By Justin Graham / July 3rd, 2013
Last week, we looked at Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, one of the all-time classics of the animated medium. However, Otomo’s career in animation isn’t strictly limited to the adventures of biker gangs in Neo Tokyo. He’s served as a writer and/or director on a number of other projects over the past two and a half decades, but even in the cases where he wasn’t sitting in the director’s chair, his touch is unmistakable, as it is in the case of the 1991 film Roujin Z, (literal translation: Old Man Z).
Beyond its writer, Roujin Z bears little to no direct resemblance to Otomo’s most popular work. Set in Japan of the early 1990s, this darkly comedic tale revolves around Kijuro Takazawa, an elderly widower that advanced age has rendered feeble. Unable to do little more than lie in his bed all day, he uses his medic alert pendant to call for help when he suffers non-emergency indignities such as wetting himself. His primary caretaker is Haruko Mitsuhashi, a nursing school student that volunteered for the duty, which she takes very seriously.
But just as science runs amok in Akira, so it does in Roujin Z. While Haruko is in the midst of taking care of Takazawa, the small apartment is invaded by figures representing the Health Ministry. Claiming permission from Takazawa’s relatives, they quickly take him away to serve as the test subject of an experimental new technology; the Z-001.
It’s worth noting at this point that Japan of the 1990s was starting to feel the effects of an aging population. Effects that aren’t too dissimilar to what America is going through now as the Baby Boomer generation continue to advance into retirement age. The medical needs of the elderly, combined with the stresses that these needs put on the younger generations and the resulting frustration, is reflected in Roujin Z through the Z-001; essentially a high-tech bed supposedly capable of meeting the every need of the infirmed, from bathing and hygiene to food and exercise. Almost entirely self-sustaining, it sounds like the perfect solution on paper; it provides elderly invalid patients like Takazawa with all of their basic needs while reducing the burden on family members to a dramatic degree.
Haruko, however, recognizes that the solution isn’t so simple. For all of the care it provides, the Z-001 can’t replace real human interaction or love. It is, at best, a way to push the elderly out of the lives of the younger generations. And when Takazawa somehow sends a distress message to Haruko over the internet through the bed’s computer, she attempts to mount a rescue with the help of her friends. Though the effort ultimately proves unsuccessful, she later receives additional help from an unexpected source: Geezers.
After escaping real punishment for her actions, Haruko is assigned to work in a nursing home where she comes across three elderly men who also happen to be experts in computers and hacking. At her request, they agree to hack into the Z-001 and see if they can help Takazawa. However, it isn’t until Haruko suggests the unusual measure of using a program to emulate the voice of Takazawa’s deceased wife Haru that they’re able to get a response from him.
And then things get crazy.
After Takazawa is awakened by the sound of his dear wife’s voice, the core computer of the Z-001 manages to achieve sentience, using his memories to build itself into a full A.I. reconstruction of Haru. And following Takazawa’s wish, the bed breaks out of the hospital and rampages through the city so that he can visit the beach at Kamakura; a place he has fond memories of. Oh, and also, the bed is capable of transforming and assimilating electronic and mechanical devices into itself, growing ever larger and more dangerous in the process.
This of course begs the question of why in the world a medical bed would need this kind of ability. And though the bed was previously stated to have some level of capability to protect itself in the event of a natural disaster, its true nature lies in the top secret military technology at its core. Under the noses of the Health Ministry, the Z-001 was designed in part to serve as a test run of a hyper-advanced computer meant for weapons of war. And as the bed closes in on Kamakura, it runs into one final obstacle; a combat robot designed with the same technology, but none of the matronly attitude.
All along the way, Roujin Z remains comedic in its approach of the subject with black humor and biting moments of satire. Part of the reason that the film works as it does is its choice of protagonists. Haruko is a kind, caring young woman that goes to extreme lengths to ensure Takazawa is safe. And the invalid Takazawa remains unperturbed as his “wife” crashes through buildings, scales monorail tracks, and fights robots, all for the sake of a pleasant daytrip to the beach.
As for the cast as a whole, the film is also notable for its interesting dichotomies of age and gender. Of Haruko’s three friends in the film, only one, Maeda, is a male. And while the girls are all adventurous and actively aid Haruko and Takazawa however they can, Maeda is, by contrast, a sniveling wimp. The most decisive actions he takes are almost entirely at the behest, demand, or suggestion of one of the girls, with an assist from his libido.
Of the remaining male characters, there’s Terada, the gray-haired Health Ministry official that represents the Z-001 project, and Hasegawa, the young representative of the corporation behind the development of the bed (and its secret military counterpart). Terada, despite his callous treatment of Takazawa at the start, eventually proves himself to be a caring man; though he truly believes that the bed was designed with the best interests of the elderly in mind, he was duped by Hasegawa, who is revealed to hold little regard for his elders.
In short, the film’s youngest, most virile male characters are a dolt and a villain, and both are outclassed in terms of capability by Haruko, the feminine Haru A.I., and three withered old men. Terada straddles the line, becoming stronger and more capable as his sympathy for Takazawa grows, but in the end it’s Haruko that saves the day, and the beach trip.
If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from Roujin Z, it’s the old adage of respecting one’s elders. It’s not something that’s always easy, and the realities of population and economics can make it even harder. But time catches up to everyone eventually, and those of us that live long enough may eventually find ourselves in their shoes, or perhaps a bathrobe, not unlike Takazawa’s; living alone, trapped in a feeble body, and entirely dependent on the care of others. It’s a valuable lesson to learn, lest we risk running afoul of octogenarian hackers.
Roujin Z was released on DVD in North America by U.S. Manga Corps., a Central Park Media label. The release features both the original Japanese with English subtitles, as well as an English dub. It is rated PG-13 by the MPAA and contains mild adult content and brief nudity.
anime of the pastKatsuhiro OtomoRoujin ZU.S. Manga Corps