Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of outcasts finds themselves at the center of a prophecy that holds the fate of the world in its hands. In brief, that’s the summary for Eric McEver’s (A Utopia) new release and feature-length directorial debut Iké Boys, premiering at Fantastic Fest 2021; though it’s a summary which is robbing all the color, all the personality, all the pizzazz out of this gaijin coming-of-age superhero tale. Basically, if you grew up in America in the ‘80s or ‘90s, Iké Boys will entirely be your jam as it uses the visual stylings of both animated and live-action-adventure stories (specifically Japanese Tokusatsu) like those seen in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Ultraman, VR Troopers, or Kamen Rider. Even if you didn’t watch these shows at the time, their respective impacts have spread into popular culture so that even if you can’t name from what series a specific mech is from, you can at least acknowledge what it represents. Using the familiar, McEver and co-writer Jeff Hammer (Live or Die in La Honda) create a story that’s going to delight otaku all over the world. That is, if the world doesn’t end first.
Set in the last days of 1999, best friends Shawn Gunderson (Quinn Lord) and Vik Kapoor (Ronak Gandhi) are outcasts at their school for a number of reasons, the least of which is their fascination and enjoyment of Japanese culture. To their great delight an exchange student from Japan, Miki Shimizu (Christina Higa), decides to come to Oklahoma on her winter break, selecting Vik’s family to be her host. Coincidentally, on the same day of her arrival, Shawn receives a DVD copy of a long-believed lost anime film from acclaimed director Daisuke Ogata (Ryô Iwamatsu), which Shawn plays for the duo in an attempt to make her feel more welcome. What none of them could know is how their lives would change at the press of a remote control.
What’s fascinating about Iké Boys is that it’s entirely from a gaijin otaku perspective but without the fetishization that’s stereotypically connected. Shawn’s appreciation for Japanese culture goes beyond Kamen Rider toys and anime as he learned Japanese enough to be comfortably fluent and studies karate. As an archetype, McEver and Hammer constructed Shawn as the reluctant hero, intelligent and generous, but unwilling to speak up. Lord’s performance, though, grounds that reluctance as shyness and social anxiety, rather than an inability to speak his mind or take action. Conversely, Vik knows enough about Japanese culture to hang with Shawn, but is more interested in general popularity and girls than he is a niche interest. McEver and Hammer construct Vik to be a greater outsider than Shawn by nature of his background of an immigrant family from India, which naturally feeds into a desire to blend. Rather than play him as entirely self-focused or girl-crazy, which the script leans toward as a reason for strife, Gandhi’s offers a subtly to Vik that makes him sympathetic, the internal need for social assimilation only coming outward when the change he experiences affords him the physical strength to match his confidence. Though each character is universally dorky or awkward, their varying interest in Japanese culture isn’t out of a desire to hide from themselves or because they believe it to be a better lifestyle than the one they have. This is most clear when Higa’s Miki enters the story: Shawn just wants her to feel comfortable, while Vik is stoked to be around a girl. Wonderfully, Miki is never dressed or characterized through an Americanized lens. She is a whole person with her own journey, though it does primarily run parallel to Shawn and Vik’s.
But let’s be honest, when it comes to Iké Boys, you’re coming to see a tokusatsu adventure. In this regard, the entire film is just a love letter to that genre of storytelling. The cinematography evokes the television programs of that era; the sound design perfectly matches the various beeps, blasts, and wooshes emanating from any battle action; the costumes evoke tokusatsu stories right down to the glowing armor accents and bulging plastic eyes; and, of course, the animation making up the prophetic anime is ripped straight from the ‘70s from which it takes its inspiration. There isn’t a moment here which won’t delight, tickle, amuse, or otherwise charm fans of Gamera and Mothra, all the way to Ultraman and Godzilla. That the cast, rounded out by Billy Zane (The Phantom), Yumiko Shaku (Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla), and Ben Browder (Farscape), seems game to go nuts with things that only make their performances more enjoyable, especially where Zane gets to chew the scenery a bit.
One aspect, however, that troubles me, even if slightly, is the reason for Miki’s journey to America, specifically Oklahoma. It’s a clever flipping of the American pilgrimage to a beloved location, only to find themselves embroiled in mystical adventure. This bit I can get down with, but the part that I struggle with is the use of Indigenous culture as both personal identity for an outsider and source of the major conflict. The first is in line with the thinking of that era, but there’s no exploration of what occurred to the tribes of Oklahoma beyond a quick museum visit and a trip to a casino. It’s as shallow as any entertainment of the inspiring era, but it doesn’t have to be. The second makes about as much sense as any apocalyptic situation that borrows from the Christian faith, except that the types of malevolent spirits believed in by Indigenous peoples take a different form and function than presented. That the film seems to be intentionally making up their own mythology is the only saving grace in the situation.
Top to bottom, Iké Boys is going to win fans simply by being itself. McEver’s film is heroic, adventurous, hopeful, and, most importantly, a tale of friendship. Sure it has kaiju and mechs, death cults and prophecies, but what film doesn’t come with a few challenges? What matters is how it all comes together in the end with friends (old and new) standing united. It’ll help you appreciate the finer details of the film and a few direct references (Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, for instance), but Iké Boys isn’t some kind of litmus test you need to pass in order to have a good time. It would’ve been easy for McEver and Hammer to make a film with gatekeeping, to create outsider characters that can only be understood by those inside. Kudos to them for recognizing the kind of heroes we need and the opportunity a story like this creates to make each of us see the hero within.
Premiering during Fantastic Fest 2021 on Sunday, September 26th at 7:30p South Lamar location.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.