Back in 1991, soon after the worldwide success of Akira had found a new huge international audience for the phenomenon of Japanese anime, there was considerable interest in the following two projects that involved Akira’s creator Katsuhiro Otomo. One was Robot Carnival, an anthology featuring two segments by Otomo working in the science-fiction short format that had been his forte as a manga writer (and one that he would also successfully work in again as a filmmaker on Memories), the other - intended to be Otomo’s follow-up to Akira - was Roujin Z. In the end, while Otomo contributed the story and the mecha designs for the futuristic science-fiction satire, he left Roujin Z in the hands of Akira’s Key Animator Hiroyuki Kitakuboi, while the Art Design on the project that was handled by another name that would become important among this generation of anime filmmakers, Satoshi Kon. Although we would have to wait considerably longer, until Steamboy in 2004, for Otomo’s next full-length written and directed by follow-up to Akira, Roujin Z nonetheless remains very much within the director’s style and theme, and certainly has parallels with Akira in its combination of social satire and explosive action and destruction.
The storyline for Roujin Z certainly derives from the preoccupations and the style of approach of Katsuhiro Otomo, with particular emphasis on the humour that derives from its surreal and satirical science-fiction twist on social issues. In a near-future setting, Roujin Z considers how to deal with the very real problem of how to look after the growing population of the elderly. The Ministry of Public Welfare have come up with a solution to the nation’s geriatric problem with the invention of a sixth-generation computer system known as the Z-001. Terada, the chief director of the department, has selected the aged and somewhat senile Mr Takazawa to be the guinea-pig who will test the new system - a technological machine that takes care of every bodily need, providing comfort, feeding, cleaning and disposal of waste with “no mess, no embarrassment”. The Z-001 is also fully equipped for entertainment and communications, as well as medical monitoring and even instant treatment for minor complications. As a sixth generation computer moreover, it’s self-regulating, intuitive and capable of learning and developing in response to its owner, requiring no maintenance. What could possibly go wrong?
It might not be as sophisticated in animation terms as Otomo’s Akira, or quite as complex and satisfying in narrative terms as Satoshi Kon’s later masterpieces, but it’s not hard to recognise the hand of some of the most important figures of Japanese animation in the premise of Roujin Z and in its treatment. Most evidently, Terada from the Ministry of Public Welfare is closely related to the Colonel from Akira, the government authority figure who is behind an experiment with new technology that inevitably proves to have disastrous consequences when those elements slip beyond their control and they fail to take into consideration the human factor. There’s also anti-authoritarian students - nurses here - who oppose the project and come into conflict with the government’s plans, principally Haruko Mihashi, the young nurse who has been taking care of Mr Takazawa, and is concerned for his well-being as he becomes swallowed-up - literally - in the big machine.
The sense of humour in the satire then is wholly that of Katsuhiro Otomo, but it would seem to be down to Hiroyuki Kitakuboi and Satoshi Kon’s input that the story develops as a consistent feature film, developing the story in a much more satisfying and mature manner so that the social and human aspect doesn’t get entirely lost when the momentum inevitably propels it towards a conclusion of action and destruction. If you think of how Satoshi Kon’s work as a writer and director would always have a self-referential aspect, considering the conventions of the animation and storytelling medium within the work itself, you can even see Roujin Z as not just a satire of Japanese society and technology but it even functions as a satire of anime conventions in itself. So even when the story degenerates into a giant mecha robot battle, you’ve probably never seen one that is quite as human and touching as the one that climaxes the film. There’s a perfect blend then between the science-fiction elements and the underlying human story which is absolutely necessary to the satire, since its warning that it’s the lack of the human touch is likely to result not only in the kind of wide-scale social crisis - or even apocalyptic destruction that often ensues in such storylines - but that it’s also likely to lead to bad anime!
While the 1991 animation and the computer technology (with data stored on floppy discs) might look a little dated then by today’s standards, it’s the human element that ensures that the film is enjoyable and still has topical relevance. The question of how to deal with an aging population is still very much a relevant issue at home and around the world, but Roujin Z also has a lot of fun with the idea as well, wondering what retirement homes are going to be like when they are populated with old computer hackers. With all the various hands involved, Roujin Z is a little bit uneven in storytelling, in characterisation and particularly in the animation - which is never as slick as Akira or any of Satoshi Kon’s work - but each of the elements that the creators bring to the series, the insightful little touches and flashes of brilliance, all contribute to filling this relatively modest and entertaining film with more humour, character and warmth than you might expect.
Roujin Z is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Manga Entertainment. The Blu-ray, reviewed here, is a BD25 disc, Region B compatible (multiregion capability not tested), the transfer 1080/24p. Authored by Kazé, the disc is set-up for porting across multiple territories. You are asked to select language after the disc ‘loads’ into your player, and your options are in the chosen language. The disc is set up for English, French, Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish.
The image is transferred in full widescreen at 1.78:1. The 1991 animation feature is certainly not as slick or as flash as a modern anime series, and certainly not having the kind of budget that was available for Akira, it looking rather flatter than that film in High Definition. The image quality however is about as good as you could expect for a work of this vintage. There are no real marks, scratches, dustspots or any other such damage on the print - I saw one isolated mark which may or may not be on the original source materials - and not much in the way of digital artefacts. I daresay you could find some minor flaws, some chroma noise, a little ringing of edges if you were to examine the transfer closely, but in regular playback there is nothing that causes any trouble. Colours, tone and balance are good, although blacks are a little bright and don't look fully saturated. There is no flaring of the reds however and no colour banding, and other than some minor light flicker in one or two places - again probably inherent in the original source - the transfer itself is quite stable.
The original Japanese audio track is presented in DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 surround. It's presumably remixed then, but it's still not particularly dynamic. The sound is clear, with no hiss or noise, but a little bright with great depth in the low frequency range. The sound focus is central, but the sound widens a little for sound effects and particularly in the music score. This isn't handled quite as well in the stereo English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Again however, the sound on the English dub is satisfactory and clear. (French, German and Italian tracks are also listed as DTS HD-MA 5.1, the Spanish track 2.0, but these weren't tested).
English subtitles are in a white font and are switched on with selection of the Japanese track. Other subtitles are French, Dutch, German and Italian.
There are no extra features on the disc under the English selection, although you’ll probably find some trailers for other titles under other language selections. A little retrospective on the work would have been nice, but since this release doesn’t appear to be derived from a Japanese edition, that would hardly have been a realistic proposition. With the film running to only 80 minutes then and no extra features, the BD25 is more than sufficient.
The release of Roujin Z should be something that is welcomed by fans of Katsuhiro Otomo and Satoshi Kon, two of the finest animation filmmakers of their generation, but it should also have wider appeal to anyone who likes classic sci-fi anime with mature, intelligent ideas and a good sense of fun. It’s those qualities that ensure that the work still holds up well, even if some of the ideas and the animation may look a little dated by today’s CG-enhanced standards. It’s also terrific to see the film being released in High Definition on Blu-ray, showing it in the best possible light, even if that means revealing some of its source flaws. One hopes we might soon see the same treatment given to the other seminal work from this period, Robot Carnival.