I’m used to Takashi Miike working on multiple levels by now. He did this before with Great Yokai War, which was a kiddy movie in the guise of a satire of same … or maybe the other way around, depending on how old you are and how conscious you are of the wink-wink approach to such material.
Tatsunoko must have liked Yokai, ‘cos they put Miike in the driver’s seat for a live-action remake of their show Yatterman and gave him a budget that was probably the GNP of several small countries. What he gave them back was a mostly straight-up adaptation of the original, with physical gags galore and terrific set / costume / prop design — but with his trademark nudges-in-the-audience’s-ribs dialed down a bit. It’s just subversive enough to be funny, but not quite transcendent in the way the best of Miike’s movies seem to reach by not only poking fun at the goings-on but squeezing them until they popped.
What Yatterman gets right — and gets away with — is a riff on both celebrating and mocking how formulaic the original TV show was. It featured a boy-and-girl team of do-gooders, Gan and Ai, the Yatterman of the title, who “every 6:30 PM on Saturday” (they actually make a point of this in the dialogue) jump into their giant robot dog Yatterwoof and zip off to fight the wicked lady thief Doronjo (a riotous Kyoko Fukada) and her goofball sidekicks Tonzuraa and Boyacky. Every episode is the same: after some struggle and the intervention of what looks like a cybernetic Scooby snack, Yatterman persevere, evil is defeated, and the bad guys get spanked for their incompetence by their perennially-unseen overlord.
The funny stuff is, indeed, very funny. I admit I laughed, harder than I probably should have, at a scene where both Yatterman and Doronjo’s mecha engage in combat and end up flirting with each other in a scene that seems designed to test the limits of a PG-13 rating. I also cracked a smile when we’re shown that wicked-witch Doronjo’s deepest, most fervent fantasy is to be happily married and bringing up baby … and how Gan becomes her target for said daydream when he mistakenly gives her a first kiss. Or when the Yatterman crew pile into a newly-rebuilt mecha to journey to the other side of the world, discover they haven’t bothered to install things like seatbelts or cushions, and spend most of the journey sick to the gills while cheerful music blares on the soundtrack.
I never saw the live-action Speed Racer — no inclination on my part, sorry — but Yatterman looks the way I imagined such a film would. Everything looks like it’s made out of vinyl, the sets are pure Tim Burton in their absurdity, and even the CGI is done with a cartoonish gusto that most movies like this mistakenly try to make “realistic”. Stuff like this isn’t supposed to be realistic, for the same reason a comedy like Bringing Up Baby loses its savor if you try to make it realistic. The fun is in seeing things boil over.
What’s missing, if anything is missing from a movie this gaudy, is the way Miike would take the way he would comment on the goings-on and turn them up to eleven. I kept thinking we were being primed for some insane third-act twist where all those jabs in the ribs about it being just a TV show are played off, and everyone involved would suddenly have to deal with that fact. Think about it: being on a TV show where you always come back next week — that’s a little like discovering you’re a living incarnation of Nietzsche’s Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence.
Then again, maybe that road would have led to something like Yaji and Kita, which was fun for an hour, then detoured into self-referential territory and became aimless and excruciating. Maybe I should be grateful Miike just decided to give the fans what they wanted, and only winked at them as much as he needed.