Yatterman is a colorful, overblown, largely idiotic live-action adaptation of an anime series from 1977. It’s also a painful illustration of every weak point wildly hit-or-miss director Takashi Miike possesses, while at the same time it fails to highlight any of the thing he does well. Miike’s staunch unwillingness to make anything less than 14,000 movies a week means that if nothing else, he became by virtue of quantity alone a force to be reckoned with in the reeling, post-bubble Japanese film industry, when more and more directors retreated into the realm of the low-budget direct-to-video (and later, DVD) market. Miike’s prolific nature meant that he produced a few incredibly bad movies, a whole lot of mediocre ones, and a few that either were or teetered on brilliant.
His surreal and tastelessly twisted yakuza films Dead or Alive and Fudoh: The Next Generation garnered him a significant international cult following, and it was because of those movies that I, like many, decided to hop on the wild roller coaster ride of following Takashi Miike’s career. More times than not, I was happy with what I saw, even if most of his films were very flawed. At their best, though, they were like a good punk band — sloppy, haphazard, uneven, but awesome never the less. In 2005, he was the unlikely choice to direct Great Yokai War, a fairly big budget, mainstream fantasy film directed at least in part at kids.
Like many, I was pretty psyched to see what sort of mad concoction would come out of a kids’ movie directed by a guy best known for movies where a porn actress is drowned in a kiddie pool of feces or a schoolgirl assassin shoots poison darts out of her vagina — a couple of the more subdued examples of Miike’s trademark tendency toward the outrageous. The movie we got was uneven but ultimately rewarding. Miike’s taste for the bizarre lent the story the air of surreal weirdness it needed, and his willingness to inject some sexual tension made it a much more believable “coming of age” story than one that pretends teenage boys do not experience those certain “urges,” especially around perpetually wet water nymphs that look like Mai Takahashi. At the same time, the movie was longer than it needed to be, suffered from awkward pacing, and had some bad CGI in places where the CGI needed to be good. Plus, screaming little kids always get on my nerves. Despite the missteps along the way, however, I liked Great Yokai War, and the couple of times I’ve watched it since first viewing it have moved me to like it even more. There’s a curious but undeniable heart to it.
The same flaws as affected Great Yokai War had not been ironed out of Miike’s work by the time Yatterman, his next big-budget kids’ fantasy film, rolled into production. And unfortunately, Yatterman benefits from none of the redeeming qualities that made Great Yokai War watchable. Instead, Yatterman is loud, stupid, painfully overlong, and stuffed to the gills with excruciatingly unfunny slapstick comedy. The nicest thing I can say about the movie is that it successfully captures the vibrantly colored look and feel of the anime series, but while that seems to be enough for some people to write this movie a pass, I need something a little more than “it looks like the thing it’s trying to look like.” Yatterman simply has nothing to offer me beyond a few funny jokes that are buried in a two hour long landslide of dumb that, aside from being dumb, is also lethally boring — unless, I suppose, you think a guy in a cheap rat nose mask making exaggerated surprised faces at the camera, and the camera lingering on those broad reactions for about twenty seconds longer than sane cinematic pacing calls for, is the funniest thing since Benny Hill first thought to pat that little old man on the head in fast motion.
Our story begins in mid-battle. A trio of purportedly comical villains — rat-faced Boyacky (Katsuhisa Namase), pig faced Tonzuraa (Kendo Kobayashi), and stunning masked beauty Duronjo (Kyoko Fukada) — are locked in mortal combat against two masked heroes– Yatterman One, aka Gan (handsome but goofy Sho Sakurai) and Yatterman Two, aka Ai-chan (cute and cuddly Saki Fukuda). Much CGI and overly wacky slapstick abounds, until such time as the three bad guys summon their giant, wok-themed robot to squash the heroes properly. Unfortunately for the miscreants, Yatterman and his lovely sidekick have a robot of their own, a dog robot that doesn’t quite qualify as a giant robot, so let’s call it a modestly big robot. Through a series of hi-jinks, the villains actually seem to succeed in besting the heroes, but then in a fit of celebration that they’ve finally succeeded in what we’re to assume is a weekly battle (one of the film’s few funny jokes comes when the heroes point out the formulaic nature of the original TV show by saying that they engage in this same battle every week at 6:30 pm), they trigger their own robot’s self-destruct button, leaving the Yatters victorious and the villains being chastised by the avatar of their mysterious boss.
While making their way through the ruins of their urban battlefield, Gan and Ai discover a dazed young woman named Shoko (Anri Okamoto). It turns out that Shoko is the daughter of famed archeologist Dr. Kaiede (Sadao Abe, Great Yokai War), and that she has in her possession something that the villains want very much to possess. Her father had discovered the pieces of a mystical crystal skull whose powers were vague but potentially dangerous. The scientist, sensing that something was evil about the skull, what with it being a blue glowing skull and all, scattered pieces of it around the globe, but in the process was devoured by the skull-faced evil spirit known as the God of Thieves, the very entity commanding Doronjo and her duo of inept henchmen. Shoko pleads with Gan to help her find her father and recover the missing pieces of the skull before the bad guys.
By all accounts, Takashi Miike has been enamored most of his life with the old Yatterman cartoon, and turning it into a big budget, live-action adventure film has been the culmination of a career spent filming women birthing fully grown yakuza bosses or shooting gallons upon gallons of breast milk onto an appreciative visitor. As with much that Miike says in interviews, I can’t tell if he’s sincere, or if it’s just a load of bullshit meant to market the movie to his fans (he also told us we’d be happier after this movie than we were before, and that turned out to be a lie). Perhaps it’s both. I tend to lean toward Miike having a genuine affection for the material and throwing himself into this adaptation with boundless glee. That might explain not just the meticulous recreation of an anime world via a combination of live actors and CGI. It also explains Miike’s unwillingness to cut anything out or leave this playground when he should. As such, we are stuck in his seemingly endlessly meandering, nostalgic fantasy. It’s a little bit like having to listen to someone tell you about a dream they had. It was obviously fascinating for them while it was happening, but the retelling turns it into something unfocused, nonsensical, and boring.
But let’s start with the good, because I’m nothing if not positive. Miike is working with a lot of the same people as worked with him on Great Yokai War, and by this point, they really know what they’re doing when they set out to bring a fantasy world to life. In the yokai movie, it was the legions of insane and absurd monsters and ghosts that populate Japanese mythology. In Yatterman, they get to create an entire world. What they came up with looks like a shiny plastic toy version of Shibuya. There’s no attempt to make the CGI look “realistic,” and given the subject matter, no attempt need have been made. The robots look either like cartoons or toys. Humans are flung about with the limb-failing solidity of rag dolls. Everything is bright and candy colored. As a work of visual art alone, Yatterman is a resounding success. Heck, it was the riotous look of the movie, even before I read about it and knew Miike directed, that initially made me want to watch it.
Similarly, the costume department knew what they were doing. Working very closely from the original anime designs, they crafted a set of characters who look exactly like they should. Anime characters made flesh, filtered through the latex rubber prism of a tokatsu superhero show. Teen idol Sho Sakurai looks almost exactly like his anime counterpart, and there’s really no arguing at all with the live action version of Doronjo. Miike also cleverly cuts corners and spoofs the appearance of the original characters without being too terribly blunt about it. Tonzuraa and Boyacky, for instance, achieve their animal like appearances by affixing to their faces a couple of those cheap, rubber novelty noses that can be bought at pretty much any drugstore. All of the principle stars are camping it up, as the look and feel of the movie and their characters demand, cranking everything up just past the point where they should have stopped. Again, so far, so good. I don’t mind a bit of hamminess, after all.
But beyond the visuals of the movie, we start to tread on precariously thin ice. Since this is supposed to be a comedy, the movie tries to be funny. I know funny is subjective, but for me, there were exactly two jokes in the entire two hours of this film that I found funny — which means I laughed at about ten seconds out of 110 minutes. That’s not a stellar ratio. The first joke revolves around the Yatters riding atop their giant robot dog in their anime poses. Done frequently int he original series, as well as countless others, Miike chooses to recreate it then show it to be a horrifying, torturous ordeal, exposing the heroes to bad weather and terrible bouts of nausea as they are whipped about by the traveling robot. The second laugh came in the form of a throw-away sight gag that lasts a couple of seconds. Yatterman discovers that the skull can somehow wreak havoc with time. For a reason that is never explained and probably doesn’t need to be, the destabilization of the world’s timeline starts making famous monuments disappear. When the movie shows New York’s George Washington bridge vanish, we see that or no reason at all, there is a tyrannosaurus rex rampaging across it.
That last joke is the sort of non sequitur. nonsense I think this movie was shooting for, but for me, it’s the only instance in which Yatterman gets it right. I remember watching, some years ago, an interview with British comedian Julian Barratt. Barratt is one half of the duo responsible for the television/stage show The Mighty Boosh, and I think his words about that show apply very much to Yatterman, since The Mighty Boosh is an example of a similar style of comedy as Takashi Miike seems to be striving fr, but one that was, at least for me, actually successful (and I’ll acknowledge that many people disagree with me over how funny The Mighty Boosh is). Anyway, Barratt was talking about the difference between being “silly” and being “wacky.” He and the show strove for silliness, something that was absurd but perhaps understated in a weird way, as opposed to wackiness, which is just a guy screaming at the top of his lungs and hitting himself int he head with a fish. Wackiness is almost always tiresome and trying on the patience, as it mistakes obnoxious loudness and pointless mugging for being funny.
I feel like Yatterman might have been aiming for silliness and ended up being wacky instead. The Mighty Boosh didn’t always succeed, and pretty much all of the jokes in the series that failed, failed because they wandered out of the realm of the silly and into the wacky. Yatterman, by comparison, seems to reside almost entirely in the realm of the wacky, a pointless and blunt assault on the senses, and only a couple times remembers that it’s better to be silly. The thin ice on which the film stats to tread when you get past it’s wonderful art direction collapses entirely once you start looking at the film as anything other than a series of beautiful still photos, and this happens because the movie doesn’t seem to know the difference between being wacky and being funny.
The comedy here is mostly mugging and slapstick — and even that can be funny when executed well. But Miike can’t do subtle comedy (and as brash as his filmography may be, he actually can do subtle in many other ways). It’s like being stuck in a room with an obnoxious guy who keeps sticking his face in yours and making funny faces. It’s almost instantly tiresome, and eventually it goes from tiresome to downright annoying. By the end of the first hour, I wanted some strange sci-fi movie thing to happen where the movie Yatterman becomes an actual flesh and blood human being. That way, I could punch it in the face and tell it to shut the fuck up. It falls upon Katsuhisa Namase, as the rat-faced henchman with a not-so-secret yearning for his scantily clad boss, to deliver most of the hijinks, and as a result, he enters the inauspicious halls of the very worst in odious comic relief.
What’s even worse than all the loud and brainless slapstick wackiness is Miike’s effort to milk comedy out of camp twists on drama. The script throws a couple romantic subplots into the mix — the aforementioned love for Doronjo burning in Boyacky, and a potential romantic square between Gan, Ai, Doronjo and the archaeologist’s daughter. The overwrought melodrama in these situations is supposed to elicit a chuckle or two from the audience, but once again, Miike’s inability to know when enough is enough torpedoes any chance at chuckles. This movie is full of scenes and camera shots that linger way too long, resulting in something akin to the awkward silence of watching a stage actor forget their lines, or an actor in a film obviously waiting for the queue for endless seconds that probably should have been edited out of the final product. There’s a way to do that humorously (case in point — Black Dynamite), but Takashi Miike simply does not have the knack for the precision sense of timing that sort of comedy requires.
The lack of a proper sense of timing also wrecks the finale, in which the heroes and villains square off for a final showdown that seems to go one forever and wasn’t worth watching int he first place. The God of Thieves is revealed to be a dude with an oversized skull (another triumph for the art department — they managed to be funnier here than the script) and, later, the possessed form of Dr. Kaieda. The battle, first between Yatterman and the villains’ giant squid robot, and later between Yatterman and the God of Thieves himself, rags on endlessly, with nary a single thrill or laugh. Imagine that something really wild and cool happened. Now imagine that, instead of experiencing the really wild and cool thing first hand, you had the entire event relayed to you by a terrible storyteller who heard it from a boring storyteller. That’s how the finale of Yatterman feels.
oddly, one fo the things a lot of people attack the film for is something I have no problem with, and that’s the somewhat adult fare that creeps in from time to time. As a kid who was watching dirty and gory movies before most kids had learned to stop peeing their diapers, “not suitable for children” is a concept that I can’t honestly rally around. What is and isn’t appropriate for any one child depends almost entirely on that child and on that child’s parents. As he did with Great Yokai War, Miike lets a little more sexiness creep into the movie than would be considered appropriate by someone with stronger morals over such things than me. Doronjo is the most obvious source of the sexiness, but the scene in which Gan sucks poison out of Shoko’s thigh probably wouldn’t go over too well with the American church-going public. But neither of these things bothered me, partly because I think there are kids who could handle it perfectly well, but also because I think the standards of what is kid-appropriate are different in Japan they they are in the United States.
What I do consider offensive, however, is how wretchedly unfunny the film’s attempts at juvenile sex jokes are. At one point, the giant dog robot fights a robot made int he shape of a woman with freakishly gigantic pendulous boobs. Rather than fighting however, the two robots apparently get the hots for one another and, against the wishes of their respective masters, engage in a bit of robo-humping. Sigh. It’s not even Porky’s level funny. Hell, it’s not even HOTS level funny, and like the others, the scene goes on for way longer that it should have. Actually, it’s exactly the sort of stupid unfunny sex joke that you might expect from a little kid who has just learned about stupid, unfunny sex jokes. In that sense, then, perhaps Yatterman succeeds. If I’d seen this as a little kid, the bright colors, pointlessly manic action, and stupid sex jokes might ave been the height of hilarity to me. Unfortunately, I can’t go back and watch this movie with the mindset of a ten year old boy. I’m squarely rooted in the mindset of a sixteen year old boy, after all (because I like having a driver’s license), and one who has no nostalgic tie to the original Yatterman series. That means pretty much every single aspect of this film fails miserably for me.
For me, Yatterman was like a self-indulgent child banging pots together, desperate for someone to pay attention to how hilarious it is — sure, it’s hard to ignore it, but all that noise doesn’t translate into something exciting or amusing. It’s just loud, stupid, and irritating. Yatterman found a fanbase, mostly among American fans who are wholly omitted to liking anything from Japan or anything having to do with anime. It was a hit for a couple weeks in Japan, but mostly because it was an event movie, rather than because anyone who saw it actually liked it. I don’t doubt that some of the fans of this movie genuinely liked it and thought it was funny, but I also won’t hesitate to say that I think a lot of people champion this movie because they feel like they have to, that they’re forcing themselves to like it just because it was a wacky, slapstick adaptation of some piece of anime most of them had probably never seen but, having now heard of it thanks to this movie, will pretend like they’ve been a fan since the late 1970s.
Whether you really did have fun with this movie, or whether you’re simply deluding yourself, I don’t begrudge you your enjoyment. But for me, Christ almighty this movie was awful. At the beginning of this article, I said I felt like Great Yokai War had real heart to it. I don’t feel that about Yatterman, and maybe that’s my problem more than it is Miike’s but I’m the one watching the movie. Yatterman feels completely devoid of any soul at all, despite Miike’s proclaimed love for the source material. I would call it the worst movie I’ve seen in the past ten years, but earlier in 2010, I saw The Last Airbender, and that greedily gobbled up most of my “absolute worst ever” awards. Still Yatterman occupies a prime position in those rarefied and sparsely populated heights containing movies I genuinely loathed.
Release Year: 2009 | Country: Japan | Starring: Sho Sakurai, Saki Fukuda, Kyoko Fukada, Katsuhisa Namase, Kendo Kobayashi, Anri Okamoto, Sadao Abe | Screenplay: Masashi Sogo | Director: Takashi Miike | Cinematographer: Hideo Yamamoto | Music: Ikuro Fujiwara, Masaaki Jinbo | Producer: Yoshinori Chiba, Naoki Sato, Takahiro Sato, Akira Yamamoto