an action figure can save the world. This is freaky and you could read it in various ways. One would be to take it at face value, as an eventual validation of our otaku's decisions and a celebratory ending. Another would be to suggest that it might be another of Otsuka's SF movies. A third option would be that it's the fantasy of a social cripple who's steeped himself in this kind of gibberish and is now in denial of reality. I think the first one is what we're meant to be assuming, but the other two would be more plausible.
It's fun, though. I'll give it that. You've got overacting, extreme costumes and people shooting guided missiles at each other. I laughed at the bit where a missile changed direction. I also enjoyed the Hellbanker interludes, which aren't animated but instead told via a montage sequence of Image-inspired comics. The art and figures both seem influenced by Todd McFarlane, who even pops up in the surprisingly interesting geek debate we hear over the end credits. I presume none of those comic characters are real, but one of them reminded me of Nemesis the Warlock.
There's also lots of English. It's still 95% in Japanese, of course, but the Mad Max future is English-speaking, while the incidental music is chosen for its (English) lyrics and there are amusing illustrated intertitles saying (in English) things like "Yuji wants this". Suga clearly speaks English himself. It's impossible to believe otherwise. Admittedly Takashi Miike also loves putting foreign languages in his movies and he doesn't know a word of English, Chinese and so on, but this film is different in being full of knowing Easter Eggs that the domestic audience would have missed. I understand Suga's 2007 film Robo rokku also drifts at will between the two languages.
The acting's passable. No one struck me as good, but I was fascinated by the pretty girl with the scary face. I thought I'd seen her before, but I can't place her. Masumi Sanada clearly doesn't understand the English dialogue she's given, but fortunately she only gets a few lines of it.
Overall, I wasn't riveted. I watched it peacefully enough, but with a slight sense of determination not to quit. It's okay as far as it goes and I enjoyed anything about Mad Max and Hellbanker, but the film as a whole feels like a not particularly inspired fusion of a fly-on-the-wall documentary and a fictional narrative. I'd have preferred either of those, if it was done properly. There's insufficient plot for the latter and insufficient quirky life for the former. However it has quite a good ending and the closing credits are kind of fun too, I think because they're more documentary-like. However as for that SF future, if otaku saved the world, surely it's an otaku's fault it was in that trouble in the first place. What kind of password was that, eh? Make it a simple "open sesame" and maybe the planet wouldn't have been a wasteland for 200 years.
But then again, you know... otaku.