The most refreshing thing about January and February is that Hollywood stops pumping out its usual stream of blockbusters, since most are shoved onto the screen before Dec. 31 to qualify for awards and the coming Academy Award race. This leaves a little more room than usual for low-profile pictures with less flamboyant charms to offer.
One of the first to arrive in 1996 is a Japanese feature called "Roujin Z," dubbed into English but sporting the crisp visual style associated with "Japanimation" or anime, which has gained a sizable cult following among young American moviegoers.
Some of the better-known anime films are noted more for their sex-and-violence quotient than for subtle storytelling or thoughtful themes. "Roujin Z" keeps its content sufficiently under control to earn a PG-13 rating, though, and engages with enough timely topics - the arrogance of technocrats, the dangers of government secrecy, the challenges of health care for an aging population - to make it far more stimulating than the average Walt Disney or Steven Spielberg cartoon.
The heroine, Haruko, is a student who spends her spare time as a volunteer nurse for Takazawa, an elderly man with no immediate family. With no warning, Takazawa is whisked out of his home by a team of corporate health specialists to serve as guinea pig for a computerized device that cares for the elderly through wholly technological means.
Justifiably skeptical of this inhuman system, Haruko and some friends launch a rescue operation that's fiercely resisted by the authorities.
And no wonder, since the machine-driven biomedical project is just a warm-up for a new military operation that could lead to destruction on a massive scale.
"Roujin Z" doesn't follow up the implications of its plot in a very imaginative way, settling for slam-bang heroics and vaguely mystical touches instead of clear thinking about technology and related matters.
Also disappointing are its big action sequences, strong on eye-catching design but weaker on motion-picture kinetics than any self-respecting "Roadrunner" cartoon would dare to be. The comical portraits of senior citizens aren't in impeccable taste - ditto for the occasionally leering views of female characters - and the movie is shameless in its product-placement plugs for a certain Japanese electronics company, which helped produce the film and works its logo into an amazing number of prominent shots.
Still, the movie deserves real credit for its ambitious screenplay and its sensitivity to socially charged issues. You don't hear a term like "warmonger" in many Hollywood films, where weapons are caressed more often than criticized. In its healthy suspicion of military might, "Roujin Z" recalls the antinuclear tradition that sparked Japanese science-fiction movies in the 1950s and '60s. The filmmakers also show genuine concern about the modern tendency to wish away health-care problems with bureaucratic and technological fixes that may cause as many difficulties as they solve.
American cartoons have become marginally more grown-up in recent years, with historical yarns like "Pocahontas" and "An American Tail" making small advances in substance and sophistication; but there's much that American animators could learn from here.
A solid example of a minor but significant genre, "Roujin Z" is written and designed by Katsuhiro Otomo, a Japanese anime veteran who values the export market enough to give his heroine a conspicuously Western appearance.
*"Roujin Z" has a PG-13 rating. It contains violence, foul language, and scenes of illness.