This Week: Roujin Z
One should listen to their elders, as just because a satirical anime came out over twenty years ago does not by itself mean it lacks modern commentary to give.
This 1991 OVA is one that of the limited folks who have taken it upon themselves to watch it these days, they tend to pick it for arguably far better or respectable reasons than I did.
The top level one that would draw viewers is that the script, mechanical designs, and the like come courtesy of Katsuhiro Otomo, so that is certainly a promotional mark in its favor given the proximity Roujin Z has being relatively close after the release of Akira (1988). Another calling card, in being able to look back through the credits now, would be Satoshi Kon having had his animation industry breakthrough here, via art design, backgrounds, and key animation credits. One could even look to grab this production were they sufficiently interested in Hiroyuki Kitakubo as a Director. I mean hey, he directed the Pop Chaser episode of Cream Lemon after all (and I guess maybe also more prominently Blood: The Last Vampire), so one could say he knew a thing or two about runaway comedy and robots (and sex jokes).
I watched Roujin Z however because it is part of my very, very slow quest to one day ensure I have seen every robot anime given headnods in Tech Romancer, an arcade and Dreamcast fighting game from 1998 and 2000 chock full of mecha references. I have owned the game since it came out on SEGA’s grand console finale, and I have still not accomplished this anime watching goal. Which should tell you how much I am dragging my feet here (given, I stopped watching anime for about half a decade in between all this). Tech Romancer is a fun love letter game for robot fans though, with a lot of attention from Studio Nue doing the designs, so I would recommend those of you who fit that billing at least check that linked Wikipedia article out and maybe watch the special animated intro. Funnily enough, Roujin Z’s MyAnimeList.net database URL number is 2000.
I did say we we going to talk about social problems too though, and not just old video games and production credits.
Something that can be even momentarily tricky here and there after watching enough anime is at points, one could be inclined to just temporarily forget that they as a viewer are fundamentally consuming foreign films and the like. Which in turn means they have with their own cultural contexts, as well as our own that we bring from an international perspective no matter where else you come from. But getting discussions of those matters (be they anything from the politics of Patlabor 2: The Movie to the spiritual workplace hell shenanigans of Hozuki no Reitetsu) going can be a minefield if the audience member feels they do not have the right background to engage with the material and other viewers outside of themselves with a feeling of being knowledgeable enough to do so.
At that, I think Roujin Z is particularly sharp even today at producing a topical subject that many people will be able to immediately identify with both as a very Japanese matter as well as one that is highly relevant in social and political discussions in their own domestic national discourse.
The core issue of the film is one both relate-able to many industrialized nations on the whole, but also Japan in particular: aging and demographic issues relating to the raw number of elderly persons in proportion to the rest of the country. Roughly a quarter of Japan’s entire population is currently over the age of 65, for instance. Going along with this are all the associated issues one can imagine. National health services trying to deal with the strain of increased patient load for elderly care. More expensive nurses and doctors. The stigma of care for the retired and it not being the most glamorous career focus area when it comes to many ambitious medical students selecting areas to go into. Fewer younger folks due to declining birth rates and that in turn affecting the tax base for all of this. And so on down the line.
It is something a lot of countries have been increasingly trying to deal with in their own ways, and there is not really an easy answer for it all.
Roujin Z is a satire, taking place in the near-future where a new solution to this government stressor has been introduced. With medical staff and even time from family pushed to their near limits, the Ministry of Public Welfare unveils what is effectively a standalone mechanical care bed. The Z-001 can bathe, feed, and exercise a patient, monitor, diagnose, and apply various kinds of medical care (or know when it needs outside assistance, like major surgery), it comes complete with video entertainment and telecommunications systems, it can move and navigate terrain in the event of a natural disaster, and so much more. The idea being, of course, that this is going to be a much needed relief for a maxed out Japanese medical system. Or, as an alternative view, some could (and do) see it as a means to shirk more of the human element in responsibility for elderly care.
Things Do Not Go As Planned, to put it lightly, or we would not have much of a film, let alone a comedy.
The issues the movie wants to deal in, on one level or another, are a topic that either they have or likely will have to wrestle with regarding how to ensure continued quality of life for parents, grandparents, and other family members. Toss in the Japanese population demographics context, and subject takes on an even larger scope.
What I enjoyed and appreciated about Roujin Z is our primary “bad guy” for most the piece, Takashi Terada as our MPW Public Relations kind of fellow, is not really presented as expressively wrong in his goals, desires, or attempts to sell the public on the system. One gets the sense he does think the Z-001 care bed really is among the best solutions his agency has developed in years to such a wide reaching demographic concern. That he sees the great benefits he speaks of in the quality of end of life care it can provide compared to what he sees patients currently getting, and in that respect wants to do his best to make it seem appealing to the public eye. Likewise, when presented early on by our ragtag group of nursing students that the bed may be causing or having problems, he actually listens and thanks them for informing him because now he can have more technical staff look into the matter (all in a PR speak way, but still). This, as opposed to a more cliched “There’s no way the system has any flaws!” reaction. Yet, he also does get taken for a technological and policy ride in his own ways in all of this too, so his position and goals are no bulletproof despite perhaps having the best of intentions in mind.
On the nursing student side, all around nice girl and university attender Haruko Mihashi helms the perspective of wanting to have her patient’s permission over his family’s in all of this. That while releases were signed by those related to him, his own perspective was never granted or asked for before having him enrolled in the demonstration model for the Z-001. She has the overall viewpoint of the value of human care in these matters, seeing the bed itself as the kind of advancement that could quickly turn into numerous elderly patients just being placed in them and then neglected by their kin by allowing these machines to take over their social responsibility towards their elders. It is a relevant perspective and fear to bring to the table, as certainly many a viewer would perhaps prefer having a higher level of doctor-patient relationships in their own twilight years.
Yet, as far as Haruko’s goals with trying to get her elderly patient Kijuro Takazawa out of the bed or otherwise provide that more warm hand of individualized care to him, hers is not a technology free path. She does also need to enlist the help of a crew of crackshot elderly computer hackers from the retirement home and see if they can do anything about the situation, with technological skills they have honed all the more with their free time.
The production does not really delineate a hardline “This Technology is Good” or “This Technology is Bad” argumentation line on the patient care issue.
Arguably, for as much at these two sides exist and compete as the primary perspectives given within the OVA, they are each muddled in their own ways. At the same time, it also does not make the role of the elderly in all of what is going on a nebulous helpless group with nothing to offer the plot.
And I think that is all pretty crucial.
If one digs around they can snoop a Roger Ebert review of Roujin Z in his archives (complete with “Japanimation” phrasing!). He flat out says “I cannot imagine this story being told in a conventional movie.” That it would need to be “dumbed down” and rewritten had it been a Hollywood production, it would be forced to expunge much of the attention on the elderly and the social issues at the core of the film, because it just would not be marketable. To say nothing of being outright impossible on the special effects end of the time, given what the Z-001 gets up to in animated form with elaborate mechanical movements .
I feel there should be more movies like Roujin Z, where the elderly get to be super wizard hackers and we talk about national health care problems at the same time.
In the over two decades since its release, the subjects it points it satirical sword at are more relevant now than ever before. The age demographics continue to skew with larger proportions at the higher end of the scales. There are national, social, political, medical, familial, and more issues all wrapped up in with that. And increasingly in need of answers, one way or another.
Roujin Z does not offer much in the way of answers. This is an OVA more about questions and conversations (be they in text, or implied for the viewer to debate themselves) mixed in with its comedy.
After so many years, perhaps the fact that the production has only become so much more on point regarding how crucial these matters are to think about is really the sharpest point of wit it could bring to the table. A whole generation has advanced, and many governments arguably still do not have significant measures in place to deal with these social security matters with the looming potential retirements of the Baby Boomers.
Whether they too will then seek to develop Z-001 style care units is anyone’s guess.
Mothballs is a weekly write-up of already completed anime I have either removed from my backlog or have recently revisited. A crash space for my immediate thoughts and personal processing, these are not intended as full reviews.