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On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
Mitsuteru Yokoyama's mecha manga gets its first live-action outing, as the wartime Iron Giant is resurrected to save modern-day Tokyo from the mighty Black Ox robot
Mitsuteru Yokoyama's serial comic 'Tetsujin Nijuhachi-Go' (or 'Tetsujin 28'), first published in 1956, told the story of a giant iron robot, built as a weapon of mass destruction at the end of WWII, but now controlled by its creator's young son Shotaro Kaneda to fight crime. The manga not only traced Japan's shift from imperial militarism to a more technology-driven economy, but also single-handedly spawned a new genre, 'mecha'.
Since then, Tetsujin 28 has rampaged in four popular cartoon series for Japanese television (in 1963, 1980, 1992 and 2004), and been successfully repackaged as 'Gigantor' for American viewers - but it was not until Tetsujin's 50th anniversary that he would first appear in a live-action feature.
All of which is to say that Tetsujin 28: The Movie comes in the wake of a rich robotic legacy in the popular Japanese imagination - but even without so many revered antecedents, Shin Togashi's film would still be considered a bomb, as soulless, cumbersome and plodding as the humanoid hunk of metal that gives it its title.
Let's start with the big robots. Both Tetsujin 28 and its destructive rival Black Ox have been beautifully rendered in CGI to have a solid presence and sleek reflective surfaces - and certainly the event which triggers the film's action, Black Ox's solo onslaught on the Tokyo Tower, holds out some promise of impressive pandemonium to come. But thereafter the colossal antagonists put in surprisingly little screen time - and when they do, their duels invariably involve them stiffly facing off and VERY slowly pounding one another's chests with their fists. Perhaps it constitutes a realistic depiction of how tin radio-controlled hulks would fight, but it is also deeply boring to watch - and giant robot movies have never had much to do with realism.
The absence of much mechanical mayhem means that Tetsujin 28: The Movie is left to be a character-driven film - but there is also little sign of character (and absolutely no drama) to be found in the range of cardboard cut-outs, 'wacky' stereotypes and gurning ciphers on offer here.
At the film's centre is 12-year-old Shotaro (Ikematsu), now the grandson rather than son of Tetsujin's original wartime inventor in keeping with an unnecessarily updated Noughties setting. Unlike the cocky, resourceful hero of the original comic-book and TV series, this new Shotaro is a spineless, whining mama's boy, whose every second line is a gormless "what?", and whose intensely irritating behaviour will have viewers wondering why the salvation of Tokyo, nay of the world, keeps being entrusted to such a sniveling no-hoper. Surely in the land that brought us Atari, Nintendo and Playstation, it would be possible to find someone more competent with the joystick that controls Tetsujin's movements?
Meanwhile Yu (All About Lily Chou-Chou) Aoi plays Mami Tachibana, supposedly "a first-rate brain from the IT and robotics department at MIT" - yet she still sees fit to dress in what looks like a Girl Guide's uniform, and comes up with the genius idea of building into Tetsujin 28's remote control mechanism a device that makes the operator experience physical pain whenever the robot is punched.
It is the kind of nonsensical detail (with mildly agonising consequences for Shotaro in the climactic showdown) that might go unnoticed in a more engaging film, but Tetsujin 28: The Movie just cannot help clobbering the viewer with its flaws.
The Frankenstein-like themes and moral complexity that made Mitsuteru Yokoyama's original so compelling are here left entirely undeveloped. What remains is one long, long missed opportunity. Yashuhiro Imagawa's wonderful 26-part 'Tetsujin' TV anime from 2004 proved that this peculiarly modern myth still has legs, but Shin Togashi's film merely limps along, and is unlikely even to divert the very young, let alone the rest of the family.
As lumbering as an old iron rust bucket, this joyless live-action exercise takes a pounding from its earlier, superior animated versions.
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