You have to admire Takashi Miike's genre defying approach to cinema. He not only refuses to specifically aim his output in one singular direction in terms of theme, but he also somehow manages to create hybrids that sit comfortably in a pigeonhole. Whilst this might give video store owners some annoyance, as they have to keep scratching their heads in confusion as to which shelf Miike's films should rest on, it is something to be admired by fans of eclecticism in cinema.
There are few areas his works have not delved into; with Audition (1999) he looked at the scares associated with gender chillers, then he went on to twist the themes of grim sadism further with Ichi the Killer (2001) whilst throwing in some dark splatter humour. In the same year he took a further turn into the truly left-field and made a surrealistic zombie comedy musical, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and followed it up with a fairly straightforward remake of Kinji Fukasaku's Graveyard of Honour (2002). More recently he's come to the attention of many in the West thanks to a cameo by Quentin Tarantino in his insanely over-the-top homage to cowboy films Sukiyaki Western Django. These however are just the pick of the crop, and he has made a significant amount in between, making him surely one of the hardest working directors around.
With Yatterman, Miike once again takes a standard idea and slants it to revolve around his own personal extreme tastes. Based on the 1970s children's television cartoon series of the same name, it has little in the way that marks it out as a likely project for a man who has brought so much violence to the screen throughout his career. That though is the beauty of Miike's output - love him or hate him, you never know what he's going to do next or what influences he's going to fuse. Clearly he has seen something in the mecha (big robots to the layman) fights and bold colours that might be worth playing with.
The story is typical seventies kid's TV fare, with there being little in the way of complexity. Two adolescents, Gan Takada and Ai Kanimari, battle the evil Dorombow gang while both groups head in search of the same thing - the elusive “skull stone”. The villains are lead by the sexy figure of Doronjo, a leather clad lady who appears to be wearing Batman's mask, flanked by her two henchmen - Tonzra and Boyacky. They are instructed in their nefarious missions by an elusive character describing himself as “Skullobey, God of thieves” who through various contraptions can speak to them and either give them their orders, or more frequently, punish them in increasingly dastardly ways for failing in the task at hand. They make money via a series of madcap scams and use their ill gotten gains to build fearsome mechas they can pilot. Thankfully, in the ever present fashion of balance that children's television teaches us, this potential advantage is negated by the young duo, collectively called “Yatterman”, and their own robot constructing skills. Gan's father being the owner of a huge toy store and Ai's father an electronics shop owner, the progeny having inherited their respective parent's skills and use these abilities to make their own aids to battle the Dorombow gang, like a giant red robotic dog called “Yatterwoof”.
Like the Wachowski brothers' 2008 live action revival of the classic Mahha GoGoGo , on the face of it everything is merely a heightened version of a show that lives in the memories of its intended audience. The first ten minutes do little to change this assessment, as the Yatterman pair and the Dorombow gang straight away launch into an immensely over-the-top fight that includes weird mecha, speeded up kung-fu and giant kitchen utensils. It all seems completely senseless and intended for younger viewers to lap up without ever putting their brains into gear. The action is as far out as it's possible to go without actually entering the stratosphere and would easily pass for almost any other director's drug induced breakdown of a film. For Miike, this is just another example of taking a concept and running with it - he takes the bare bones of cartoon fight scenes and at no point attempts to tailor them into the realm of live action footage. Instead, he follows the ridiculousness of the themes to the nth degree, in an admirably purist manner. It is hard not to find yourself getting caught up in the heightened camp and kitsch fight scenes that so often emulate animated Saturday morning kids fodder around the globe.
Where Yatterman diverts from other more mainstream/Americanised updated children's show is the use of more adult material. As with so many Japanese anime/manga, there is an underlying perviness to proceedings that occasionally permeates the top layer and diverts what has been a seemingly innocent piece into a somewhat more uncomfortable watch. Some of this takes on a Carry On style of risqué moments, such as a fight where Boyacky is propelled through the air only to find himself, hands out and cupped, heading towards the chest of Doronjo - nothing that would look terribly out of place at teatime on a Sunday and not much more than a saucy seaside postcard of innuendo. This impishness, if kept in check, would have been an added layer to the film, but it escalates to a point whereby it seems almost like we're walking in on an obscure internet site of Miike's own construction. Simple titillation is one thing, but once we see a giant mecha with protruding bare bosoms, which are used as a “titty machinegun” things start to feel a little weird. The culmination of this is a battle in which the huge robotic dog somehow becomes sexually aroused by this and humps its combatant in a truly bizarre moment.
The story moves along at a decent pace, but with there being little to show here other than the next battle, the length of the film starts to become an issue. At just under two hours, it could have done with trimming the fat in order to keep things tight and for viewers not to lose interest by the conclusion. It has its roots in a television show and the structure perhaps suited that format better, with continual battles and a threadbare plot to take us to them. The script is actually quite good, and keeps up the kitsch value nicely, but ultimately this too suffers from the running time. There are only so many ways in which newer viewers to the concept of Yatterman will want to watch these characters and their escapades without any sense of progression. The value of the film experience comes in the form of the sets and the outlandish nature of the skewed universe in which it all takes place. Locations such as Ogypt and Narway help shift the world to a strange dimension where all is similar to ours, but not quite the same, with parody and homage being prevalent.
It's hard not to be charmed by Yatterman, as the script is knowingly absurd - “As long as Yatterman is here, evil's flower will never bloom”. The fight scenes work hard to produce a visual spectacle, but whilst the use of CG and live action can blend well, there are many instances of foreground and background simply not meshing. To an extent this can be overlooked, as the kitsch nature of it all allows for this to seem part of the experience. It is nice to see musical numbers like those in Miike's The Happiness of the Katakuris as well, with lines that make the dialogue itself look like Dickens, one fine example being the ridiculous “Lift their legs in a funny way, it's what they do when they win”. The overly sexualised nature of some scenes, though perhaps in line with the original series, works as a slightly counterproductive tool though, and this, coupled with the childish source material, is only likely to split any potential market for the film. If you are still of an age when drawing rude objects in textbooks is amusing then this will no doubt hit the mark, but for most, particularly those unfamiliar with such titillating tactics often utilised in Japanese anime/manga, I dare say it will simply make a care-free mecha based guilty pleasure seem strangely seedy.