Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar (前田建設ファンタジー営業部, Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2020) [Fantasia 2020]

Construction was the post-war powerhouse and a traditional solution for governments looking to boost the economy but what are successful firms to do when everything’s already been built? Maeda made a name for itself as an expert in the construction of dams, but there are only so many you can build and theirs were state of the art so no one’s really looking for any more in the near future. Enter enterprising PR chief Asagawa (Hiroaki Ogi) who has a bold new plan to raise the company’s profile – start an enticing web project in which they draft iconic buildings from the fantasy world as if they existed for real starting with the underwater hangar from nostalgic ‘70s mecha anime, Mazinger Z!

As you can imagine, not everyone is taken by the idea even if initially swept up by Asagawa’s impassioned sales pitch. Being an otaku isn’t something you really want to advertise at work, and perhaps especially if you’re really into kids robot shows from 40 years ago. The point however is less about Mazinger Z than it is that Maeda can build anything it sets its mind to and if it can figure out the wilfully outlandish designs of classic anime which, it has to be said, rarely thought through the real world physics of its creations which are not even generally internally consistent, there’s nothing it cannot handle. 

The major sticking point with the Mazinger Z design is that the hangar is covered by a large amount of water (Mazinger Z is made from a special metal which is completely rust proof) which, given their proficiency with dam technology, shouldn’t be so much of a problem, but the more they look into it the more issues they find from the joints on the “roof” to the platform which pushes Mazinger Z into the launch position needing to boost him within 10 seconds. It doesn’t help that the anime often ignored the constraints of the original design for reasons of plot such as when Dr. Yumi suddenly has the robot slide to the left and bust out of the concrete rather than using the shoot. 

The team will need to show all of their engineering knowhow in order to solve the increasingly annoying number of problems, which is in a sense the point of the project in showcasing Maeda’s superior engineering power. Not all employees are originally behind it, however. Emoto (Yukino Kishii), a young woman entirely uninterested in mecha anime discovers that her colleagues quickly leave the canteen when they see her coming, while reluctant office worker Doi (Mahiro Takasugi) and former engineer Besso (Yusuke Uechi) both find themselves accosted by section chiefs who want them to undermine the project because they are embarrassed to be associated with something so “silly” and worry it will damage the firm’s reputation. Asagawa however is undaunted, sure that this kind of “silliness” is perfect for improving the company brand and capturing an online audience that will eventually lead to more business in the future even if it’s true that their “Fantasy World” clients aren’t going to be paying them nor will they actually be building any of their designs. 

In this Asagawa may well have a point because Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar (前田建設ファンタジー営業部, Maeda Kensetsu Fantasy Eigyobu) just might be the most accessible intro to civil engineering imaginable as they somehow manage to make even the driest of calculations seem exciting in direct contrast to the frequent complaints that the ideas they’ve come up with aren’t “glamorous” enough. Dragged along by his passion, the team gradually come on side one by one with even Doi, the most cynical who told himself that he needed to knuckle down after becoming a regular salaryman, realising that there’s no shame in having fun at work, unexpectedly finding a new appreciation for the craft of engineering after being ordered to read a lot of books about dam building by the company’s foremost expert, himself quietly in favour of the project in its capacity to show off their collective know how and inspire the next generation of engineers. Contrary to expectation, they discover there’s much more industry support than they ever could have imagined for this kind of “silliness” with other companies enthusiastically coming on board to help them achieve their Mazinger dreams. Inspired by true events, Project Dreams has real love and affection for the craft and for those who are just very good at what they do no matter what it might be, embracing a childish sense of fun and imagination along with teamwork and camaraderie which suggests that anything really is possible when you put your mind to it, even constructing an underwater hangar for a robot that doesn’t exist to defend the world against the forces of evil.  

Project Dreams: How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar streamed as part of this year’s online edition of Fantasia International Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Future Memories: Last Christmas (未来の想い出 Last Christmas, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1992)

b27a8478bde0a2deBased on the contemporary manga by the legendary Fujiko F. Fujio (Doraemon), Future Memories: Last Christmas (未来の想い出 Last Christmas, Mirai no Omoide: Last Christmas) is neither quiet as science fiction or romantically focussed as the title suggests yet perhaps reflects the mood of its 1992 release in which a generation of young people most probably would also have liked to travel back in time ten years just like the film’s heroines. Another up to the minute effort from the prolific Yoshimitsu Morita, Future Memories: Last Christmas is among his most inconsequential works, displaying much less of his experimental tinkering or stylistic variations, but is, perhaps a guide its traumatic, post-bubble era.

After a short segment set in 1971 in which one of our two heroines, Yuko Nando (Misa Shimizu), tells her classmates of her dream to become a best selling children’s author, we flash forward to 1981 where Yuko is a struggling artist unable to find success with her publishing company. A decade later, Christmas 1991, Yuko seems to have made little progress and despondently finds herself bonding with a mysterious woman offering a fortune telling service at the side of the road.

Ginko Kanae’s (Shizuka Kudo) life also seems to have spiralled downwards since 1981. A career as an office lady led to a fateful party after which another girl ended up going home with the guy she liked, and then she ended up being rebound married to the second choice salaryman she wound up with. Hence she’s reading fortunes on a less than busy side street at Christmas. The two women bond and swap phone numbers, but tragedy is about to befall them both as Yuko has a heart attack and dies at an office golf outing and Ginko has an accident on the way back from attending Yuko’s funeral. Never fear, the two women are soon cast back to 1981 with the next ten years of memories intact to help them make “better” choices and hopefully save their futures from ruin.

1992 was the start of a difficult era for Japan, the collapse of the bubble economy left behind it not just financial instability and social uncertainty, but a lingering feeling of foolishness and betrayal among those who’d been promised so much during the bubble years only to have the rug cruelly pulled from under them. It’s not surprising that many people of around Yuko and Ginko’s ages may have liked to travel back to 1981 and either relive the boom years or try and prevent the resultant tragedies from occurring. Unsurprisingly, the pair’s first pass at a do over sees them striving for conventional success, using their future knowledge to their advantage – Yuko by appropriating the idea of a popular 1991 manga to become an award winning artist, and Ginko becoming a financial guru. Both women come to feel conflicted about their “dishonest” choices which see them prosper unfairly, ironically robbing them of the chance to succeed as individuals in their own right and fulfil their own potential in the way they had always wanted to.

After each die at the same point and in the same way once again despite their financial successes, they get a second go, now with twenty years of hindsight to help them work out what’s really important. This time each chooses a path filled with more individual expression and the expectation of happiness. Romance is the name of the game as both women vow to spend more time with the men they love. However, having been through this once before Yuko and Ginko also have an expectation that their time will end once again in December 1991, meaning they feel conflicted about making a life with lovers they’ll be leaving behind. Gradually each starts to wonder if their fates are really as sealed as they fear them to be, or if they’ve been given this chance to start again precisely so that they can change their futures for the better.

In 1992, the idea that everything doesn’t have to be as gloomy as it seems might have been an important one, even more so than it is now. In the original timeline, Yuko and Ginko were, like many in the post-bubble world, victims of circumstance rather than people who’d actively made poor choices and the lessons which they learn are also those of their generation. Financial success is not everything, particularly if it’s gained in a “dishonest” way. More than changing their fates, Yuko and Ginko must first learn how to be happy which lies in self realisation, fulfilled potential, and, ironically, that their fate doesn’t matter so long as they live happily in the now.

Morita’s approach is again a timely one, filled with the music of the era (including a cover version of the title song from previous Morita hit, Main Theme), stock footage, and a curiously retro, nostalgia filled approach for a period that was only a decade earlier. Dissolves, slow motion and double exposures are his concessions to the sci-fi themes, but what he’s really interested in is capturing the essence of the era more so than crafting an emotionally affecting piece. Necessarily of its time, Future Memories: Last Christmas is among Morita’s weaker efforts but does serve to shine a light on early ‘90s pop culture as it found itself in a moment of profound self reflection.

Original trailer (no subtitles but lots of Christmas Cheer…and…Wham)

They Call Me Jeeg (Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot, Gabriele Mainetti, 2015)

JEEGItalian cinema once had a hearty appetite for genre fare, but has long since abandoned the weird and wacky in favour of the arty or the populist. You wait years for an Italian superhero movie and then two come along at once. Following on from Gabriele Salvatores’ much younger skewing The Invisible Boy which perhaps owed more to Spy Kids than anything else, first time director Gabriele Mainetti brings us a bloody, R-rated yet humour filled look at the superhero genre filtered through Japanese manga and anime rather than US comic books.

The film begins with an aerial shot of Rome accompanied by loud panting which turns out to belong to petty criminal Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) who is currently running hell for leather away from the various policemen who are chasing him. Eventually he dives into the Tiber where he accidentally puts his foot through the lid of some barrels which have been dumped in the river and gets covered in some kind of gunk. After finally getting home he’s violently sick and shaky but probably thinks it’s just from being cold and wet or some other random thing picked up in the water.

At this point, he decides to sell his genuine rolex watch through a fence he knows, Sergio (Stefano Ambrogi), who currently works for a gangster named “Gypsy” (Luca Marinelli). Sergio ends up taking him on a job which is supposed to involve extracting drugs from inside a pair of dope mules but one of them is in a fairly bad way and Sergio’s refusal to take him to a hospital sees the other one grab his gun and shoot him. Enzo is caught in the shoulder and falls nine floors down to the street below but actually is pretty much OK. Later he realises his gunshot wound is healing surprisingly quickly and he’s apparently super strong too. With great power comes great responsibility? When you’re as isolated as Enzo, maybe not so much.

Enzo is 100% not a match for The Chosen One. He is totally disinterested in his fellow human beings and just wants to be left alone. In fact, the first thing he does when he figures out he has superpowers is steal an entire ATM (he didn’t know about the anti-theft dye) and use the cash to buy a fridge full of yoghurt and some more porn to add to his collection. He isn’t even really very bothered about his friend’s death except that he’d rather not attract the attention of Gypsy and his henchmen.

However, Sergio had a grown-up daughter, Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), with some kind of psychological condition which has her in an infantilised state where she’s obsessed with the 1970s Go Nagai mecha anime series, Steel Jeeg. After Enzo, against his better judgement, jumps in to save her from Gypsy she becomes convinced that he’s the real Steel Jeeg and tries to persuade him to use his powers for the good of all humanity.

The de facto antagonist of the story, Gypsy (real name “Fabio”), is a petty gangster and former wannabe reality TV star with grand ambitions. The deal that Sergio was working on was part of a larger collaboration with the Neapolitan mafia who are starting to wonder where all their drugs have got to and are just about ready to come looking for them themselves. Gypsy’s yearning for fame is further irritated by the presence of the so called “Super Criminal” who is already a star on YouTube and immortalised in graffiti all over the city. A violent psychopath with a taste for flamboyant outfits and cheesy music, these twin pressures are fit to send Gypsy way over the edge.

Mainetti ties in current social concerns with the constant TV news reports about large scale protests against austerity and a series of terrorist incidents which are later said to be a mass conspiracy perpetrated by the mafia to try and influence government policy (seemingly successfully). Conversely, he satirises modern society’s dependence on social media with everyone whipping out their phones to try and capture Enzo’s superhuman capabilities and Gypsy’s attempt to make himself a YouTube star with some superhero stuff of his own as well as frequently mocking his former attempt to become a big name celebrity through taking part in a TV reality show.

Ironically, the actress playing the difficult role of Alessia was herself a star of Italy’s version of Big Brother and this is her first acting role. It has to be said that her performance is nothing short of extraordinary as she perfectly captures the strange innocence of this wounded child woman who seems to have experienced a number of traumatic incidents in her past which have pushed her further and further into her anime themed delusional world. In many ways she is the heart of the film using her own superpowers of love and innocence to try and reawaken Enzo’s humanity and push him towards becoming a functional human being who is able to recognise the potential for good his new found powers may have.

Though filmed for an extremely modest budget, They Call Me Jeeg displays extremely high production values mostly concentrating on in camera effects backed up with inventive cinematography. Refreshingly opting for a more grown-up approach, the film doesn’t stint on blood or violence either but is careful to avoid becoming exploitative and is also frank in dealing with its difficult romantic subplot. An impressive debut feature from Mainetti, They Call Me Jeeg succeeds not only in providing action packed entertainment but also manages to mix in a fair amount of humour to its subtly melancholic atmosphere eventually climaxing in an unexpectedly moving finale.

Reviewed as part of the Cinema Made in Italy festival at London’s Ciné Lumière in March 2016 where it screened under the title They Call Me Jeeg Robot.

There doesn’t seem to be an English subtitled trailer around yet but this film is so much fun I can’t even tell you!