Publicity Stills of "Hinokio"
(Courtesy from VideoVan)

Japanese with English & Chinese subtitles
Director: Takahiko Akiyama
Starring: Kanata Hongo, Mikako Tabe, Maki Horikita, Ryoko Kobayashi, Yuta Murakami
RunTime: 1 hr 51 mins
Released By: VideoVan & Golden Village
Rating: PG

Official Website: http://www.shochikufilms.com

Release Date: 15 September 2005

Synopsis :

HINOKIO is not a movie about robots. It is a story of the heart, of using a remotely controlled robot that can interface with the real world to restore the relationships that had become broken, to build bonds between a boy and a girl, a boy and his father.

Satoru, a heartbroken boy who had withdrawn into his room, who uses a remotely controlled robot called HINOKIO as a next-generation communication tool that provides him with a window on the world. Using that robot ‘tool’, Satoru is able to make progress by taking his first cautious, fearful steps out into the outside world… steps taken from within his ‘digital cocoon’. Still, he does go to school, find fellowship and through an encounter with a girl, is able to reconnect and feel once again the sensation of warm human touch.

Satoru eventually seeks to directly experience the world and activates the robot’s sensation mode, exposing himself to mortal threat. The girl Jun, risks all by taking action in an attempt to rescue him. This movie is not just about humans considering each other with warm affections; it is a movie that, through the conduct of humans finding love, asks the very question “What is it to be alive?”

Movie Review:

If Spielberg’s “A.I.” was an overdone take on the Pinocchio fable, then “Hinokio” must be its quieter, subtler cousin. After an emotionally crippling accident, twelve year-old Satoru (Kanata Hongo) ceases contact with the world – until a super-robot, nicknamed Hinokio, is built for him. Hinokio substitutes Satoru’s attendance in school while the latter operates it from the confines of his room, which is nearly foolproof if not for all those cumbersome music and P.E. lessons. As bullies come and go, Hinokio/Satoru eventually manages to find a friend in Jun (Mikako Tabe), who has a surprise for us - and Satoru. They go fishing together and run around in a rainstorm. Guess what happens when the scary thunder sounds?

What is stunning in “Hinokio” is the gradual and completely convincing ambiguity of Hinokio, both as a robot and as Satoru himself. There are times when it’s obvious Hinokio is merely a machine, but tender moments, which are aplenty, are hardly foiled by the fact that it is nothing but a combination of plastic and alloys. When Jun and Hinokio share a spontaneous embrace, it is a powerful moment. The hug is immediately affecting in conveying Jun and Satoru’s impossible friendship, but simultaneously poignant and sad – Satoru is still alone in his room. The impeccable care accorded to developing the character arc of Hinokio/Satoru is nothing short of exemplary, somewhat of a drag, perhaps, but the returns are no doubt worth it.

There is a subplot concerning a computer game called Purgatory, which I found to be slightly excessive and overly fantastical. If Hinokio was meant to bridge the gap between the Satoru and the world he has refused, and eventually convince Satoru that a secondary experience with the outside world is unsatisfying, what then, is the purpose of introducing a subplot that examines the reality of a cyber world at the expense of the real world? It seemed to undermine and undo all the efforts in developing the Hinokio/Satoru arc and eventually rob the movie of its simple yet satisfying emotional vein.

Other subplots included the confusing character of Takasaka (Ryoko Kobayashi), who is the mind-boggling anti-heroine, and the introduction of Eri (Maki Horikita) as a possible love interest for Satoru. Through these characters, some social commentary regarding the school culture and teenage demographic in Japan is hinted at, but I might be reading too much into this. Regardless, the scenes were rather awkward and often broke the pace of this otherwise poignant film. One gets the feeling that these subplots were inserted for the sake of beefing up the relatively bare central story and in hope of targeting a younger, more lucrative audience. The result is a consequentially less emotionally mature film, which is a pity, since “Hinokio” definitely has all the makings of a truly devastating hit.

What was worth looking at was the strained relationship between Satoru and his father, Kaoru Iwamoto (Masatoshi Nakamura). Father and son are at tension and despite dad’s relentless attempts to reach out, Satoru refuses to forgive the man he holds accountable for the aforementioned accident. Notes are passed and phone messages ignored, real communication between the two only, finally happens through Hinokio. Hinokio is essentially what helps Satoru do what he cannot, say what he will not and realize what he did not – that life is not complete, despite all of technology’s wonders, without real relationships.

In a striking scene (my favourite), Satoru exchanges words with his father for the first time since the accident by speaking through the robot. The words are hurtful but Iwamoto is spared the raging presence of his son and instead, breaks down silently in front of the monotonous Hinokio. It is simple, affecting, perfect and indeed what the movie should have been all about.

Movie Rating:

(For “Hinokio”, less would have been so much more. If only it stuck with Satoru and nothing else!)

Review by Angeline Chui

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