Japanese commercial films nearly always run on the well-worn rails of franchise and formula. Originality in script and concept is gifted to only a chosen few with strong box-office track records — Hayao Miyazaki, Koki Mitani and Shinobu Yaguchi among them. Though not as well-known as the anime master (Miyazaki) and the master self-promoter (Mitani), Yaguchi has reeled off hit after comedy hit over the past decade, including “Water Boys” (2001), “Swing Girls” (2004) and “Happy Flight” (2008).
Though their stories may not follow a single pattern, their heroes typically have to achieve or demonstrate some sort of mastery, be it in synchronized swimming (“Water Boys”), jazz music (“Swing Girls”) or flying commercial jets (“Happy Flight”), often starting from zero. Doing so requires teaming up with others and persevering over obstacles with the good old ganbare (“go for it”) spirit.
His new comedy, “Robo-G,” has all of the above elements, but after nearly four years away from the screen, Yaguchi combines them in new, blackly comic ways that may disappoint fans expecting the fizzy energy and rousing finales of his biggest hits. Can we put it down to more maturity in the director, or in his hero, a 73-year-old jiji (grandfather — and the supplier of the “G” in the title)? In either case, “Robo-G” has a rare freshness of concept, as well as the sort of laugh-out-loud gags fans have come to expect from Yaguchi, though they come thicker and faster in the first half-hour than the last.
Suzuki (Mickey Curtis, aka Shinjiro Igarashi) is a lonely, cranky widower who quarrels with his only daughter (Emi Wakui) and doesn’t get along well with the other old folks at the local senior center. A born ham, he wants bigger roles in their amateur stage productions than they want to give him.
Meanwhile, the three members of a robot research team at a middling electronics-maker are dozing away their days when the excitable president (Takehiko Ono) orders them to speed up work on a two-legged droid for an upcoming robot show. Then their tight deadline becomes impossible when their clunky contraption, which looks as though it has been bolted together from old vacuum cleaners and space heaters, meets an untimely end. Desperate, they put out an ad for a human who can squeeze into the robot’s battered shell, and Suzuki — seeing the good pay and lack of an age limit — applies.
Following the standard wacky audition scenes, he is hired and suited up, but his big debut at the robot show nearly turns into a bust, until he saves both the day with some impromptu dance steps, and the life of a pretty spectator (Yuriko Yoshitaka) with some quick thinking. This improbable rescue, captured on camera (or rather, a smartphone), makes him an instant folk hero, particularly to the rescued girl, a member of her college robot club, who instantly realizes that this is no ordinary robot. How long can he keep his secret?
The gag of the codger-as-robot is a good one, as Curtis, a pioneer rock’n’ roller turned reliable character actor, delivers a sly, dry performance as Suzuki. He gets easy laughs playing on the cliche of the aged Japanese male as a scratching, farting dinosaur, but he also makes us like the old goat as he opens his lonely heart and reveals his desire to somehow be useful in this world, even as playing a mechanical man.
In the third act, the plot takes a tabloid turn as the media, in the person of a bumbling cable news director (Tomoko Tabata), threatens to rip off Suzuki’s mask. Yoshitaka’s college girl becomes involved in these goings-on — best not to say how — and as the screen time of this hyper, motor-mouthed character lengthens, the film’s laugh quotient drops.
It’s not that Yoshitaka is unfunny — she comically excelled as the self-absorbed “Japanese princess” in last year’s “Kigeki Konzen Tokkyu (Cannonball Wedlock)” — but her full-throttle style, shifting through five expressions in a second, collides rather than meshes with Curtis’ lower-key approach. Intentionally or no, she steals the movie from him by sheer force.
As the three loser techies struggling with unwanted celebrity, the diminutive Gaku Hamada, lanky Junya Kawashima and porky Shogo Kawai sweat and squirm in perfect harmony, but their act, repeated again and again throughout the film, begins to look one-note.
Despite its mid-story sags, “Robo-G” arrives at a satisfactory if expected finish, while reassuring all the graying heads in the seats that there can be a second act in Japanese lives. I was also encouraged by all the real robots on the screen serving as everything from attentive nurses to tireless welders. The Suzukis of this country will someday hang up their blue or metal suits, but their mechanical simulacrums will soldier on — and perhaps, someday, be indistinguishable from their wetware models.