Today’s selection: 8-man (1992, dir. Yasuhiro Horuichi)
Subgenre: Henshin Hero
Available from: Image (dub-only)
As we gear up for the Robocop remake, a lot of movies are being called Robocop-rip-offs just because they start with the main character dying and getting reconstructed as a superhero. However, as a consumer of Japanese media, I find this formula pretty standard: Kamen Rider, Ultraman, Cyborg 009, Cutie Honey, Birdy the Mighty, and others originate in the same way. The arguable progenitor of this trope (aside from maybe Astro Boy) is Kazumasa Hirai’s 8-man (AKA Tobor the 8th Man) from 1963, about a cop who gets gunned down and rebuilt as a police robot. Outside the seven police divisions, 8-man spends his days as an old-timey private eye in a new identity, unbeknownst to his former partner and his girlfriend, but turns into a fast-moving costumed vigilante when trouble arises. 8-man certainly had a major influence on Robocop (along with the Space Sheriffs, Judge Dredd, and a bunch of other stuff), so the home video cover of the live-action version proudly proclaimed “before Robocop there was 8-man”. This did little to assuage folks proclaiming it a cash-in, and in fairness, we likely would not have gotten the 8-man tokusatsu without Robocop (nor would we have gotten the better-known 8-man After anime without the live-action movie).
The movie is a combination of an origin story and an adaptation of the short “The Duel” from the original manga, and spends a lot of its time plunging into the existential crises of both our hero Azuma, who has no memory of his former life, and the detective and mad scientist responsible for Azuma’s creation, wondering why they did it. There are a few action sequences, the better ones earlier on in the film and the let-down final battle against an evil cyborg who’s sort of 8-man’s reconstruction-brother. The costumes and effects (mostly for high-speed stuff) are okay, if a little Smallville-esque, and there’s some okay camera work, but overall the movie leaves some to be desired. But hey, it’s not every day that you see a super hero movie where the protagonist needs to smoke cigarettes to stay alive (try at home, kids!).
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a subtitled version of the movie available, either through legit means or via fansubs, so for now we’re stuck with the Macek dub version. It features a noire-style narration (which might be present in the original, but mostly feels exposition-y and out of place) and appears to be missing 17 minutes from the original Japanese running time. Still, I wouldn’t hold my breath on a re-issue, so this is the way for English-speakers to go for the time being.