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Fantastic Fest Review: Yatterman

By  · Published on October 7th, 2009

I love Takashi Miike; hands down one of my absolute favorite Japanese directors. He’s the type of filmmaker that is all over the map as far as his projects. He can paint a mural of bullets and bloodspray one minute and create Japanese folklore using a classic spaghetti western as a backdrop the next. He is as versatile a director as any other on any continent and I have enjoyed all of his movies that I’ve seen. If there is any kind of common thread in his work, it would have to be that they are all either just a little or, in some cases, immensely loony. When I heard that Miike’s newest film, Yatterman, was playing Fantastic Fest, I immediately called dibs.

Yatterman is the story of a male and a female inventor that collectively form the titular hero. They live below a toy store and are aided by a giant robotic dog. Stay with me, it gets better. The arch rivals of this duo are an evil princess and her two animal-costumed henchmen who have their own series of giant robots. The villains, dubbed the Doronbo gang, are on a mission to find the four separated pieces of the skull stone that, when rejoined, will open a portal in time and space. They are charged with this task by the god of thieves who ends every sentence with the word “obey’. This god of thieves begins using his power to make things vanish all over the globe (Mt. Fuji and the Brooklyn Bridge for example). Along the way, our heroes must contend with the fact that the male half of the team is attracted to the female leader of the Doronbo gang; to the dismay of his crime-fighting partner and girlfriend. They also encounter the daughter of an explorer who disappeared whilst searching for a portion of the skull stone in Narway [sic]. Will our heroes be able to find the stone before the Doronbo can bestow it to the evil god of thieves? Will their giant robot defeat the other giant robot? Why the hell was there a dinosaur on the Brooklyn Bridge when it was stolen?

This film is fruitcake. It is the type of wild, crazy mind-fuck that most people expect from Japanese cinema. I had mentioned in my review of K-20: The Fiend with 20 Faces that that film felt very much like Japan’s attempt to make an American superhero film. Well Yatterman is definitely a Japanese breed through and through. After the opening fight scene it was clear what I was watching was a film adaptation of one of the Saturday morning Haim Saban action shows I loved as a kid. I later learned that the film is based on a cartoon series of the same name, but I still felt like I was watching the weirdest episode of “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” I had ever seen. But part of the beauty of this film is that it is fully aware of its silliness and embraces it, yet it still manages to add in elements that I am willing to bet were never in the cartoon.

What the hell am I yapping about? While there are enough giant robot fights and brightly-colored costumes to delight any chid watching this film, there are also themes and a special brand of humor that are solely for adults. Miike, along with the writers obviously, were able to take a very juvenile concept and attach enough romance and self-effacing punchlines to give this a totally grown-up tone. The love triangle between the male hero and the leader of the Doronbo is sufficiently mature. And there are just as many jokes that are perfectly in the spirit of the genre as there are jokes openly mocking it. The best is the big reveal of the new and improved robodog. There is a massive fanfare and slow-opening doors all culminating in this massive creature…..not being able to fit through the entrance. The male component of the Yatterman team then vocalizes his realization that he may have made the robot too large. Hilarious!

There are some truly bizarre moments in this that will have your jaw on the floor as you struggle to comprehend them. I think my favorite was the miniature robo-fish army battling the other miniature robo-fish army; the tide of the battle turning once one army’s puberty mode was engaged and their fish doubled in size. There are wacko scams hatched by the Doronbo to obtain enough money to build new weapons, fantastic musical numbers, and a henchman obsessed with touching the breasts of his leather-clad mistress. Part of the fun of watching the film is surrendering to the weirdness and abdicating rational thought. Miike knows you will be confounded by the events on screen and creates an environment that allows you to fully enjoy your own incomprehension. It is a very smart film in a lot of ways, but it’s also a giant ball of goofy fun.

The biggest obstacle this film faces is that not everyone appreciates this brand of Japanese weirdness. I don’t mean to sound pretentious here; quite the opposite. Japanese films of this ilk fly in the face of coherent, logical storytelling and it makes perfect sense that most people will dislike its over-the-top lunacy. But I have seen enough crazy-ass Japanese films to have garnered an appreciation for them. One of my favorite films of Fantastic Fest III was an insane mockumentary-style take on man-in-suit Japanese television called Big Man Japan. If this film tickles your funny bone, you should definitely check out Big Man Japan as well. Apart from that, the film is very unevenly paced. The opening is quite kinetic and gets you excited for what you are about to see, but then the film takes some turns that don’t always work and really drag the pace through the mud.

For my money, I think Miike has done it again. He has flexed his creative muscles and created something truly unique. Although this isn’t the first superhero film he’s done, he also helmed 2004’s Zebraman, but this is his first foray into adapting crazy children’s television….of which I’m aware. While I didn’t love this film, I really enjoyed it for what it was and I am so glad I got to see it at Fantastic Fest. I think Miike is best appreciated in the context of his entire film cannon. If you are unfamiliar with Miike, watch as many of his films as you can get your hands on. He is such a prolific and versatile director that, naturally, there will be entries you like far better than others. But the overall experience of seeing a multitude of his films is something to behold.

The Upside: More fun than you can shake a giant squid at. As much a lampoon of wacky Japanese superhero fare as it is a standard for the genre.

The Downside: Not many people are going to get behind its non-sequitur, absurd style and it does have some pacing issues.

On The Side: The animated television series originally aired in the 1970’s but was revived in 2008 and is still running on Japanese television.

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.