Iké Boys, the debut feature from writer/director Eric McEver enjoying a world premiere at Fantastic Fest this week, will feel like a secret handshake to certain people who grew up in the late 1980s or the 1990s. In a prestreaming era when Saturday morning cartoons and after-school kids’ programming still meant reliable ratings, a wave of pop culture born in Japan was brought over to the US in the hope of finding a new audience. Many, many of these things became timeless hits for a generation: Power Rangers, Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon, Cowboy Bebop, Sailor Moon, yet another Ultraman syndication, etc.
Depending on where you grew up, getting really into any of that may have meant getting really left out of some social circles. The need to fit in at all costs, even if it means abandoning what you love or what makes you unique, is strong during childhood. But filmmaker McEver has a clear, feel-good message with Iké Boys: Be you. After all, humanity may someday need someone with a very special set of skills to save us—and those skills may involve an encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese kaiju stories.
They listen to the Flaming Lips, too
If anyone knows about hard-to-find cult anime films worth seeking out, it’s Shawn (Quinn Lord), a mild-mannered high schooler in late ’90s Oklahoma. He and his pal Vik (Ronak Gandhi) have grown up as outcasts amidst their Zack Morris-lookin’ schoolmates while consuming a steady stream of kaiju and mecha fiction. So when Shawn finally acquires a copy of once-believed-lost 1960s title Go! Great Decisive Battle at the End of the Century with Rainbows, they are watching it immediately no matter what.
That, coincidentally, means their school’s mousy new Japanese exchange student Miki (Christina Higa) will be stuck on the TV-watching couch with them. Though Miki only knows rudimentary English, she chose Oklahoma as her destination because she loves everything she’s read about American Indian culture. And as much as Shawn and Vik wish her home country meant she had an affinity for anime and kaiju, too, well… the screening doesn’t play out as they hope.
[Watching the film in Japanese without subtitles] “Ah, I don’t think anyone’s had a chance to translate it yet,” says Shawn.
“It’s been 30 years,” says Vik.
“Miki, are you able to…” [Miki, already asleep, understandably jet-lagged.]
What these three don’t yet know is that Go! Great Decisive Battle at the End of the Century with Rainbows wasn’t just a film from the “almost as influential as Kurosawa” creator named Mr. Orgata. Back in the late 1960s, Orgata had visions of a great world-ending threat that would arrive right before the new millennium, and the only way he knew how to warn the world was to create a film and hope it finds “the unlikeliest of heroes in the unlikeliest of places that can save us all from destruction.” (Editor’s note: Stop me if you see where Iké Boys might be headed.) Go! Great Decisive Battle mysteriously turns to static at its climax and emanates some kind of electrical shock from the TV set. Shawn, Vik, and Miki wake up the next day woozy but no worse for the wear. As the town inches towards New Year’s, however, Y2K fear and unrest ramps up, and a weird group of hooded figures starts gathering in the fields with scythes in hand and chants on the lips.
Love and kaiju
McEver may be a Vik or Shawn himself; he grew up in Oklahoma but attended college in Japan and studied cinema (parts of Iké Boys were even filmed on location at his old school in the Sooner State). His affection for the inspiration material is evident in all aspects of this film. The script has the references you want (a bully calls Miki the Yellow Ranger when she stands up while Shawn and Vik back down), and the cinematography and production design make the visual references you want (Shawn kinda sorta looks like a young Billy, no? And the death cult members certainly fight like the Putty Patrol). At the same time, Iké Boys never gets stuck in its source materials. Instead, McEver has seamlessly woven love for those childhood works into an original story that cleverly leverages its tropes.
Iké Boys is a fairly lean ~90 minutes that mixes its anime-mirroring plot with just enough growing-up/high school drama. Shawn and Vik grapple with how pop culture has shaped their social identity and whether they want to maintain that going forward. They navigate era-appropriate sophomoric BS from classmates and family members who just don’t understand them. But simultaneously with all that, they begin to understand that the situation they’ve been thrust into is changing them, and they must decide whether to accept or reject that new identity (and their relationship with each other).
The performances carry the film’s slower moments, particularly Gandhi as Vik since that character has a little more internal conflict to navigate than his pal Shawn. And a “hey, that’s Billy Zane!” appearance from Billy Zane as Shawn’s Japan-loving, ex-military karate sensei is immediately familiar (think slightly turned-down Rex Kwon Do from Napoleon Dynamite). I like how Iké Boys eventually uses that familiarity to flip the script on our heroes and the audience.
My favorite part of Iké Boys, though, is the film’s use of animation. After we see clips of Go! Great Decisive Battle at the End of the Century with Rainbows early on, that art style is adopted again and again—sometimes taking over the frame entirely, sometimes overlapping with the real-life footage—as Shawn and Vik piece together their situation bit by bit. In addition to being aesthetically cool, it strikes me as a smart way to approach ’90s Japanese TV action for modern audiences. As much as I loved Ultraman when I was in elementary school, I imagine its battles would look hokey or kitschy to modern audiences. Rather than risking that or significantly increasing the production budget for slick VFX, Iké Boys leans into its anime heart.
McEver says he uses this mixed-media approach—live action, 500+ visual effects, traditional Japanese suit acting (Tokusatsu), and hand-drawn animation—because that’s what inspired him to eventually head to Japan in real life. And had he’d never done that, well, clearly Iké Boys wouldn’t exist either.
“I belong to an entire generation who grew up steeped in anime, giant monster films, and manga—there are literally millions of fans around the world,” McEver wrote in his director’s statement. “The more I mulled it over, the more I realized that there was a movie to be made here, a movie that I was uniquely qualified to make.”
Iké Boys had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest this weekend. The film continues to play the festival circuit, and no distribution plans have been announced at this time.
Listing image by Eric McEver / Fantastic Fest