Andrew Osmond (he’s 82, you know) on Roujin-Z
The word roujin means ‘old person’ and the classic anime film Roujin Z is a hilarious nightmare of old age. You’re wrinkly, bedridden and incontinent, but that’s just the start. The younger generation has dumped you in a computerised superbed, and wheeled you on stage for a product demonstration in front of gawping med students. Before their eyes, and without leaving the bed, you’re bathed, taken to the toilet, and mercilessly exercised, all with clamps and – ugh! – suction pumps.
It’s one of anime’s great black comedy scenes, with the ludicrousness of Monty Python and the savagery of Swift. Japan may have a chronic ‘ageing population’ problem, but the bed has equal bite in England and America. Roujin Z, though, takes its satiric starting point and runs with it to epic extremes. The superbed takes on the character of the old man’s late wife, determined to take him away to the beach. It’ll be an OAP holiday with smashed buildings, riot police and the mother of massive mecha fights…
First released in 1991, Roujin Z came out of a time when anime got political, between Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor films and anticipating the rise of Kenji Kamiyama (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex) and Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers). Kon handled Roujin Z’s art design (his first anime gig), working with his world-famous mentor, Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo. Otomo’s is probably the name most associated with Roujin Z; he wrote the script and contributed to the robot designs, and it has numerous affinities with Akira.
Partly it’s the worldview; this is another film where women, even the cute ones, are strong, and the males mostly bluster. Like Akira, Roujin Z presents a barbedly believable view of relationships; a young male med student longs for the heroine, Haruko, but is willing to settle for a casual night with her friend. It’s interesting that the supercomputer-robot is female, perhaps influenced by the early Alien films with their ‘Mother’ computer and powersuited Ripley. On the male side, corporate man Terada, in his own pressed suit, has a presence surprisingly reminiscent of Akira’s Colonel, different as those characters are. Also like Akira, the film is set in a daily-life Tokyo of pachinko parlours and shopping malls.
What makes Roujin Z different, though, is the way it harnesses a heavyweight, tragic theme to a delightfully light-footed comedy, with knowingly pulpy nods toward horror; you could imagine it being remade by a 1980s-vintage John Carpenter. It does, indeed, demand a tolerance toward retro styles and limited budgets. ‘The film-makers are economical with their animation of background and secondary characters,’ wrote the US critic Roger Ebert in his review. ‘They break the film down into storyboarded shots as a comic book might, using unexpected angles and perspectives, shadows and light, surrealism and visual invention, so that the animation feels rich and complex.’
The histrionics and bawdy humour are reminiscent of the Lupin franchise. The limited animation is punctuated by flashes of old-school cool, such as the robot colossus swinging beneath a monorail (and frantically using an oncoming train as a climbing frame), and a shot of the hapless ‘useless guy’ character being knocked off his bike and bouncing painfully along on his bum. The latter moment was drawn by the revered action animator Toshiyuki Inoue, who drew much of Akira’s motorbike duelling, as well as flying broomsticks in Kiki’s Delivery Service and city-eating blobs in Paranoia Agent.
But perhaps the element of Roujin Z that lingers most in the mind is its supporting chorus of geriatric hackers, who play a crucial role in the plot. They’re portrayed as gleefully dirty, trouser-dropping gits, but also as wily foxes who run rings around the complacent corporate world of their kids, hacking data like they’re lifting sweets from newborns. They’re terrific comic creations; they also offer us hope that we might age into them, rather than into a spoonfed wretch in a bed-bath. And if we’re really good, we could come back as a supercomputer.
Roujin Z is out on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment. Andrew Osmond isn't really 82.