Review: Karate-robo zaborgar (2011)

By Rowena Santos Aquino

Noboru Iguchi’s adaptation of the 1970s robot superhero television series Denjin Zaboga is a bumpy ride into a world of good vs. evil human and android factions. Though uneven in its comical impact and energy, it is also a fun ride precisely because it does adapt and pays homage to that phenomenon so spellbinding to the male species that is the transforming robots. This genre often comes in the form of anime, which is called mecha anime (mecha being the Japanese abbreviation of the word “mechanical”). If television anime series titles such as Brave Raideen/勇者ライディーン, Demon Dragon of the Heavens Gaiking/大空魔竜ガイキング, or the Robot Romance Trilogy/長浜ロマンロボシリーズwhich consisted of Chodenji Robo Combattler V/超電磁ロボ コン・バトラーV, Chodenji Machine Voltes V/超電磁マシーン ボルテスV, and Tosho Daimos/闘将ダイモス—strike you as familiar, then step right into this world. If only for its campy retro, as well as lead actor Yasuhisa Furuhara’s balls-out performance, the film succeeds as agreeable nostalgia-filled zaniness.

The film’s title character is a motorcycle-robot-karate expert, whose owner/partner is secret police officer Daimon. Daimon and Zaborgar are up against Dr. Akunomiya (Akira Emoto) and his organization Sigma, who was responsible for the death of Daimon’s scientist father. Dr. Akunomiya is currently in the process of building a Godzilla-size robot to further feed his megalomania. In order to build what could be most usefully called a ‘bot-zilla, Akunomiya abducts people, preferably politicians and other influential folks, transports them into his floating-world of a spaceship, and feeds them, as it were, to his creation. The film is neatly divided into two parts: the first part covers the young Daimon’s adventures fighting against Akunomiya through his female subordinate Miss Borg (Mami Yamasaki). This first part is a nicely paced comic-actioner that does not withhold any punches to make you roar with laughter and WTFs, especially through fight scenes between Daimon and Zaborgar on one side and Miss Borg and fellow fighting robots like Diarrhea Robot Arizailer on the other. Yasuhisa Furuhara as the young Daimon is an absolute pleasure to watch. He is so comfortable in this universe and his character’s position in it that he makes the spectator feel comfortable as well, even when the action moves at 120mph. So comfortable is Daimon’s place in this world and his belief in his mission that even Miss Borg succumbs to his charms. Their coupling ends explosively, which will greatly affect the turn of events in the second part.

The second part fast-forwards to an older, wiser, and retired Daimon (now played by Itsuji Itao), 25 years after the previous sequence; hence the slower-paced adventures that constitute the beginning. He has also grown cynical. Unfortunately, his cynicism rubs off on the spectator too, for the film becomes like a balloon that slowly deflates itself following the first part’s unbridled energy. It loses its comical volume and shape, and finally falls flat like a whoopee cushion. Things pick up when Daimon comes out of retirement to battle not only the ageless Dr. Akunomiya and his still persisting case of megalomania but lo and behold, Daimon’s unexpected female offspring. The film’s liveliness also picks up again as the emotional connection grows between father and daughter. But time is against them before she transforms into a giant all-out killing machine for Dr. Akunomiya.

For those who are well-versed in the work of Iguchi, Karate-robo zaborgar is a different dish on several levels. One, it constitutes the largest budget that Iguchi has had for a feature. Two, maybe because Karate-robo zaborgar is an adaptation, Iguchi tones down the combination of his adult video and horror film background and departs a bit from his usual fare of so-called “splatter-punk.” “Splatter-punk” refers to low-budget films that are nevertheless heavy on special effects involving body mutations and gore, which test the physical boundaries between humans and machines, and also often heavily underlined with eroticism. Iguchi’s latest series of splatter-punk—Mutant Girls Squad (2010), RoboGeisha (2009), The Machine Girl (2008)—have reached an impressive level of popularity outside of Japan, which perhaps explains the big budget given to him for Karate-robo zaborgar. A far cry from Shinya Tsukamoto’s more existential and cerebral cyber-punk/nightmare cinema, but Iguchi’s works certainly sit well with a wide group of folks. The same can be said of Karate-robo zaborgar: not a triumphant work by any means, but some interesting, carnivalesque fun.

58/100 - Iguchi tones down the combination of his adult video and horror film background and departs a bit from his usual fare of so-called “splatter-punk”. Not a triumphant work by any means, but some interesting, carnivalesque fun.

Sr. Staff Film Critic: Recently obtained my doctoral degree in Cinema and Media studies at UCLA. Linguaphile and cinephile, and therefore multingual in my cinephilia. Asian cinemas, Spanish language filmmaking, Middle Eastern cinemas, and documentary film.