AKA: Tetsujin niju-hachigo; Tetsujin niju-hachi-go; Tetsujin niju-hachi go
Review By: David Austin
Tetsujin-28 is a Popsicle of a movie – colorful, sweet and intended for kids. I did enjoy the giant robot battles, but really can’t heap any great praise on the movie - it’s “nice” but that’s about it. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I were younger.
The story is based on a famous old cartoon series (US viewers may be more familiar with the titular robot under the name Gigantor), with which I must admit that I have no familiarity. I suspect that many of the weaker plot elements are taken from the source material. I also suspect that a fan of the original series would probably get more out of the live action remake than a neophyte like myself. As it is, my review is from the perspective of someone with no knowledge about the history of the series and will probably be most useful to those similarly situated.
The heart of the story is fairly typical kid movie stuff about growing and learning, except with a side-order of ultimate fighting. Shotaro Kaneda (Shosuke Ikematsu), our hero, is a normal boy who lives alone with his mother, following the mysterious disappearance of his scientist father. The pair move around a lot because of Shotaro’s mother’s job as a cooking instructor, and Shotaro is having a hard time adjusting to life at school, but no more than an average, slightly maladjusted kid. One beautiful sunny day, a ferocious giant robot called Black Ox appears and begins destroying the city, endangering many inhabitants including Shotaro’s mother. As it turns out, Shotaro’s father and grandfather both worked on a World War II-era project with the goal of creating a giant robot. Tetsujin-28, the final prototype, is now the only force capable of stopping Black Ox (if we’ve learned anything from anime, it’s that you fight fire with fire, and giant robots with giant robots), and Shotaro is now the only one capable of controlling Tetsujin-28. Why only Shotaro? Not so clear. There’s a lot of talk about his special ability with visual patterns – as near as I can tell his “special ability” amounts to memory. Whatever - it’s in the script. Shotaro is also assisted by some of his father’s old aides and by young female expert from MIT. I didn’t know this, but apparently if you go to MIT, you are issued a military uniform complete with an MIT combat patch. If I’d known that years ago I might have studied engineering. Eventually Shotaro is rigged up with virtual reality gear in order to pilot a improved Tetsujin-28 against Black Ox in a battle for the city (technically, Black Ox threatens to take over the world, but I think conquering more than a country or two at a time is probably beyond its capabilities. Black Ox is not THAT big a robot).
The problem with Tetsujin-28 is that the movie rarely transcends the material. The characters are decently drawn but do not stand out. The fights range from fine to good, but lack the insane creativity of many kaiju movies, or even of a low-budget bizarre film like The Calamari Wrestler. The entire exercise is very predictable, and rarely surprises the audience with unexpected turns, the first appearance of Black Ox aside. I left the theater with a generally positive attitude toward the film, but no strong feelings or memories.
It doesn’t help that the movie is at least 20 minutes longer than it really needs to be. After a while, scenes of Shotaro whimpering get tiresome. Way too much of the film feels contrived or just awkward, like the excuse for why Shotaro alone can pilot the robot (why not just say that control is keyed to the creator’s DNA or something), the way Shotaro runs around by himself on empty streets during the robot fights (why doesn’t Black Ox just squish Shotaro and end the whole thing), and the contrived, Matrix-esque way in which Shotaro can physically feel the punishment Tetsujin-28 takes at Black Ox’s hands. Too much time is also spent on a subplot involving Shotaro’s schoolmates, which quickly becomes maudlin. There are also side plots involving a couple of police investigators, and the creator of Black Ox, but they range from unimportant to incomprehensible.
I don’t want to be too harsh - the acting and direction is fine, and the movie is really quite well made. It never feels cheap or poorly done, like some of the more recent Godzilla movies (Megaguirus and Mechagodzilla (III), I’m looking at you).
The robot scenes are largely CGI, which is not my medium of choice. I would have loved to see what a stop-motion master like Ray Harryhausen could have done with this material. The fights are very well done though, it’s clear that a great deal of care has been put into the CGI, which, combined with the already unnatural appearance of the robots, helps to create an above-average piece of special effects work. The robots are well-drawn and have a real presence, unlike the insubstantial, weightless creations of The Mummy, or even of the otherwise superior recent Spider-Man films.
The best thing about the movie is the design and use of Black Ox. Unhampered by its lack of facial features, Black Ox constantly exudes a cool menace. You can tell that in any given scene, Black Ox is coolly and rationally contemplating how to cause the maximum mayhem possible. Scenes involving his devastation of the city are very effective, and despite this being a children’s movie, in typical Japanese fashion the chaos and casualties are very real. The titular Tetsujin-28 never feels like half the character that Black Ox does.
Tetsujin-28 is a solid effort, and compliments must be paid to the special effects designers, but, except for a few brief moments, the film never really soars.
Recommended? Yes, but mostly just for kids. The movie is pleasant and earnest, and the robot fights aren’t bad, but it lacks any great appeal for grown-ups or non-fans of the series
If you like this, you might like: Daimajin, Robot Jox, the original Macross/Robotech, Gamera
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Japan and Contributors: David and Rating: Average ★★ and Film Festivals: New York Asian Film Festival 2005 and Studios: Toho Company Ltd.