Browsing through Netflix’s offering of Japanese films is an interesting exercise. On the one hand, there are a good number of titles available. On the other hand, once you get past the first 10 or so options, you realize that the remainder of them really had no business ever being made. Aside from a handful of decent samurai flicks, the selection is mostly limited to thinly disguised pornography, and hokey, CG-filled, not-even-B movies destined for the $1 DVD bin. Sometimes, however, that is just what you are looking for…
If you’ve never seen a Noboru Iguchi movie (The Machine Girl, RoboGeisha) you’ll probably have no idea of what to expect. He specializes in the horror, gore, and pornography genres, and his movies all combine little bits of each of those into something much weirder than you are probably imagining right now. His movies contain just the right amount of irreverence, slapstick, sex, and toilet humor to really make you wonder what on Earth you are watching.
Iguchi’s Karate-Robo Zaborgar (電人ザボーガー Denjin Zaborgar) is one of those movies that is so bad it’s good. Released in 2011, it is a remake of the 1974 tokusatsu series of the same name. Interestingly, this movie does an excellent job of evoking the old-school tokusatsu feeling, which would probably be really appreciated by nostalgic fans of the original series (if there actually are any). The movie re-uses the old music from the original show, and faithfully recreates the costumes, characters, and even the over-the-top forced lines and hammy acting of the 70’s. It uses surprisingly little CG until the 2nd half of the movie (I’ll get into that later), which helps maintain the retro feel of the movie. Though I have never seen the original series, it appears that Iguchi went so far as to rehash the entire plot of the show’s 52-episode run — another impressive feat considering the current trend of “rebooting” old stories into unrecognizable parodies of their namesakes in an attempt to help younger audiences relate to the stories. Karate-Robo Zaborgar knows that it is crap, and doesn’t have the pretentiousness to pretend to be otherwise.
I won’t summarize the plot in too much detail, because no amount of explanation would help this story make sense. If you grew up watchingPower Rangers, or other spin-offs of Japanese tokusatsu shows, you know the drill: crazy costumed hero and his super robot sidekick battle a comically evil villain, protecting truth, justice, and chivalry all the while. Giant, rubber-suited monsters and spandex-clad babes serve an evil doctor who lives in space and whose goal is no less than the destruction of mankind AND said hero. The formula never changes, but for some reason, it never gets old. What makes Zaborgar interesting, however, is that it is split into two parts with two distinct styles.
Part one takes place when the hero, Yutaka Daimon, is a young rebel and member of the secret police force. The whole of part one has a retro, 1970’s feel, complete with rubber-suited monsters, hokey music and grandiose lines, and explosions. The monsters all have insane names, and shout their names when they appear, as if they knew they were performing for an audience. This of course makes it all the more hilarious when monsters like a giant acid-spitting metal cockroach named “Diarrhea Robot” take the stage. The acting is hammy and the shots all look cheap and silly, but it is fertile ground for laughs. Anyone who grew up watching this kind of show on TV will find a false sense of nostalgia watching this, even if they never saw the original show. Despite all of it’s (major) plot holes, it has an undenial charm.
Part two takes place 25 years later. Daimon is an older, out-of-shape, diabetic chauffeur. The story takes a dramatic turn, from campy to just plain stupid. The rubber suits are out, and fake-looking CG is in. The stunts are no longer performed by acrobats in empty dirt lots, but by CG-created models against CG-created backdrops. The evil babe of part two loses her spandex robot suit and gets a typical schoolgirl outfit instead. The story really falls apart in part two, both because of the change in visual themes, and the loss of the campy story creating a false sense of nostalgia. The charm is lost.
Rather than just saying part one sucked so bad that it was enjoyable, while part two just plain sucked, I think there is something more interesting going on here. Because part one takes place 25 years prior to part two, I think the director made a conscious choice to shoot in two different styles. Part one reflects the style of the older tokusatsu shows, while part two reflects the style of shows you’ll see on TV today. Those same disappointing CG shots and lack of people wearing rubber-costumes performing the stunts are part of what make a lot of people like me dislike newer tokusatsu shows and look back fondly on the older ones. Perhaps people who grew up watching the newer, CG-heavy versions of Power Rangers (and so-on) might look at part two more favorably than part one.
Ironically, this campy, barely-known, low-budget B-movie remake of a little-known 70’s action show ends up being a rather intelligent and tongue-in-cheek parody of the entire tokusatsu genre in general. Not that that makes up for any of its severe failings, but it is interesting, and shows that Noboru is a great deal more brilliant than your average schlock-movie director. It’s definitely worth sitting down with some friends and mocking, and it’s a rare gem among so-bad-it’s-good films for it’s introspective look at the genre. Plus, it’s got a sentient motorcycle that knows karate! And of course, you can stream it for free if you have a Netflix subscription.