The title of this week’s WTF ASIA movie may imply a story about five or six young people who control giant battlemechs, which can combine to form a colossal cybernetic monstrosity of justice against aliens or something. But, instead, the movie is about a high school robotics tournament called Robokon. And it is not even a robot combat either; the robots are stacking blocks.
Available online. Approximately 118 minutes.
Satomi used to be a diligent high school student, but had fallen behind during the past few years. That might be due to the death of her mother, but the movie does not overtly make the connection. The first scene has her in the bed at the school nurse’s office just gazing lazily out of the window. She has nothing to do and she is doing nothing. Unfortunately for Satomi, she does have a lot of stuff to do, particularly schoolwork. Now she is short on school credits. Her teacher, who seems to be obsessed with robots, tells her to join the robotics team to compete in Robokon. Not the uniformed, regimented, organized A-Team that has more members than it can handle. Nope, she is joining the B-Team, which has two other members. Yotsuya is the head mechanic, but he has little confidence in himself. Koichi is the designer, whose mopey attitude and apathetic approach to communicating with the rest of the team almost immediately pits him against the more happy-go-lucky Satomi. Then there is Kazuyoshi, the former robot driver who quit the team to hang out with his delinquent friends, but sticks around to antagonize Koichi. Satomi is to be the replacement driver, even though she has no experience with remote control robots. Well, the test game is tomorrow and the preliminary tournament begins really soon.
So, before we go into the rest of the story, I should probably say a little something about Robokon. And it will be very little, since I didn’t know that this even existed before watching the movie. Robokon is a real contest. There are three raised circular platforms, a set of blue boxes for one robot, and a set of red boxes for the other robot. The two robots compete to see which can place claim dominance over the most number of circles. A robot claims dominance of a circle by having a box at the highest point on the circle; that could mean simply having one box and the opponent having no boxes on the circle, having the highest tower of boxes, or placing one of its boxes on top of the opponent’s box tower. The robot team that has claimed two out of the three circles by the time the clock runs out is the winner. If there is a tie, then whichever team has the most number of boxes on the circles wins. There are a bunch of other rules, but it is too complicated to go into and I probably already got a few things wrong, and I am not even sure how realistically the movie is portraying it so I am moving on now.
The test game goes horribly, with Satomi deliberately crashing the robot into the A-Team’s robot.The preliminary tournament goes slightly better, but the competing robot is able to exploit a flaw in our team’s robot, being that it can set up a tower of three boxes, but cannot go higher than that. So, Satomi’s team is immediately eliminated from the preliminary tournament, with her school’s A-Team ultimately being the winner. However, the judges thought that the method of setting up three boxes at once was interesting enough to allow Satomi’s team to advance to the main tournament along with another eliminated team.Losing twice might crush a person’s spirit, and it seems as if Koichi had pessimistically predicted a pathetic loss from the beginning. Satomi, who had before been happy enough just lying around complaining that there was nothing to do, has finally found something to do: win Robokon. It is at this point where Kazuyoshi rejoins the team, though mostly to antagonize Koichi further and tease Satomi.
American moviegoers seem to love stories of a ragtag group of people who have to overcome their own flaws, come together as a group, and beat the odds. Japanese moviegoers seem to love those types of stories too, though it is sometimes not presented in such epic terms.
The general story of this movie is fairly predictable, but it is an enjoyable little ride. Like the gaps in Satomi’s backstory, there are certain elements present in this film that are not made explicit. The main one is the theme of doing your best at something that you don’t love doing, with the possibility that you may grow to love it as you get better.Satomi probably knew nothing about Robokon and cared nothing about it at the beginning. She just accepted joining because she had no choice and nothing else to do. Something, perhaps the perceived unfairness of her loss during the preliminary tournament, reawakened her competitive spirit. Despite having no previous passion for Robokon, Satomi throws herself into the project, working long and hard in order to help construct a better robot for the main tournament. She never complains about not wanting to be there. She rarely complains about not knowing what she needs to do. Most of her rare complaints come from feeling like her time and efforts are not being put to their best use. Her passion comes from wanting to feel that she has value and her anger stems from feeling that her value is being dismissed. Satomi may have had no interest in robots, but she is here now, so she will do her best and have fun in the process. Her attitude helps to inspire the others into the belief that maybe they can actually win this thing and, if not, that it is worth simply trying. In her zeal to do her best and get the others to do their best, she learns to love her role as robot driver.
Another element of the movie that barely gets mentioned is how Robokon and robot teams are boys’ clubs. I am not sure how realistic that is in actual Japanese robotics clubs, but this movie has Satomi be the only girl in any team. No one really talks about it.Actually, the only other female character of prominence is the nurse, who I suppose is the teacher’s girlfriend. While she has the first line of the movie, she barely talks after that; it almost seems like a running gag how she is present in the scene without speaking or being spoken to.The movie calls attention to Satomi being the only girl in the tournament maybe once, and not through dialog. Satomi comes to the club because she has to join, not because she is a nerd or because she likes robots. She does not play much of a role in influencing any of Koichi’s decisions, and she defers to Yotsuya for guidance during the competition, even when he is struggling himself to figure out what to say. Her main personal contribution to construction of the robot is to put plates on the sides of it to make it look like a “cute” dog. Still, her being the driver makes her the center of attention aside from the robot itself. What the movie is trying to say about girls and robot teams, I don’t know. It does not say why she is the only girl and it does not say whether more girls should take part in the robot contests beyond holding signs. In any case, she is a girl; and that is that.
A third element is the constant need for maintenance and improvement. There are many setbacks when it comes to constructing the new robot, and there are a few times when they need to fix the robot during in between contests. When another robot malfunctions during its bout, this demonstrates the necessity of keeping things in order. It also shows that people can sometimes sneak by on luck or the bad luck of others, though one should not rely upon that.
The movie is fairly low-key. There are a few moments of quirky-ness, such as the teacher’s robot-looking alarm clock, Satomi’s father riding his bike all of the time, one particularly slow robot, and the photograph of her mother that changes when no one is looking. But with every moment that could have gotten a huge laugh, the movie opts instead for inducing a light chuckle.It is probably better that way. We are not laughing at a couple of nerds and a ditz, we are cheering for the underdog team. Additionally, the scenes of the tournament are low-key…sometimes to the point of seeming boring. But the robots are fun enough to watch and the actual presentation sucked me in so that even the smallest and slowest action was riveting. Interestingly enough, some of the bouts were shortened, perhaps to de-emphasize the opponents and focus on the group dynamics of the protagonists.
If you don’t mind your movies to be a little slow, a little quiet, a little inconsequential, a little light, a little…little, you may very well enjoy Robokon. There is not much huge drama, no real plot twists, and few surprises, yet there are so many little moments that slowly drew me in and made me eager to see what would happen next. It is less a sweeping epic than it is a tiny brush, but sometimes, that is what you really need.
WTF ASIA 119: Taipei Story (Taiwan: 1985, approx. 120 minutes)
WTF ASIA 120: Tunnel (Taiwan: 2016, approx. 126 minutes)