Way back in the dark and distant past (well 1994 to be exact) Roujin Z was an unusual release for (what was then) Manga Video. The smartly satirical sci-fi comedy sat oddly alongside their mostly ‘beer and curry’ catalogue, mostly consisting of the kind of sex and violence fare that had the Daily Mail frothing at the mouth. Despite some positive reviews from mainstream critics, and some TV screenings, the film has largely been lost, never making it onto UK DVD until now – when it also makes it HD debut on beautiful Blu-ray.
The reason for its release back then was obvious. Boasting Katsuhiro Otomo on design and scriptwriting duties (adapting his own manga 1991 ZeD), it allowed Manga to plaster ‘From the director of Akira’ in big letters all over the box and posters. However anyone picking it up expecting another Akira would find out it’s a very different animal.
Set sometime in the early 21st century, Roujin Z depicted a near-future Japan struggling with a rapidly growing elderly population. Scientists seeking a way to make caring for the greying population easier have invented a highly advanced automated system named Z-001, a kind of all-singing all-dancing robo-bed. Everything from feeding and entertainment to the more, ahem, personal needs are taken care of by the device. A young student nurse named Haruko doesn’t like the Z-001 one bit, especially when Kijuro Takazawa, the old geezer she looks after, is chosen as the guinea pig for the machine. Haruko (along with a ward full of computer hacker OAPs) must come to the rescue when Takazawa calls for her help. Not least because the Z-001 is in reality a prototype for a top secret nuclear-powered mecha. That may or may not be possessed by the ghost of Takzawa’s dead wife.
As storylines go, you could never say Roujin Z was unoriginal. Taking its jumping-off point from a real social issue of its time – that of the ageing population – puts it alongside many of the most memorable tales of science-fiction. Twenty one years later and Japan is still suffering from declining birthrates, while the elderly population grows, so if anything it has only become more relevant in the intervening years. With questions raised over the treatment of the elderly in our own culture, it’s certainly a thought-provoking subject, and the film certainly gives you food for thought.
If these themes sound overly heavy and worthy to you, then you don’t need to worry. In execution the film is actually pretty light-hearted, comedic and a lot of fun. The satirical elements are there if you look for them, but there’s plenty of comedy and an action-packed climax that will satisfy the more casual viewer.
The characters are a well written bunch, with even minor characters being memorable. Haruko is a lovably spunky heroine (with none of the sexualisation you so often see in young anime heroines), while Takazawa is presented as such a pathetic figure you can’t help feel for him. The hacker pensioners are also a notable bunch; it’s rare that the elderly get much screen time in anime, and here they come close to stealing the show.
Visually the film is a treat. The animation looks beautiful, and the character designs are pleasing to the eye. The character designer was Hisashi Eguchi, yet they effectively recall Otomo’s own style. Otomo himself was partly responsible for the mechanical designs, which will please any serious mech-heads out there. This also marked the anime debut for the late, much missed Satoshi Kon, who was art director on the production. With such a strong pedigree, it’s little surprise that this looks as good as it does. Anyone with the facility to do so should opt for the Blu-ray version to see it look (and sound) at its best thanks to a top-drawer transfer. Although some sources list it as an OAV it did receive some theatrical screening both in Japan and abroad and indeed the animation certainly seems to be up to theatrical standards.
One word of warning: even if you tend to watch your anime in English, the dub is probably best avoided. The disc features an authentic 90s Manga UK dub, recorded in the exotic locale of Cardiff. While for long-time fans it’s a bit of a nostalgia trip to hear one of Michael Bakewell’s vintage dubs (complete with fifteened dialogue), and it will raise a chuckle, Roujin Z is a genuinely good film that deserves better.
This is a must-own for any serious anime collector old or new. For those who remember it from the original release, this is a very welcome chance to own it in the best possible format. For those coming to Roujin Z fresh, while it might not be a hot new release, it comes highly recommended as something of a lost minor classic of anime history. It might not create a million new fans like Akira did, but it will entertain you and make you think. A combination that is unfortunately all too rare in modern sci-fi, animated or otherwise.