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Yatterman (2009)
Director: Takashi Miike

review by Max Cairnduff

The original Yatterman was an anime series airing between 1977 and 1979. If you're Japanese, in your late thirties and looking for a film to watch with your kids that will be fun for them but still have some laughs for you this isn't a bad choice. If you're not, well, it has its moments. If you miss those moments, don't worry, it repeats them.

Yatterman is a teenage boy and girl hero team. Gan Takada (Sho Sakurai) is Yatterman 1, a toymaker's son and mecha-inventor. Ai Kaminari (Saki Fukuda) is Yatterman 2, Gan's long suffering pink-costumed girlfriend. Sakurai and Fukuda are, naturally, impossibly cute. Together with Yatterwoof, their dog-themed mecha who ends pretty much every sentence with 'woof', and their dice-shaped flying robot companion Toybotty (who ends pretty much every sentence with botty, and fills the obligatory cute sidekick role) they fight evil. As is usual in the sort of show this is based on evil comes in pretty much the same form every week, the Dorombo gang.

Yatterman starts mid-battle, and doesn't pause for its (frankly overlong) 111 minute length. The evil Dorombo gang have created a mecha based on Iron Chef, and this time it looks like they're finally going to defeat Yatterman once and for all. Can Yatterman survive? Probably, we are less than ten minutes in after all. There are, at least, two more set-piece battles with themed evil mecha to go.

Where Yatterman works best is in its sheer colourful insanity. This is a film the word hyperkinetic was invented for. Miike gleefully embraces Yatterman's world and just has a lot of fun with it. Cleverly, though, it's not all surface, because there's also a powerful subtext of sexual frustration and longing that would sail over most kids' heads but which for anyone past puberty is impossible to miss.

The Yatterman pair rescue an archaeologist's daughter, Shoko Kaieda, a girl who holds one part of the mythical skull stone which is said to grant a miracle to anyone who gathers all four pieces. As they all try to recover a second piece, Shoko gets stung by a scorpion. Yatterman 1 promptly shoves his girlfriend out of the way and thrusts his head between Shoko's thighs so as to suck out the venom. Later, when Shoko asks Ai what it's like to kiss someone, Ai sighs that it's pretty dull after the first time. There's a distinct sense she'd rather be doing something else with Gan than fighting evil every week.

The Dorombo gang are just as conflicted. Leather-clad vamp Lady Doronjo leads them, but when they each dream of what they will do with the miracle if they get all the skull pieces her dream is of being a simple housewife, pregnant and buying dinner for her husband as he returns home. Rat-like genius Boyacky is erotically fixated on Lady Doronjo, and lecherously dreams that the miracle will give him access to all the schoolgirls in Japan. It's evident though that he doesn't have much idea what he'd do with them. Finally there's the pig-like thug Tonzra (Kendo Kobayashi), devoted to Boyacky and dreaming of being a wrestler grappling with a giant penis-headed opponent.

Even the mecha aren't spared. In one climactic battle Yatterman and the Dorombo gang both are dismayed as Yatterwoof and the Dorombo gang's Bridesmaid-bot grapple each other in a way that though very intense is definitely not hostile. The mecha are fun, the gadgets suitably silly, the evil schemes the Dorombo gang come up with to fund their plots are comically elaborate. There are some lovely side jokes (I particularly liked the contrast between the bombastic voiceover song that plays when Yatterman are travelling to a new location on Yatterwoof and the evident travel-sickness Yatterman 1 and 2 both feel as they try to hold on and maintain their heroic poses). The problem is that what would make a fun half-hour gets stretched out to nearly two.

Miike is incredibly faithful to the original source material, featuring the same mix of songs, jokes, epic battles and mecha of the week. The problem is this isn't a weekly cartoon, it's a nearly two-hour long movie and the result is that it feels distinctly like three or so stitched together episodes of a highly repetitive children's show that almost nobody outside Japan will have seen.

Yatterman and the Dorombo gang fight. Yatterman is nearly beaten. Things look bleak, but somehow Yatterman recovers and the evil Dorombo gang are defeated (they know they're always defeated, they refer to it often). Toybotty does something clumsy to amuse the under-fives in the audience. The undercurrent of sexual frustration and the sense that everyone involved is stuck in some kind of extended childhood that has long since ceased being enjoyable for any of them means that the film mocks its own premise, but that only helps so far. In the end the material just doesn't support the length, and what starts out as amusing and refreshingly inappropriate just becomes a chore.

The Yatterman DVD comes with a teaser trailer, cast and crew interviews, two behind-the-scenes featurettes and a promo stills gallery.


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