Tetsujin 28: The Movie Review
In recent years Japanese film studios have sought to revive or celebrate some of their most beloved comic and cinematic creations; from the newly animated Astro Boy to Godzilla’s swan song; goblin hijinks in Yokai Daisenso and even Cutie Honey in all her skimpy-fleshed splendour got in on some of the action. In 2005, as it approached almost fifty years since conception (Manga pub. 1958, Anime debut. 1963) it was the turn of Tetsujin 28, or Gigantor as he’s more commonly known in the west. Created by Mitsuteru Yokoyama - who also penned the similarly themed Giant Robo - Tetsujin 28 took place in the year 2000. While its action was set years into the future the reality was that its sentiments were still firmly routed in a struggling post war period. Nevertheless Tetsujin 28 became an iconic part of Japanese history and is notably every bit the symbol of hope that Osamu Tezuka’s little robot boy had become during the early fifties.
Kaneda Shotaro (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a young boy who lives with his mother (Hiroko Yakushimaru). When he was four years old his father (Hiroshi Abe) died under mysterious circumstances and ever since that time Shotaro has suffered from nightmares and thoughts of his father having never loved him. At school he’s bullied by his classmates and even his teacher fails to acknowledge his talents, accusing him of cheating, when in reality he has the gift of total recall (which they give some fancy name instead). But there’s one man who sees the young boy’s potential: Tatsuzo Ayabe (Katsuo Nakamura) - his grandfather’s assistant and father’s guardian, who now runs a research facility located in a rock somewhere. He asks Shotaro to meet him at this facility, where he then unveils a secret weapon that was developed during the second World War, known as Tetsujin 28. He informs Shotaro that only he has the ability to control Tetsujin and save the world in not so many words. The reason that Shotaro has been called into action is because a new enemy threatens Japan - The Black Ox: A giant beast of a machine that smashes up things real good. It suddenly appears shortly after the disappearance of a computer company mogul called Reiji Takumi (Teruyuki Kagawa). Could Takumi be behind such devastation? Yes he could be. In fact he wishes to create a utopia ruled by machines, as if that’s ever going to happen. But good luck to him, especially when Tetsujin 28 is around the corner, ready to fall over - err, I mean punch him in the face.
Despite it’s initially interesting premise and design Tetsujin 28: The Movie is as generic a film as you could ever expect to witness; we’ve seen and heard everything before. The only question is whether or not the viewer will discard familiarities and still enjoy themselves. The likelihood is that they probably won’t, perhaps not even the children to whom this feature is ultimately aimed at. The reason for this is that Tetsujin 28 is hampered by awkward pacing, confused moral sentiments and a sense that it really has no idea where it should belong. When looking at an adaptation culled from a story that took great precedence during a time when Japan was rebuilding itself from the ashes of war, we’d naturally be expected to wonder if a modern revival is worth the effort. It’s all too apparent that Shin Togashi’s film could never hope to make any grand statements in relation to war and peace and even the adverse affects of using engineered weapons to settle conflicts, and so instead it focuses on some of the smaller and more obvious methods of eliciting an emotional response: love, revenge and growing up. These are also themes that we’re all too often accustomed to, especially in Japanese cinema. In fact only recently I reviewed two films that successfully made use of some of these motifs: Survive Style 5+ and indeed Cutie Honey. The difference however is that these are films carried out with conviction. Sadly Tetsujin 28 lacks the very thing it so desperately needs: a heart.
For all intents Tetsujin 28 is a coming of age tale about a young boy who is tormented by the death of his father, who he feels never loved him, and finds himself being bullied everyday on his way home from school. When Tetsujin 28 comes into his life it paves the way for a great change. The boy will take on a massive responsibility, learn truths and be deemed a hero. And yes it’s as run of the mill as it sounds. A huge failing in terms of narrative is that we have too many characters, half of which are entirely insignificant and yet the director still pads out the excessive run time by giving us shots of two bumbling detectives who serve no purpose whatsoever, in addition to various pot-boilers between all of the main action, including a chirpy Yu Aoi who hops about as an MIT specialist. And the sad thing is that we don’t care about any of them. There’s no emotional pull; even the scenes between Shotaro and his mother barely get by with whatever exposition they give away. Main characters are left to regurgitate mighty clichéd dialogue, with the ending which involves a disgruntled scientist baddie being as predictable as ever. Throughout all of this it’s completely devoid of any humour, far too serious in tone and forgets that its purpose should be to entertain its audience. The anime and manga might have been outlandish in terms of a gun toting, car driving Shotaro but at least it had spectacle. But the biggest worry point is that there’s no relationship between Shotaro and Tetsujin 28. Unlike The Iron Giant animated feature from a few years ago - which incidentally its creator Ted Hughes acknowledges Tetsujin 28 as being an inspiration - that successfully brought the story to life with plenty of emotion, there’s a massive void separating the duo here. Tetsujin 28 is but a hulking device controlled via remote; he has no redeeming qualities, save for his ability to fly and above all no real connection is ever felt between him and the young boy. With such an adaptation it would have been wise to make changes here and there for the overall purpose of the production, because clearly it can’t do anything with its characters in just two hours that the series did over decades.
Now I like my big robot films, who doesn’t find giant robots fighting entertaining? Girls probably. But if there was a prize called, say, “Least exciting fights between giant robots in a film ever” then this movie would win it, hands down. As if the main storyline wasn’t dull enough the only hope we have left turns out to be equally rubbish. Here we have two iron behemoths partaking in fisticuffs, but they’re so limited in movement that all we ever see is a few punches to the face and Tetsujin 28 comically falling down a lot. Where’s the charm in all of this, i.e. guys in suits trampling Tokyo? Given the simplicity of its retro designs Tetsujin 28 would have been a shoe in for good old fashioned model work. Instead the creators have gone for the no personality approach by employing the latest in not-so-convincing Japanese CG special effects. On one hand it’s commendable that the film recreates Tetsujin 28 almost perfectly. He’s unmistakable in his appearance and his retro design is somewhat curious set against a contemporary backdrop, but he’s just far too cartoon-y and the same goes for Black Ox. There’s a great amount of inconsistency in the effects work. For the most part it’s passable and some shots, including poor old Tokyo Tower getting crushed for the seven hundredth time on film looks generally impressive, as does some of the more subtly composed shots, whereas other pieces looks freakishly out of place in all their round, shiny glory. It’s a shame, then, that again the Japanese fall on the CG bandwagon and momentarily forget what it was that made their kaiju films so entertaining in the past. Sometimes ambition gets the better of us I suppose.
And there you have it. It could have been so great of course. The cast is just about spot on. Sosuke Ikematsu as Shotaro is decent, despite his character being massively watered down and left to stare gooey-eyed with his trembling lip as he struggles to gain a bit of courage, in addition to reacting oddly enough to every punch Tetsujin takes (a design flaw if ever there was one), while support from Hiroko Yakushimaru, a sullen-faced Teruyuki Kagawa and Hiroshi Abe is most welcome. It is a shame though that so very little is required of them and they never once try to ham it up and have fun. Even the original theme song is thrown in for solid nostalgic value and it never fails to raise spirits; in fact the score in general by Akira Senju is pleasantly uplifting and is one of the few things worth savouring in this colossal disappointment.
I tell you, I was surprised when Manga sent through the check disc with a flippin’ Tetsujin 28 paper model kit! All I need is scissors, a craft knife, ruler, cutting board, glue and some patience and I’ll have some kind of robot. I haven’t tried to construct my very own Tetsujin yet, but it’s on my list of things to do before I die. A nice little gift, should you dare purchase the film. Actually you don’t even have to buy it. By simply visiting Terratag and going to “info” you can download your very own. Wowsers, Penny!
Tetsujin 28 is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Manga Entertainment has seen fit to give it anamorphic treatment, but sadly bestow upon us another NTSC-PAL conversion. In my experience watching standards conversions on an LCD television I find some are less bothersome than others. In the case of Tetsujin 28 it’s incredibly bothersome. The amount of times that Black Ox and Tetsujin 28 fly around is quite plentiful and it’s during such sequences that the ghosting throughout becomes quite irritating. The image is also slightly soft, including the obvious CG inclusions, as well as exhibiting a healthy supply of edge (non)enhancement. There is a fair amount of distracting aliasing which bothers clothing in addition to such things as pylons; in particular Shotaro’s plaid uniform. Otherwise colour levels are pleasing, while some night time shots appear just a tad bright, with adequate blacks levels and contrast.
Japanese 2.0, 5.1 Surround and DTS are available to select, with the latter two sharing a lot in common. The DTS offers a slightly more aggressive lift when the robots get down to business and there are some particularly effective ambient effects, such as the scene in which Shotaro runs into Takumi on a roof top. Dialogue is well separated and the music score is given a nice amount of attention. Parents should be warned that if they intend to purchase this for a child there is no English soundtrack. I imagine that will be quite off-putting as it takes enough patience just to watch it in Japanese, with long stretches here and there between the action
The optional English subtitles that are provided read well, with no noticeable errors to report.
A barren disc, featuring just three trailers for other Manga releases: Robotech, Tetsujin 28 (The Series) and Millennium Actress.
I can’t imagine many kids or adults being completely bowled over by this effort to bring Tetsujin 28 to the silver screen. It simply tries too hard in all the wrong areas to present a fun journey, but ends up falling on its face a few times, just like the stupid ol’ Tetsujin who’s not even smart enough to realise that everyone’s laughing at him because Shotaro can’t use a game pad properly. Doesn’t his mother ever buy him video games? That of course is the burning question Tetsujin 28 never asks, and I’m not sure I can forgive it for that.