Despite the implication of its title, sci-fi kidflick “Hinokio” is not about a machine that wants to become a boy. It’s about a boy who uses a robot to reconnect with the world, and to shield himself from it. Overlong, wildly ambitious effort contains fascinating insights into contempo attitudes among Japanese preteens about technology and gender, among other things, while niftily mixing CG animation, game culture and live-action adventures. Released on vid in Japan this month, pic should be welcome at family-minded fests and can be used for instructional purposes in dealing with issues including childhood trauma, bullying, suicide and the handicapped.
Things start cryptically, with a car crash that leaves young Satoru (Kanata Hongo) paralyzed and his mother dead. The sixth-grader blames his father (Masatoshi Nakamura), a top robotics engineer who at least comes up with an android to perform tasks for the lad while he’s recuperating. Unbeknownst to dad, job one for the CG-assisted creation — which looks like a bike helmet with headlights — is to attend school for the boy.
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Tale’s centerpiece is the ambiguous and highly fluid relationship between the robot and his initial tormentor, the toughest kid in the class. Eventually it’s revealed, however, that baggy-pantsed Jun (Mikako Tabe) is a actually an adorable tomboy with dark issues of her own — issues that are hinted at in a way, fortunately, that should sail over the heads of most wee ones.
There are too many subplots, including long sections of a vidgame called “Purgatory,” which draws on helmer Takahiko Akiyama’s experience as an f/x designer (most notably for “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”). These segs are stunning, but their relevance to main story is dubious.
Most intriguing, and most subtly handled angle, is that characters, and auds, develop complex feelings for the nuts-and-bolts protag despite the fact he’s always presented as a mere conduit between players. Tech credits are dazzling, with Western pop songs meted out judiciously on the smart, sometimes treacly, soundtrack.