Katsuhiro Otomo Retrospective: Roujin Z
Three years after the release of his masterpiece of anime filmmaking Akira, director Katsuhiro Otomo’s next anime credit was as screenwriter for 1991's Roujin Z, a bonkers satire from director Hiroyuki Kitakubo who had previously worked with Otomo on Robot Carnival. Released on UK VHS in 1994 by Manga Entertainment (and in the US by CPM in 1995), it was aggressively advertised as “from the director of Akira”. However, it was a very different type of film.
Roujin Z features Otomo in full-blown ferocious satire mode, with a similar irreverent tone to Construction Cancellation Order from 1987’s Neo Tokyo and Stink Bomb from 1995’s Memories. Haruko Mitsuhashi is a dedicated young nurse who cares for Kijuro Takazawa, an extremely elderly man who cannot meet his own basic needs. When Takazawa’s distant next of kin (whom we never meet) consents on his behalf to have him enrolled in a flagship government care program, Haruko’s objections are steamrollered by forceful project lead Takashi Terada.
Otomo’s targets for brutal ridicule are multiple — the unthinking youth of Japanese society who treat their frail elders as burdens, the Japanese goverment who wish to outsource elder care to cheaper, more mechanised methods rather than relying on workforce-dependent healthcare, and the right-wing Japanese army who wish to militarise unsuspecting, innocent citizens. Elderly people themselves aren’t immune from Otomo’s comedy, with multiple off-colour jokes about loss of control of body functions plentiful throughout, but this aspect is more good-natured, matter-of-fact, and less vicious.
Fear of death is one thing, but we all harbour another fear — that of senescence, of obsolescence. One day, if we live long enough, we’ll all become old, and weak, and unwell, and perhaps even for many years before our eventual deaths we may need to rely on others to help perform even the most basic of bodily functions. This loss of control is terrifying, and at one point Takazawa expresses that the thing that hurts the most is the loss of dignity, as he’s unable even to clean his own incontinent excrement. This is dark, harrowing material for a satire, and Otomo’s bite is merciless.
Although he’s the “cover star” of the film, Takazawa is merely a passive accessory to the plot. He’s an inert ragdoll at the whims of his new state-of-the-art, AI-powered robotic bed Z-001. As Terada gleefully enthuses during his public announcement of his shiny new nurse-replacement tech, Takazawa is now imprisoned in a device that does everything for him — cleans, feeds, entertains and monitors — except provide a human touch. It’s care without caring, a commodification of old age, a way for the younger generation to assuage their guilt but without the effort required to truly fulfil the needs of their elders.
Haruko is understandably appalled at Takazawa’s incarceration in the dehumanising Z-001, yet her pleas for clemency and compassion fall upon deaf ears. Takazawa’s autonomy and human rights go unregarded — he’s the expendable part of the experiment, as Otomo makes plain repeatedly through the uncaring actions and speech of Terada and his slimy suboordinate Yoshihiko Hasegawa. Their dialogue is so arch, so knowingly diabolical, yet also so depressingly true. Just look at the mess of the US healthcare system and its corrupt insurance industry to see depressingly offensive real life equivalents, weighing human lives against monetary gain in a sickening quagmire of bureaucratic evil.
Despite every setback, even despite the desires of some of her nursing colleagues to embrace this new “care” paradigm, Haruko refuses to dilute her moral stance. She fights to the bitter end for her patient, a shining example, and probably my favourite ever anime portrayal, of a healthcare professional. Her tireless and selfless pursuit of Takazawa’s happiness and autonomy is truly inspiring, and at times utterly ridiculous. She’s unafraid to sneak into heavily guarded buildings, confront mindless police and soldiers, run headlong into danger, engage perverted old computer hackers in industrial espionage, and scale enormous, pulsating mechanical monstrosities.
Yes, towards the end of the film the tone mutates from Otomo the satirist to Otomo the deranged mecha detonator. Takazawa’s robot bed develops sentience (partly due to Haruko and her geriatric hacker buddies) and absconds with him, trailing destruction and mayhem across the city, absorbing other machines and growing gradually larger and more absurd. Old man Takazawa just wants to go to the beach, and the reanimated AI copy of his wife now inhabiting the bed wants to grant that wish, no matter the collateral damage!
The final section of the film is an extended chase sequence. Takazawa hitches a ride on a monorail, and the inventiveness and sheer kinetic insanity of the animation make this an exciting yet deranged climax. The military unleashes its own version of Z-001, resulting in one of the weirdest mecha battles I’ve ever witnessed, and Otomo gets to play with his metallic tentacles again, very reminiscent of Akira’s denouement. And of course, this being an Otomo story, everything explodes. He does seem to like doing that.
Haruko remains MVP throughout, and I particularly liked her determination during the climax to scale the enormous heap of mechanical junk, while chased by the slimy Hasegawa. It’s funny that she’s based on character designer Hisashi Eguchi’s wife. He must have a very high opinion of her, making her one of cinematic anime’s best heroines. It’s only through her actions that the nefarious military plan to weaponise elderly care goes unrealised. By blowing stuff up, of course.
It’s a shame that Roujin Z is relatively unknown in the West. Despite multiple DVD releases over the years in the US, and even a blu-ray release in the UK from the now-defunct KAZE UK, it’s now out-of-print in English, and increasingly difficult to find. It’s definitely one of Otomo’s most accessible works, with a scatalogically comedic tone and increasingly relevant subject matter. As a care professional myself, I’m involved in looking after very elderly people. It’s hard sometimes to remain compassionate and caring in the face of overwhelming demands and poor resources. We must never forget that those who came before us were once just as young, vibrant and as careless as us, perhaps never believing they would become so dependent on younger generations.
We must ensure to treat these people with the dignity and respect they deserve — after all, the health of a society can be gauged by how well they treat their most vulnerable citizens. Age comes to us all, and Roujin Z is a timely and humanistic cautionary tale. One day it will be you whose hearing fails, whose eyes become dull, whose bladder and bowels no longer function under conscious control. One day your dignity may hang by a thread, so have compassion and understanding for those vulnerable people in your life now, for one day you may be fated to take their place.
As an aside, famed director Satoshi Kon got his break into anime as an animator, art director and background designer for Roujin Z, while also writing the screenplay for Otomo’s first foray into live-action cinema, 1991’s World Apartment Horror. Following this, he worked under Mamoru Oshii on 1993’s Patlabor 2, then again worked with Otomo on his 1995 anthology film, Memories, adapting Otomo’s short manga of the same name as the re-titled Magnetic Rose segment. He eventually directed his first solo movie Perfect Blue in 1997. I plan to cover Kon’s tragically short later career separately once I’m finished with Otomo’s.
Directed by: Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Robot Carnival, Blood: The Last Vampire)
Story and screenplay by: Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira, Steamboy)
Character design by: Hisashi Eguchi (Perfect Blue)
Production studio: A.P.P.P. (Project A-ko, Robot Carnival)
Japanese cinematic release: September 14, 1991
UK PAL VHS release: 1994 (Manga Video)
UK DVD/Blu-ray release: June 11th, 2012 (Manga Entertainment/KAZE)
Languages: Japanese audio with English subtitles, English audio
Runtime: 80 minutes
BBFC rating: 15
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