Roujin Z (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Manga Entertainment/Kaze UK) Running time: 80 minutes approx.
In a near future Japan, to combat the growing burden on hospital staff to tend to the elderly, the Ministry of Public Welfare has sanctioned the development of an all purpose, nuclear powered, automated bed named the Z-0001, hailed as the future of healthcare. This computerised caring machine will handle every single task required to aid the elderly and infirmed, including cleaning, feeding, changing their clothes, and so on with the aid of robotic accessories, and can monitor their internal systems and administer simple treatments in case of an emergency. Randomly picked as a guinea pig for the Z-001 is dying widower Kiyuro Takazawa, against the objections of his carer, trainee nurse Haruko Mitsuhashi despite his family’s approval. All seems well until the Z-001’s computer begins to develop a mind of its own and adopts the personality of Takazawa’s late wife Haru. Deciding to fulfil Takazawa’s wish of going to the beach, chaos erupts at every turn as the Z-001 breaks free from the hospital and goes on the rampage.
Originally made in 1991 Roujin Z has remained in Manga’s vaults to gather dust since a long forgotten English dub only VHS release in 1994. Finally it gets a long overdue DVD and BluRay makeover to hopefully win over a new audience of fans. It comes with quite the pedigree too: written by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), directed by Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Blood: The Last Vampire), character designs by Hisashi Eguchi (Stop! Hibari-kun) and art direction by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue); and it was also jointly sponsored by Sony, hence the blatant ubiquitous presence of their logo at every opportunity during the film. Expectations will no doubt be pretty high for this film but fear not, it doesn’t disappoint.
What is even more startling about this lost classic is just how prophetic it was and how pertinent it is to the modern world. This scathing satire on the dismissive treatment of the elderly rings very true especially in today’s youth obsessed society, while also planting the seeds to demonstrate the power of inter-connected computers long before the Internet became a household word. The film may carry a very serious message but Otomo’s script is clever enough to not be preachy and make more of a mockery of the powers that be instead of bulldozing the viewer with didactic opinion. But more than this, it is a reminder that simple human kindness and caring cannot be usurped or replaced by the clinical efficiency of technological convenience. It also manages the unique achievement of some very bawdy comedy without a hint of fan service!
Haruko argues this point until she is blue in this face but it falls on deaf ears and the poor girl is usually put in her place by Public Welfare minister Takashi Terada and the computer expert who built the Z-001 Yoshihiko Hasegawa. But one night when Takazawa is feeling low, the Z-001’s computer system manages to transcribe Takazawa’s thoughts and broadcasts them to Haruko’s computer which she interprets as a cry for help. With Haruko’s attempts to respond thwarted by Terada and Hasegawa, the Z-001 takes maters into its own robotic hands and breaks out of the hospital! Narrowly escaping dismissal and police arrest, Haruko is back on the wards where she discovers a group of elderly patients are skilled computer hackers, so she asks them to hack into the Z-001 to check up on Takazawa. Since he is too confused to respond, Haruko has the hackers mimic the voice of Takazawa’s late wife Haru. Unfortunately the Z-001 goes into information overload and takes on the personality of Haru, leading to a second break out from the hospital – but this time the Z-001 begins to merge with other electronic devices and slowly turns into a war machine, something Hasegawa kept quiet from Terada.
It is remarkable how much of this which was pure fantasy twenty one years ago is now reality with the oncoming of the dominance of the computerised age and the Internet presaged in such a glibly fictitious manner – surely the trademark of all good sci-fi? With hindsight on our side, there is still need to suspend disbelief on some fronts, including what today would be archaic computer equipment which the hackers use – let alone how they got away with having such a set up in a hospital ward in the first place! And of course we have the Z-001 transforming from a simple mechanised hospital bed to a raging almost sentient Mecha battlebot, leading us to a finale which can be accurately described as “Akira lite”, causing some people to question if this was a parody of Otomo’s most famous work.
Roujin Z’s age might count against it for newer fans weened on the CG animation but part of the film’s appeal is its old school hand drawn aesthetic, creating a much more natural feel to it. The remastered make-over hasn’t robbed the film of its vintage charm although the colour palette seems very heavy on reds. It also helps that the character designs are all different sparing the viewer any confusion as to who is who, something which has become a slight rarity in modern anime. The only irritating flaw this review could spot was how, in the final chase scene, Haruko’s nurse uniform miraculously changed colour from white to blue to pink! If unfairly compared to Akira because of Otomo’s involvement this film might look second rate but taking on its own merits it is a fine piece of old school animation.
Roujin Z offers laughs, action, social commentary and food for thought all crammed into a briskly paced, nicely animated 80 minute package. Unquestionably a worthy candidate for a place in any self respecting anime fan’s collection.
English Language 2.0
Japanese Language 5.1 with English Subtitles
Additional Languages: Spanish (2.0), French, German, Italian (5.1)
Additional Subtitles: French, German, Dutch, Italian
Ratings – **** ½
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