I’m 9 minutes and 24 seconds into B-Robo Kabutack: Christmas War and already I am overwhelmed. So many insane things have pummeled my eyeballs, I had to stop and rest. The film opens in the secret lair of some mad, effeminate, new-wave-punk-looking scientist who wants to take over the world using his new breed of robots. OK, I can handle that.
Then we cut to a young boy and a very goofy-looking robot named Kabu walking on the roof of some building, where they meet the boy’s friends, a mix of robots and humans, who are preparing for a big Christmas party. The obnoxious little boy gets pissed and yells, “I hate Christmas!", and runs off to his room.
Meanwhile, a strange man in a terrifying Santa mask and matching suit appears in the street and complains that it is too cold. He shoots something at the sun which instantly heats up the climate. Then the people who were setting up the party get too hot and go for shaved ice, but the man making the shaved ice seems to be evil or something. Then we cut back to Scrooge-boy and his robot. The boy, whose name is Yuzuru, is still in a nasty mood and pushes poor Kabu over and screams, “I hate you!” Yuzuru runs off, leaving the robot alone in the street where he is immediately visited by a woman in high heels and a Santa suit flying on a high-tech Christmas surfboard with a chrome reindeer head on the front.
Remember, this is just 9 minutes in. There’s actually a bunch of stuff I left out, like the three other robots that ambush Kabu in the playground, and the scantily clad girl we see in the street for no reason, and the family in the pawn shop talking about Christmas in Australia… it’s just exhausting. Good thing the movie is only 48 minutes long, I don’t think I’d survive much more.
OK, this is ridiculous, I just watched 2 more measly, little minutes and I’ve been introduced to 3 more robots, a bee-bot, a snake-bot, and a crab-bot, all of which look like children’s toys. They crash the Christmas party on the roof, but the Santa with the terrifying mask (not the one on the surfboard) shows up and uses his sack of toys as a flamethrower and starts attacking everyone. A flamethrower!?
From the design of the robots and from the simplicity of the dialogue, I am assuming this film is meant to target the 12 and under crowd, but I’m not sure anyone should be exposed to this… Oh shit, a musical interlude! Wait, now there is a shark-bot brushing his teeth. It’s not connected to anything, it’s just standing in the road brushing its teeth.
OK, OK, I recognize this next part. This is the part where the ninja guys in leotards attack everyone. This is in all these sort of films. Everyone hits everyone and sparks fly everywhere. Some of the robots are changing into their “super forms.” Kick, kick, punch, roll, kick, yell, punch, yes, I understand this. Even if there is now a frog-bot joining them. Why not? Holy shit! He can vomit killer flying, exploding robot tadpoles! No, really!
To be fair, I am watching this film without any context or background information. This movie is actually a “special episode” from a television series. Were I more versed in the lore of the show, the film might seem less bizarre. Still, it’s quite a fast-paced eyeful.
Some of the robots are from the B generation. It can’t be good for anyone’s self-esteem to be the B generation. You just know you’re destined for Dancing with the Stars or some other reality TV show. The B-bots must, of course, do battle with the arrogant A-bots. There are also other inexplicable robot clans that appear to spice up the chaotic fight scenes.
Then there is the bombastic baritone Judge Robo! He watches over everything from on high somewhere. When he feels that a fight isn’t fair, he rockets down and rearranges everything. The first time he appears, he stops the melee and makes everyone run a foot race instead. The second time, he just creates more robots so the sides are more evenly matched. I don’t know what he has to do with anything.
Ah! I knew the shark-bot had to factor in somehow. Poor Yuzuru is trapped in a cage and in a kind of literal deus ex machina, The shark-bot appears with his giant toothbrush to save the day. Sharkler is his name, which is a strange choice considering the difficulty a Japanese person would have in saying it.
As you might expect, eventually everyone transforms into their super-mode form and battles it out. The titular robot, Kabutack, transforms and yells, “I’ll inform you that this courage is a blazing feeling! B-robots number 1!”, which feels a bit like an oxymoron, but of course, they win in the end through the power of friendship. (Insert eye-roll)
The plot abandons the Christmas theme pretty quickly, which is disappointing. I wanted to see surfer Santa do some fighting, but she returns in the end to give everybody presents.
There are quite a few loose ends left dangling. There is a single scene where we visit a clownish sitcom couple that seems to be preparing to have sex. We see them once and then never again. There is Sharkler. Who the hell is he? Then there is a whole subplot with these star glitter ball thingies. Oh, and the living snowman who cracks jokes. There’s no point in trying to make sense of it.
The insane mash of pop culture and robots called B-Robo Kabutack: Christmas War belongs to a Japanese genre called tokusatsu. Of all the genres in all the countries, there is no genre more formulaic and predictable than tokusatsu. That may sound strange considering what I just relayed about this particular film, but it’s true. Every tokusatsu has an almost identical plot.
Human teen has human teen problem.
Bad guy wants to take over the world.
Bad guy sends weird robots and ninjas in leotards to cause havoc on Earth.
Human teen and some good guy robots fight the bad guys.
The bad guys transform into super-mode, which usually means growing to giant size.
The good guys do the same.
Big final battle ensues and the good guys win.
Human teen somehow learns a life lesson through all the fighting, death, and explosions. The lesson is usually something like, "You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not just to impress your friends", or, "You should love your little sister, even if she is annoying."
I find the transformation sequences in these films particularly fascinating. I’m sure there are some dissertations out there about what they mean. They are orgasmic explosions of power often transforming a human into some kind of a cyborg or mechanically augmented superhero. As ecstatic outbursts of supercharged growth, they definitely seem like a metaphor for puberty, but the union with machine technology is strange. Perhaps it is a metaphor for Japan’s puberty. The country's transformation from its feudal past to technological powerhouse, but it also seems like there is some weird Marxist way to read the transformations. Something having to do with our bodies as machines of labor and the exploitation of our humanity through our mutation into automatons. Instead of the transformation being ecstatic, it could be seen as a horrible but inevitable final alienation of humans from their labor. Forgive me, I’m an academic at heart.
This particular tokusatsu was made by Toei Studios in 1997. Researching the film is a nightmare of interconnected names. There are hundreds of different bots and storylines. There are TV shows, and manga, and movies, many of which are based on one or more of the other. Usually, I can’t resist an especially deep rabbit hole, but this one leads to madness for sure.
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