'Robo-G'

In the mildly amusing Nipponese comedy "Robo-G," high-tech robotics faces its low-tech nemesis in the form of an old curmudgeon who becomes a national hit by posing as an automaton.

In the mildly amusing Nipponese comedy “Robo-G,” high-tech robotics faces its low-tech nemesis in the form of an old curmudgeon who becomes a national hit by posing as an automaton. The pic boasts a remake-friendly concept that could have audaciously turned “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” on its head, but helmer-scribe Shinobu Yaguchi plays it safe with a conventional, fantasy-free storyline and TV-style execution that hardly addresses the human impact of Japan’s technological advancements. More satisfactory as feel-good family entertainment than as sci-fi fare, pic could generate moderate Asian theatrical biz, followed by equally modest ancillary.

Looking to project a cutting-edge image, electrical appliance maker Kimura Denki decides to develop a robot and unveil it at an upcoming IT expo. The company orders a team with zero related experience to cobble together a wonky droid named Shiokaze, only to see it self-destruct. Desperation being the mother of invention, team members Ota (Shogo Kawai), Kobayashi (Gaku Hamada) and Nagai (Junya Kawashima) hire old codger Shigemitsu Suzuki (Shinjiro Igarashi) to dress up in a robot suit made from Shiokaze’s salvaged carcass.

At the expo, Suzuki makes headlines when he saves the life of magazine intern Yoko (Yuriko Yoshitaka). Overnight, Shiokaze is hailed as an android prototype of superior technology, capable of thinking on its feet. At first reluctant but eventually relishing their celebrity status, the four protags find themselves on a cross-country tour; at one university presentation, they run into Yoko, a science major who’s experimenting on a robot using Shiozaki as a blueprint.

Auds will know it’s only a matter of time before Suzuki blows his cover, but the good-humored, self-consciously silly plot manages to keep them wondering long enough. When the revelation finally comes, it’s through a slyly inserted plot detail that’s matched by an equally neat denouement. But for the most part, the screenplay is a lame, wearying affair; there are a few slapstick gags that have fun with the robot’s stiff joints and his habit of breaking into traditional odori dancing on the least suitable occasions, but these are spread very thin over the unnecessarily long running time.

Known for popular comedies exhorting Japanese-style team spirit (“Dive Boys!,” “Swing Girls,” “Happy Flight”), Yaguchi directs in the same by-the-numbers fashion here. The inspirational thrust is apparent in scenes in which Ota, Kobayashi and Nagai work with Yoko and her classmates to invent the second-generation Shiokaze; the men’s sudden transformation from clock-punching corporate drones into dedicated, innovative researches feels bogus and cheesy. The pic’s oft-repeated theme, that machines cannot trump humans because humans have heart, is not developed enough to realistically examine how much Japanese society depends on technology and how that affects relationships.

Adopting a Japanese stage name (Shinjiro Igarashi) for the first time, former rock star and character actor Mickey Curtis does a charismatic turn as the headstrong but wily Suzuki. His low-key perf exudes quiet dignity as someone who still wants to be gainfully employed, despite being considered a nuisance by family and society. Other supporting thesps go through the motions, while female lead Yoshitaka gives a caricatured turn as a machine geek.

Reportedly, no CG or special effects were used to render the robot, though neither the story nor the overall style is better for it. Tech credits are in the league of midbudget Japanese TV productions.

The letter “G” in the title is a pun on jii, the Japanese word for grandpa or elderly man.

Robo-G

Japan

Production

A Robo-G Film Partners presentation of an Altamira Pictures production. (International sales: Pony Canyon, Tokyo.) Produced by Chihiro Kameyama, Junichi Shinsaka, Atsushi Terada. Executive producer, Shouji Masui. Co-producers, Naoto Inaba, Shintaro Horikawa, Takao Tsuchimoto. Directed, written by Shinobu Yaguchi.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Katsumi Yanagishima; editor, Ryuji Miyajima; music/music supervisor, Miki Yoshino; production designer, Takayuki Niita; art director/set decorator, Nobuhiro Akitakaya; costume designer, Mariko Honda; sound (Dolby Digital), Hiromichi Kori; re-recording mixer, Hiromichi Kori; robot designer, Go Shimizu; visual effects supervisor, Norio Ishii; line producer, Yuko Maemura; assistant director, Koji Yamaguchi; casting, Yume Minamidani. Reviewed on DVD, Hong Kong, March 14, 2012. (In Hong Kong Film Festival -- I See It My Way.) Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Shinjiro Igarashi,Yuriko Yoshitaka, Shogo Kawai, Gaku Hamada, Junya Kawashima, Emi Wakui, Tomoko Tabata. (Japanese dialogue)

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