The spirit of Spielberg persists throughout "Hinokio: Inter Galactic Love," the sci-fi fantasy about a boy who uses a robot to live his surrogate life. The knowing take on young life has an "E.T." vibe, while the more mature, grim aspects stir up memories of "A.I." Rookie director Takahiko Akiyama, a former visual effects artist, displays a natural sense of wonder with his tale, capturing with impressive ease the same sort of cinematic storytelling know-how that the Bearded One has always brought to his own family-oriented projects.
The title and robot theme suggest "Hinokio" will replay the Pinocchio themes of "A.I." Yet this is a wholly different story; "A.I." toyed with the puppet who wanted to be a real boy, while "Hinokio" finds a boy who wishes to hide behind his puppet. The story (written by Akiyama, Masumi Suetani, and Shoji Yonemura), set in a near future, finds sixth grader Satoru (Kanata Hongô) wheelchair-bound following a car accident that killed his mother a year earlier; still dealing with grief and anger, Satoru refuses to leave his bedroom, content with encountering the outside world through his computers. Satoru's father (Masatoshi Nakamura) is an inventor who has developed a robot that a user can use to send out into the world in his place. Satoru becomes the test subject, his life-like, humanoid robot sent to school for him.
At first, "Hinokio" becomes a strange, wonderful spin on the idea of the new kid at school - the other kids are alternately fascinated by the robot (aware of the fairy tale connotation, the class dubs him "Hinokio" after learning of the robot's use of Hinoki cypress wood in its legs) and uncertain of it, and so the robot gets stuck suffering the same fate as real kids might. Bullies trip him and tease him and try to make becoming friends as difficult as possible.
Yet "Hinokio" ultimately strikes deeper, tackling issues of isolation and fear in the modern world. As the classmates open up to Satoru as a friend, it's still a friendship by proxy, as Satoru is locked away, afraid to replace his robot self in the big, scary real world. His friends - showcasing the wisdom of youth often unseen in film - begin to question the whole thing, understanding the sorrow to be found in such an arrangement. "Where are you?" becomes a key question, as Satoru might be out having fun with these kids, but not really. How much can you be involved in the world yet still not be there yourself?
Ideas on technology and the loneliness it may create also abound. A subplot has the children discussing an online game called "Purgatory," which becomes an obsession at times (a friend disappears for days, skipping school merely to stay home and play). The script then ties in a connection between the game and reality, with Satoru mistaking visual clues in both as the same thing. And why not, as he encounters both only on a computer screen? (The film then takes this idea and runs with it, allowing the kids to become convinced that the game can affect reality. It's a notion that only works in a movie certain of its handle on a child's sense of wonder and imagination, which, fortunately, "Hinokio" has in spades.)
For its finale, the film falls into a bit of melodrama that it can't quite escape; the fantasy becomes a bit too broad, the goals a bit too lofty. I don't want to rush to judgment on this, however, as I left the movie with a deeply rooted sense that I'd need to watch the thing again. After all, "A.I." left me with the same feeling, and that's a movie that began to work on me the more I thought about it.
One thing's for sure, however: Akiyama does not skimp on topics that are pretty grown-up for a family feature. Discussions on death, pain, anger, self-doubt, emotional solitude, the afterlife, and even suicide abound here. Parents may be concerned over the topics at hand and the bluntness with which they're presented, but it's also commendable to see a filmmaker handle such things in a way that youths can handle. "Hinokio" deals in darker themes, but does so in a way that's true to how kids think and talk and process the world. This is a movie that never talks down to its younger viewers (and, as such, becomes fascinating material for all ages).
I'd be remiss if I didn't switch gears to talk about the film's special effects, which are, in a word, extraordinary. The robot was created using a combination of computer imagery and on-set puppetry, and the result is a seamless creation of a virtual character that rivals the best of modern sci-fi. The things the effects team does with the robot character will have jaws dropping. More importantly, the seamlessness of it all allows you to ultimately ignore the fact that there are effects at all, so you can get wrapped up in the story instead. (Only at the end, with some embarrassingly iffy green screen bits, do the effects weaken, taking us out of the story.)
The character design itself is not only impressive, but it's vital to the tale. The robot's blank stare tells us plenty about Satoru's condition - he can be there in person, but not really. Which makes Satoru's pain all the more upfront for us. As Satoru begins to connect with his classmates, most notably with the class tomboy (Mikako Tabe), the connection can never be as solid as it should be, a fact the robot's every appearance underlines.
"Hinokio" is an ambitious project, both technically and emotionally, and it achieves both goals. There's an overwhelming amount of heart throughout the film, and as we watch Satoru work through his pain, we find ourselves right there with him.
The disc reviewed here is the Region 3 Korean Limited Edition release from Widemedia; it will only play on region-compatible sets. As of this writing, no Region 1 release is available.
This Korean Limited Edition box set contains the DVD in a standard keep case and a photo booklet housed in an attractive glossy cardboard slipcover.
Considering the film's constant reliance on gorgeous visuals (not only in the realm of visual effects but also in the sparkling palette Akiyama uses throughout), it's a relief to see everything treated so well here. Colors pop, contrast is sharp, real-world clarity is balanced by fantasy-world richness. Presented in the original 1.85:1 widescreen format with anamorphic enhancement.
The Japanese soundtrack shines in its 5.1 Dolby Surround treatment, treating the film's intricate audio work with the same respect as the visuals. Optional subtitles are offered in Japanese, Korean, and English.
All the extras seem to be lifted entirely from the Region 3 Japanese release from Shochiku Home Video, with optional Korean subtitles added in on all features. No English subtitles are provided, however, which causes a bit of a pickle for me as a reviewer, as I speak no Japanese and read no Korean. Here's what I could figure out:
A press conference and Q&A session from the movie's premiere (7:06) has the cast and crew talking about the film.
A behind-the-scenes featurette (10:04) contains on-set interviews with the cast and crew.
A second featurette (9:47) highlights the effects work that went into the movie. The before-and-after comparison footage is of interest.
The film's trailer (2:56) seems to give away pretty much the entire story, including the ending. It also appears as if a few effects shots were not yet finished, as the robot doesn't always look as impressive here.
A set of TV spots (3:02 total) round out the on-disc bonus features.
Also included in the set is an impressive photo booklet detailing the making of the film (in Korean) and a tiny plastic Hinokio key holder.
The Korean Limited Edition release seems to have all the goodness of the Japanese release but in a slightly sharper package. Considering that the Japanese release also has no English subtitles for its bonus material, I'd say that if you're looking to pick up "Hinokio" now before it makes its way Stateside (if it ever does), this Korean release is the way to go. The movie alone makes it worth the import, while the fine presentation all around tops it all off. Highly Recommended.